September 6, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Tim Finch's The House of Journalists is an intriguing debut novel that thoughtfully and satirically explores themes of global politics and journalistic ethics.
Metro wrote of the book:
"A savagely funny broadside aimed at the industry of suffering. The former journalist now working for a think tank is authoritative on his subject matter but also irreverently amusing when it comes to sacred cows in this delightfully unusual novel."
The House of Journalists is a novel about writing and so music does not feature a great deal in it. Or so I thought. But when invited by largehearted boy to compose my book notes I realised that there were more references, direct and indirect, to music in the book than I had originally thought. And the very eclecticism of this music selection does give a rather good flavour of a novel which is very global and inclusive in spirit.
Chopin - Waltz No.3 in F major (op.34)
There is one musician in the novel who is part of the back story of a major character called Mr. Stan. Recalling his life on his home island in the Indian Ocean, Mr. Stan remembers a childhood incident, closely connected to his complicated relationship with his mother, in which "a native boy, younger than himself, a child from his neighbourhood, made his debut at the Assembly Rooms playing Chopin." It is third of the Three Waltzes (op.34) which I can most imagine this boy pianist playing. (There is a delightful recording of it by the Japanese/German pianist Alice Sarah Ott). This waltz is very light and carefree, but also precisely European, which would have made it an alien piece for a small boy on a tropical island to play and another to listen to. Although in the novel nothing is said about the nature of Mr. Stan's music tastes (beyond his nostalgic fondness for the 'Piano Man' – see below), I nonetheless imagine him in old age, in exile in England, enjoying Chopin – just as he enjoys English tea and cake and country house thrillers – a reflection of his rather conservative, traditional character which wars constantly with his revolutionary spirit.
Mahmoud Ahmed – Ere Mela, Mela
The 'native boy' playing Chopin in the above story is sent by the colonial authorities to music college in London, but in the city falls in love with jazz. When he returns home some years later, he becomes 'the legendary 'Piano Man', the island's only superstar, the musician who penned the hot, smoky, snake-hipped soundtrack of its independence.” Strangely, now I think of it, I had no direct music in mind, but something of the Piano Man sound and atmosphere is suggested by this track – and indeed many others – on the famous Éthiopiques album. For those who don't know the music, it combines jazz, soul and even big band with African rhythms and sounds to create a compelling and unique form of music that flourished in Ethiopia during the brutal years of dictatorship.
Valentin Silvestrov – Any of the 24 Silent Songs (Sergey Yakovenko – Baritone and Ilya Scheps – Piano)
By way of complete contrast, another fellow of the House of Journalists – a classicist exiled from Russia – compares the poetry of a colleague, which "left the audience straining to make out the music of these lovely, unassuming pieces", to Silvestrov's Silent Songs. These songs, for baritone voice and piano, are sung in almost a whisper, with the accompanist playing pianissimo throughout and are suffused with
Slavic melancholy and yearning. I can remember a specific day back in the long winter we had in London in 2012/2013 when I was listening to this music, as snow fell outside the window of my study, and I was correcting the proofs for the novel.
Delta Spirit – Trashcan Song
There is only one episode of actual music making in The House of Journalists when an exiled South American journalist and folk singer is persuaded to take up his guitar. Soon other fellows join in "who sing and dance and play things - one pounds out the rhythm on an upturned empty plastic water cooler drum; another crashes a tin tray against his knee, thigh, palm and forehead with dizzying enthusiasm." Again I had no specific music in mind when writing this passage, but something of the spirit of the moment – very much transposed into another musical tradition of course – is summoned by this raucous, infectious track by the Californian indie band, Delta Spirit.
Zimbabwe Association Choir – No. 1
The incident described above is a joyous one for most of the fellows and friends of The House of Journalists but one of the writing mentors feels left out. I describe this woman as "foolishly, miserably, abjectly clapping along… not quite in time." I had in mind here my own experience of being part of protests with my many friends among the Zimbabwean exile community in the UK. Given any opportunity, Zimbabweans burst into many songs they all know, leaving the white, middle class, middle aged English guy, well, foolishly, if not miserably and abjectly, clapping along, not quite in time. The track I've listed is performed by the Zimbabwe Association Choir. I'm proud to be a trustee of ZA, and if you follow the link you can find them performing when the Queen came to Leicester, a city in the English Midlands, during her Diamond Jubilee celebrations last year.
Tim Finch and The House of Journalists links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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