May 15, 2014
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.
Kate Racculia's new novel Bellweather Rhapsody is remarkable in many ways, as both mystery and coming-of age tale, its well-drawn and interesting cast of characters, droll sense of humor, and exemplary use of music as a narrative device.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"Racculia’s droll wit and keen understanding of human nature propel a story that’s rich in distinctive characters and wholly engaging. A gem."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Bellweather Rhapsody is a mystery, a comedy, a ghost and a love story—and a novel about music. Set in 1997 at the crumbling Bellweather Hotel while it hosts Statewide, a conference festival for high school musicians, it's stuffed full of band nerds and conductors, CD wallets and Discmans, crushworthy college a capella clubs, orchestral performances, one hellacious blizzard and one missing, possibly murdered, flute prodigy. It's also an elegy to my past as a musician. I played the bassoon from fifth through twelfth grade, and, in 1997, attended the New Your State School Music Association All-State conference, held at the now-razed Concord Hotel on Kiamesha Lake. My All-State experience was literally and figuratively bloodless; no one died or disappeared, but it was largely boring, lonely, and unmemorable, which seemed like a terrible shame. Thirteen years later I started writing a mystery with the hope that the finished book would be the polar opposite of boring, lonely, and unmemorable. And while my actual All-State experience wasn't nearly as dramatic as Bellweather Rhapsody, with a few exceptions, the soundtrack—all hail the BMG Music Club—could be one and the same.
1. "Human Behaviour" by Bjork
Bjork is certainly period, but more than that, this song (and Garbage's "#1 Crush," which I could also have included as the first track) inspired the mood of the book as I wrote it: a little off, a little eerie, but propulsive and funky. That relentless, hypnotic tympani! Bjork, being Bjorky. And the lyrics: "There's definitely definitely definitely no logic," she sings, "to human behavior." Bellweather contains many mysteries. Each main character, of which there are eight, comes to the hotel haunted by secrets, and in their efforts to solve themselves and each other, as Bjork puts it, "there is no map, and a compass wouldn't help at all."
2. "Criminal" by Fiona Apple
There's also a lot of bad behavior: murders! Adultery! Passing a regular mutt off as a service dog! (…is that a crime?) "Criminal" is one of my favorite songs, period, probably because my vocal register matches Fiona's and I can belt this mother to the rafters, but I love its weird and tricky subject matter: the way she speaks of desire, of being the way she is (i.e., a woman who has hurt her lover), and how that makes her feel like a criminal. "Help me," she says, but then: "don't tell me to deny it." It's full of need and anger, guilt but also guts, and when you really listen to it, it isn't easy to like. In that way, it's the perfect torch song for the character of Natalie Wink Wilson. An adult chaperone at Statewide, Natalie has baggage with a capital B. She's depressed and self-destructive; she's done some terrible things, but don't you dare tell her to deny them.
3. "Your Love" by the Outfield
I saw my first a capella club in the wild when I went to All-State in 1997. They called themselves the Buffalo Chips, they were from the University of Buffalo, and they blew my mind. The boys in my high school (sorry, guys) could barely walk in a straight line, let alone dance, let alone woo with song. I ended up going to the University of Buffalo, and I'm not saying it's because I saw the Chips perform the Doobie Brothers at All-State…but it didn't hurt. I couldn't resist giving that same experience to my shy teenage bassoonist character, Bert "Rabbit" Hatmaker. Gay and closeted (it is, after all, 1997), Rabbit is planning to come out to his twin sister Alice during the Statewide weekend. Then he sees an a capella club performing The Outfield's peerlessly swoony "Your Love," falls head over heels for the lead tenor, and realizes coming out to his sister is the least interesting thing that might happen to him in the next twenty-four hours.
4. "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" by Whitney Houston
It is impossible to listen to this song and not feel happy, like dancing. And yet it's a song about longing. Whitney doesn't want to dance with just anybody, but somebody who loves her—who never shows up. When the night falls, "her lonely heart calls." All of the characters in the book are, in some way, trying to mitigate their own loneliness, but I gave this song to Alice Hatmaker, Rabbit's twin. Alice is a vocalist with an ego the size of Wisconsin; the weekend at Statewide is humbling her one reality-check at a time, and she makes a hail Mary pass courtesy of some childhood choreography to this song. All Whitney Houston songs break my heart a little now, but this one most of all.
5. "Life on Mars?" by David Bowie
Another song for Natalie—the first song that she ever fell in love with. I think we all have those songs that stop us in our tracks, that get right in our faces and tell us: pay attention, listen, feel this. Natalie hears "Life on Mars?" as a little girl growing up in San Francisco. Its strange beauty immediately makes her feel less bound by the gravity of her world, producing a state of weightless grace she spends the rest of the novel trying to recapture. In early drafts she was obsessed with Paul McCartney, and in love with "Penny Lane," but it never felt right. As soon as I realized Natalie was a Bowie girl, she floated off the page.
