August 18, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Susan Barker's novel The Incarnations is a sweeping epic that spans over 1,000 years of China's history.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Barker’s fluid prose makes of their tragic stories irresistible reading….The stories come alive via a veritable catalog of dark and desperate details. This ambitious novel traffics in intrigue and betrayal yet never loses its hypnotic grip."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
During the years I spent writing The Incarnations I must've blasted several thousand hours of hazardously high decibel music through the earbuds of my mp3 player into my head. I listened to music while walking around Beijing, researching the book. I listened to music when I clocked off fiction writing at the end of the day, and went running in the local park or gym. I plugged in my iPod on the subway or bus, when I did errands and chores, and when I couldn't sleep late at night. The music I listened to wasn't connected to the book I was writing – I rarely turn to music for inspiration in the same way I turn to films and visual art. Instead I listen to music I connect with emotionally, and have come to associate certain artists and albums with different periods in my life. Below are some songs I listened to during the six years I spent working on The Incarnations. They mean a lot to me, but could easily be substituted with many other songs of equal significance.
Rachmaninov – Piano Sonatas No. 1 and 2
During my years in Beijing, I moved between several of the 1970s-era, Soviet-style apartment blocks ubiquitous in every neighbourhood. The original apartments in these concrete blocks are cramped and dark, and therefore constantly (usually one per block at any one time) undergoing renovation and modernization – a process that involves insanely loud jackhammers shattering concrete for up to ten hours a day. To block out the noise so I could write (and for my mental health), I would put on some headphones and listen to Rachmaninov's Piano Sonatas No. 1 and 2 at top volume. The piano sonatas veer between dark, crashing melodrama and quieter melancholy, and when I was writing I felt their emotional charge moving through me into my work. The intensity complemented the heightened emotional pitch I aimed for in my writing, and Rachmaninov was always my go-to composer when my neighbours' drills started up.
Joan Baez – 'Silver Dagger'
For six months in '08 and '09 I lived in Longmont, Colorado, house-sitting for a friend working in Seoul. My then boyfriend and I lived in a white clapboard house with a view of the Rocky mountains in the distance, and in many ways the set-up was idyllic. On the weekends we'd go to yard sales in our neighbourhood and browse the second-hand furniture, kitschy ornaments, books and CDs. At one of these yard sales I picked up, in vinyl, Joan Baez's 1960 debut album of folk ballads. When I listened to the album that evening, I immediately fell in love with the eerie, plaintive warbling of Baez's voice – its otherworldliness enhanced by the hissing and crackling of the old warped vinyl. 'Silver Dagger,' a folk song originally from England and arranged by Baez into an upbeat Appalachian, fast-picking guitar style, is my favourite from the album. The song is about a young girl, warned against the wicked ways of men by her over-protective mother, and the girl's naïve determination to reject men and her wakening sexuality. 'Silver Dagger' is so haunting and timeless – I don't imagine Baez singing, but an impoverished girl in the backwaters of West Virginia, protesting her fate as a woman, many generations ago. As a piece of folkloric storytelling, this song is powerfully evocative.
Sharon Van Etten – 'Kevin's'
I discovered Sharon Van Etten in 2012 when I was living in Leeds, working part-time as a writer in residence at a university there. My life in Leeds revolved around writing The Incarnations, and though very productive, was solitary, ascetic and slightly mechanical. So when I first heard Van Etten's album Tramp, the raw intensity of her songs, and her lush, emotionally resonant voice, had a great impact on me. Van Etten is often labelled as a 'confessional' singer-songwriter and though her songs are often based on her own life (when I saw her 2012 gig at the Brudenell Social Club, she said 'Kevin's' was about quitting smoking in the same week she broke up with her boyfriend) they transcend the experiences of one individual, and hit upon darker, universal truths about what it is to be in love – in particular, the toxic kind of love that strips the weaker party of dignity and self-respect. Kevin's is the high point of Tramp for me, as Van Etten spins misery and darkness into something transcendental – the whole song a rising crescendo towards a redemptive climax.
Grimes – 'Circumambient'
I discovered Grimes while clicking about on the 4AD website, looking for new music. All of Grimes' 2012 album Visions is spectacular, but Circumambient is the most adrenalizing, compulsively listenable track. Claire Boucher's vocals are helium-pitched and the lyrics Britney Spears-esque, but the song has a manic intensity to it – a dark, addictive electronic pulse that reflects Boucher's tormented mental state at the time of writing (Boucher wrote most of Visions in an amphetamine-fuelled, sleep-deprived three weeks). On the surface, 'Circumambient' sounds like an upbeat pop song, but has a disquieting, hypnotic undertow that makes it much more interesting. Though I have listened to Visions countless times, the album and 'Circumambient' in particular, never ceases to be fascinating to me.
Magnetic Fields – 'All my Little Words'
I first heard about The Magnetic Fields in the spring of 2013, when I was living in the south of China, and a friend in Leeds sent me Grand Canyon, a song from their album 69 Love Songs. A magical album (comprised of, as the title indicates, 69 love songs) 69 Love Songs is diverse in musical styles, but not in theme, as Stephin Merritt sings over and over about the indignities of love and loss with his world-weary humour and wit. Mostly about the joys of wallowing in heartbreak (if 69 Love Songs had an ethos it would be summed up by the 6th track, 'I Don't Want To Get Over You') there are many songs I adore on 69 Love Songs, but 'All my Little Words' stands out for me. I love the banjo, the bittersweet melody, and Merritt's wry baritone as he sings with resignation about the injustice of loving someone who doesn't love you back (Now that you've made me want to die… You tell me that you're unboyfriendable…). When I first heard 'All my Little Words,' I half-wished I was broken-hearted, to appreciate it more.
Fuck Buttons – 'Surf Solar'
After writing all day I try to clear my head by going for a run. Whether I make it out or not is contingent on wind and rain (absence of) and self-motivation levels, but I average about three times a week. I run to get into a meditative, trance-like state, where there is no language or words in my head, and Fuck Buttons' albums Slow Focus and Tarot Sport are great for this. Surf Solar (from Tarot Sport) in particular is a favourite song – it begins very quietly and minimally, sounding like the soundtrack to a sci-fi movie or children's film (it reminds me, bizarrely, of the moments in the Goonies when Sean Astin has minor epiphanies about the location of the hidden treasure), then gradually more and more layers of electronic sound are added, increasing textural complexity as the song progresses, racing in speed and intensity towards a crashing crescendo around the six or seven minute mark. 'Surf Solar,' like most other Fuck Buttons songs, is energising and pulse-accelerating. I must've run hundreds of kilometres fuelled by the music of this band.
Paul Robeson – Chinese National Anthem
Though I don't listen to the Chinese National Anthem on a regular basis, I occasionally watch the YouTube video of Paul Robeson singing it in Mandarin on his 1949 European tour, and it never fails to send shivers down my spine. When sung by Robeson (instead of performed in the usual militaristic, marching band style) the Chinese National Anthem is searingly beautiful. The lyrics, full of the self-sacrificial myths of nation-building, are also strangely moving; 'Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves! With our flesh and blood, let us build our new great wall!' The recording was made a year before Robeson was asked to testify before the McCarthy committee, and ended up being blacklisted for refusing to say he was not a Communist. When I watch the 1949 video, Robeson's performance seems charged by his passionate conviction in his ideological beliefs, and foreshadowed by the fall to come.
Susan Barker and The Incarnations links:
Asian Books Blog interview with the author
All Things Considered interview with the author
Post Magazine profile of the author
Shanghaiist interview with the author
Time Out Hong Kong profile of 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)