July 2, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Rebecca Makkai's short story collection Music for Wartime covers a broad range of eras and topics, but always impresses.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the collection:
"Though these stories alternate in time between WWII and the present day, they all are set, as described in the story "Exposition," within "the borders of the human heart"—a terrain that their author maps uncommonly well."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I've always thought of Music for Wartime as an album—an old-fashioned one, with liner notes and a B side and everything. In part because it's very much about music, but also because albums were some of the best models I had for assembling a collection. (I like it when story collections do what an album like Abbey Road or Blood on the Tracks does, controlling your experience and adding up to more than the sum of the parts.)
That said, when I try to make the album literal here, I end up with a bizarre and wildly uncool playlist. (Bartók meets New Wave!) Some of these are actually part of the stories, and others are thematically related. I'm going one song per story here.
Istváan Márta's "Doom. A sigh": For "The Singing Women"—the recording that inspired the story. Márta traveled into Ceauşescu's Romania to record these women and their lamentations. I heard a story (apocryphal, as far as I can tell) that as a result of the recording, Ceauşescu learned that the women's village was still in existence, and wiped it out. My story follows that one. (This is not easy listening.)
The Fourth Movement of Schubert's Trout Quintet: For "The Worst You Ever Feel." Again, I have to go literal. The story is about a young boy, his mother, and an old master trying to cover all five parts of The Trout. The Amadeus Quartet's recording with Clifford Curzon is rich and warm.
Radiohead, "Fake Plastic Trees": For "The November Story," about a producer on a reality TV show. By the end, she's literally spray-painting leaves on the trees so it will look like November when it's really summer. I loved this song in college, long before you could Google lyrics. I only learned the words quite recently.
REM, "Losing My Religion": for "The Miracle Years of Little Fork," about a small-town pastor questioning his faith after the elephant of a visiting traveling circus dies in the town and must be buried there. I listened to this song a lot in high school when I was, literally, losing my religion. I couldn't believe someone had written a song about it.
Steven Sondheim's "I'm Still Here": For "Other Brands of Poison," the first of three "legends" about my father's family in the book. Like the singer, my grandmother was an actress (though she later became a novelist), and like the singer she survived more shit than most of us ever will. Who rhymes better than Sondheim? "Then you career from career to career / I'm almost through my memoirs / and I'm here."
The Decemberists, "Calamity Song": For "The Briefcase." A strange, apocalyptic song for a strange, apocalyptic story.
Brett Dennen, "Sydney": For "Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart." The story's about a man in his thirties trying like hell to save his best friend from high school. "Sydney" seems to be about standing by a friend through some kind of sex crimes trial, which sketches me out a bit, but hey, maybe the guy was really innocent. And it's a great song.
Fats Waller's "What Did I Do… To Be So Black and Blue," as sung by Louis Armstrong: For "Couple of Lovers on a Red Background," which is a story about a woman who coughs up J. S. Bach in her apartment, and then lives with him and has an affair with him and introduces him to Jazz, and J. S. goes around singing the Satchmo version of the song, but with a German accent. So, you know, domestic realism.
Springsteen's "Brilliant Disguise": For "Acolyte," the second family legend. This one, like many others in the collection, is about disguise and transformation – more literally than some.
Andrew Bird, "Tenuousness": for "Everything We Know About the Bomber," which is about someone not unlike Tamerlan Tsarniev. The song isn't violent, but it's complicated and mixed up, the ramblings of someone trapped in his own brain. (I think?)
The Fixx, "One Thing Leads to Another": for "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship." Please forgive the New Wave. Everything in this story follows from a professor accidentally shooting an albatross; from this, her career and engagement and sanity fall apart. I loved stringing together that cause and effect.
Freddie Mercury's charming butchering of the Hungarian folk song "Tavaszi Szél Vizet Áraszt" ("The Spring Wind Blows the Waters"): For "A Bird in the House," the third legend about my Hungarian family. You have to watch the YouTube clip for the full effect. He's reading the lyrics off his hand, mangling the pronunciation, and then he just gives up and makes the crowd sing it, but they love it. I grew up with this song, and mangle it every night for my own children. And in these stories, I'm quite openly grappling with my cultural divide, my inability to understand my own family's background and culture.
Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, Scarbo movement: for "Exposition." This is the kind of music I had in mind for the secret and doomed concert in which a pianist gives her last performance, and of a nearly impossible work. The Valentina Lisitsa recording is excellent.
The 4th movement of Bartok's 4th Quartet: for "Cross," in which a string quartet is playing just this. The entire movement is Pizzicato, weird and sublime.
Billie Holiday, "They Can't Take That Away from Me": for "Good St. Anthony Come Around." This is a story about AIDS, and thus it's a story about loss. And love. And the things that can't really be lost.
Alphaville's "Forever Young": For "Suspension: April 20, 1984." A companion to the legend pieces, this is about me as a young child, and it's also about bombs, of both the Cold War and WWII varieties. And the emotional variety, for that matter. I've always felt this song, which (hey!) came out in 1984 encapsulates the strangeness of a Cold War childhood – "hoping for the best but expecting the worst / are you gonna drop the bomb or not?"
"Sally Gardens": for "The Museum of the Dearly Departed." And back to the literal. The collection ends with an old Hungarian couple singing this song. The John McCormack recording from 1941 feels appropriate.
Rebecca Makkai and Music for Wartime links:
Chicago Tribune profile of the author
Deborah Kalb interview with the author
KMUW interview with the author
Michigan Quarterly Review interview with the author
San Diego Union-Tribune interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)