May 9, 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.
Kevin P. Keating's The Natural Order of Things is an intriguingly told, dark and often disturbing novel-in-stories.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"This is Peyton Place sunk a few rungs lower in hell, featuring the abuse of animals, prostitutes, handicapped children, and just about every husband and wife in town. Keating's prose, though, is serpentine and sinewy and all-around gorgeous; if Jack Ketchum had plotted Franzen's The Corrections (2001), it might’ve looked something like this."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
My novel The Natural Order of Things takes place in an unnamed, post-industrial, Midwestern city crowded with shuttered warehouses and defunct steel mills. At the center of this labyrinthine, dystopian hellscape there exists a Jesuit prep school run by dour, pragmatic priests who are attempting to gentrify the surrounding neighborhood by buying up big parcels of land and bulldozing dilapidated houses and tenement buildings. The private school has also garnered a reputation for being a football powerful, and this season the star quarterback is Frank "the Minotaur" McSweeney. Frank has a great future in store for him, or so the priests continually assure him, but Frank has grave doubts, not only about himself but about the true intentions and dubious ethics of the Jesuits.
The opening chapter takes place on the night of the big game, a contest between rival schools known as the Holy War. Frank, who was out partying the night before, performs badly and intentionally throws the game. The book then explores in detail the sometimes comic, sometimes tragic consequences of Frank's decision on his family, his friends, his teachers, his coach, and the heretical former headmaster who seems to be more of a practitioner of Zen Buddhism than Catholicism.
I experimented with several different settings for the novel, but elected to go with a Jesuit prep school because I thought it would give me a number of opportunities to write occasional metaphysical asides. The music I listened to during the composition of the book sort of reflects the mystical nature of the novel's characters and setting.
Olivier Messiaen: "Illuminations of the Beyond"
For someone like me, steeped in conventional tonal music (as a kid, Gershwin was my favorite composer), this music sounded extraordinarily weird and unsettling and almost hallucinatory. The mood of the first movement left an especially strong impression on me. I later discovered that Messiaen was inspired by his own Catholicism and the music of ancient Greek and Hindu sources. And like a lot of composers, Messiaen suffered from—or perhaps was the beneficiary of—synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon in which a person "sees" colors when listening to music. Maybe that's what drew me to this peculiar orchestral music—the first movement, "Apparition du Christ glorieux," seems suffused with deep blue hues and tones. Ultimately, the music sounds wildly mysterious and open to interpretation, a quality I definitely wanted to capture in my own book, which has elicited different responses from the critics. Some believe The Natural Order of Things is dark and compelling odyssey that explores the human condition while others see it as "a panorama of depravity." Both views are probably correct.
Ravi Shankar: "Madhuvanti"
During the composition of some of the stories that would later become chapters in The Natural Order of Things, I listened to Norah Jones who was suddenly a big recording sensation with her debut album Come Away with Me. Her stuff is certainly pleasant enough, and I appreciated her interpretation of "The Nearness of You" (when doing a jazz standard, it must be a little intimidating to compete with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong), but Jones led me to the recordings of her famous father Ravi Shankar. I dimly recalled Shankar from my days as a film major at Columbia College, Chicago. As I recall, he provided the scores for several Satyajit Ray movies, but for some reason I never listened to his recordings until many years later. His "Madhuvanti" is a raga based on "the foundation, eternity and colors of love." Again, there's that word "colors." This raga in particular is full of kinetic energy, and for a Clevelander whose first exposure to the sitar came from George Harrison and the Beatles, it's difficult for me to listen to this music without using the word "mystical."
John Williams: "Tree Song"
I am an unapologetic fan of composer John Williams, best known for his award-winning soundtracks for the films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. At an early age I was drawn to those big, sweeping, orchestral scores with the London Symphony Orchestra, and I owe my appreciation of "concert music" to the maestro. But what many people fail to realize is that Williams is also a composer of "serious" orchestral music, including the very haunting, lovely, and sometimes eerie "Tree Song," a three movement concerto for violin and orchestra. The second movement in particular (marked "Dreamily—Trunks, Branches & Leaves") contains some of Williams' hallmarks, including a powerful, harmonically rich buildup to a crescendo that he could have easily turned into one of his signature fanfares, but he quickly allows the music drop away into a sad, atmospheric melody for solo violin.
Paul Simon: "You're the One"
I became a fan of Paul Simon's work in my twenties but became increasingly perplexed by his later work, especially his 2000 album "You're the One," portions of which move boldly away from the pop idioms of, say, "There Goes Rhymin' Simon" and embraces a perspective of the illusory and impermanent nature of existence that might best be described as transcendental. The song "The Teacher" blends elements of both western and eastern religious experience ("There was a teacher of great renown whose words were like tablets of stone…") , and sections of the title song, just before Simon launches into the chorus, sound distinctly Middle Eastern. In the song "Quiet," Simon sings of "a place of solitude where the sage and sweetgrass grow by a lake of sacred water from the mountains melted snow…"
Fleet Foxes: Sun Giant
I first heard this album with its "hit" song "English House" on a local college radio station, and I was immediately drawn to the work of singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold. I like to imagine that one day, if The Natural Order of Things ever becomes a film, the director will select Pecknold to score the film. Paul Thomas Anderson made a wise choice, I believe, of commissioning Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead to do the scores for There Will Be Blood and The Master, and I think Pecknold's dynamic music would suit the various moods of my book quite well. His stuff can be quiet and haunting and also catchy and melodic. In tone his music ranges from experimentally dissonant to conventionally harmonic, sometimes sounding modern and sometimes quite traditional. It seems to me that he can capture many different states of mind, sometimes within the same song.
Kevin P. Keating and The Natural Order of Things links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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