6. "Run with Me" by Keane
I don't believe in feeling ashamed about my tastes. We like what we like, and the process of trying new things and refining our palate—for music, for literature, for anything—is one of the great joys of being alive. That said, the character of Fisher Brodie—half-rabid Scottish conductor, former child piano prodigy before losing three fingers on his right hand—would be mortified that I have chosen a sentimental Keane song to represent his inner life. But it's dead on: Fisher presents as a madman, ruling over his orchestra like a tyrant, but underneath all the teeth and pointy elbows, his heart beats only for the possibility of love—for music, for Natalie, for life. A song like this is what love feels like: a little too cute at first maybe, but catchy, and before you know it you've lost your damn mind and it feels terrific—there's an amazing crescendo and series of WOOOOOAHHHs around the two-minute-ten mark that have, on occasion, nearly blown out my car's speakers.
7. "Tonight, Tonight" by the Smashing Pumpkins
Rabbit comes to Statewide listening to Weezer's Pinkerton, but decides, after a particularly great rehearsal, that that album's defensive anger and gloom isn't speaking to him. So he snaps the pink disc of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness into his Discman, skips that first track, and dives into one of the great romantic rock songs of the 90s. "The impossible is possible tonight"—is there a more quixotic teenage notion?
8. "We Used to Wait" by Arcade Fire
I wrote the first hundred or so pages of Bellweather in a total Arcade Fire circa The Suburbs haze, and now I can't listen to that album without conjuring the hot mess that was my first draft. For a book so innately about music, I had a difficult time listening while I wrote; it required silence. But I still love this song, and it helped me return to that particular pre-cell phone headspace, when computers ran Netscape, you listened to one CD at a time, and we waited for letters to arrive.
9. "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" by Claude Debussy
Afternoon of a Faun, which I played when I was in the Syracuse Symphony Youth Orchestra (SSYO), is the single greatest piece of music I was lucky enough to ever perform. It's so weird and difficult—time signatures are changing all over the place, you have to count like crazy not to screw up your exits and entrances—but so intensely gorgeous. It was the first time, as a student musician, I felt like I was part of a group playing something that could be described as beautiful, not just good or well-performed. This piece makes a few key appearances in the book, because I love it so much, and because it reminds me—perpetual lone wolf that I am—that sometimes you need to be part of a larger whole to make something true.
10. The Planets by Gustav Holst
I outlined Bellweather as a piece of music, with a prelude and a postlude and four movements, each representing a day over a single four-day weekend and marked with a tempo that grows from an andante to a scherzo to an allegro. I thought of my eight close third-person main characters as soloists, some of them literally represented by an instrument (Rabbit plays bassoon, Natalie and Fisher played piano, Alice sings), but all of them moving in and out of each other's plotlines, aggregating, as those plots come together, like notes in a chord. But it wasn't just in terms of structure that I brought music into Bellweather: I wanted to try to write narrative descriptions of how music sounds and, more critically, feels. Pop music is relatively easy to integrate into a story—popular songs come with their own cultural cachet—and in any case, what's important is what the song means to the character. But symphonic music seemed a taller, more challenging order. As a kid I loved a series of youth orchestra detective books by Ronald Kidd, Sizzle and Splat and Second Fiddle, and I never forgot how he described music as though he were telling a story: this forte is the long arm of the law, that moment of silence is the character's execution. The Statewide student orchestra in Bellweather plays two movements from The Planets (which, it bears mentioning, I also played with the SSYO), "Mars, the Bringer of War" and "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity." How to make the music audible, in prose, for a reader who has never heard it? Like Kidd, I told stories. I gave the instruments personalities. And used the mood of the movements—the violence of "Mars" and the unadulterated joy of "Jupiter"—to underscore the mood of a character.
11. "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" by The National
The National's lyrics are more suggestive than literal—perfect for daydreaming, which is how I do a lot of my plotting and pre-writing work. The book's prelude contains a murder/suicide by hanging, so "hanging from chandeliers / same small world / at your heels," never fails to give me a sad little shiver. And the chorus, holy crap: "all the very best of us / string ourselves up for love," repeated again and again, like a chisel trying to break into your heart. That's Bellweather Rhapsody for you: all of us, the very best of us, are fools for what we love. Whether we love music or other people or ourselves or the past or love itself, for better or for worse, consciously or un-, we hang ourselves on our own petard.
12. "All Is Full of Love" by Bjork
(Begin and end with Bjork: that's my motto.) Our loves and obsessions may make fools of us, and prove our undoing, but there's always more and other love in the world, if our eyes are open. Despite all its violence and melodrama and angst and loss, Bellweather truly is a book full of love. It was written with so much: my love of music and those years I spent playing bassoon, my love of mysteries and the complexity of human hearts; my character's love for each other, for life, for the potential they all still have; and a kind of ineffable love that floats on the air, like snow, like music. "You'll be given love / you have to trust it," Bjork sings. "Maybe not from the sources you have poured yours / maybe not from the directions you are staring at / twist your head around / it's all around you."
Kate Racculia and Bellweather Rhapsody links:
Gina Damico interview with the author
Kate's Book Club interview with the author
My Book, The Movie guest post by the author
Dead Darlings interview with the author
Necessary Fiction essay by the author
Riffle interview with the author
Writers Read guest post by the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists