February 5, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Kathleen Spivack's novel Unspeakable Things is an ambitious and surreal debut that is imbued with music.
Shelf Awareness wrote of the book:
"In her first novel, poet Kathleen Spivack (With Robert Lowell and His Circle) strongly seasons a realistic story of World War II refugees, longing to escape their past and establish themselves in America, with surrealistic elements to create a convincing portrait of the pain of displacement and dislocation."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Music has been at the core of many of my books, each differently. As a young girl, I studied the cello, and went on to play chamber music much of my adult life. I played the cello at Oberlin College and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. The composition courses, both in writing and in music began with the setting of poems--usually those of Emily Dickinson--to music. The rhythm of words and the formal tonality of music blended and fascinated me. Later I performed some of my written work with jazz musicians & toured; I learned about music and text. Some of my work has also been set to original music, and performed as song cycles , opera and theatre pieces in the U.S. and in France .
In my recent novel, Unspeakable Things, (Alfred Knopf, 2016,) European classical music drives the book. Unspeakable Things is about German and Austrian intellectuals, refugees, struggling to stay alive in New York City during the last years of World War II. European classical music is what they listen to. It carries memories of their lives, both of their "before," chiefly in Vienna, and their penurious "after" in New York City.
I loved doing the research for this book. The book is factual in its recounting of the importance of music and how it was controlled during this era. But fiction and magic come into it. More importantly, as I wrote, each character chose his or her music. While writing, I heard the music of each character, and put on the appropriate tape. The first drafts were written while CD's had not yet superseded tape recordings and I was still mourning the silence imposed upon classical record collections.
Alone in the room in an absent friend's apartment, I turned up the volume until my ears were so filled with music that I could, via the ladder of music, enter my characters' souls.
Perhaps you have done the same. And perhaps you have not yet read Unspeakable Things. If so, here is a shorthand guide to the music that shaped and haunted my characters and by transmission, me.
Sound flooded the room where I sat writing. I let my 'self' dissolve: I couldn't tell the demarcation between my characters and the swirl of music that was their signature. "The Rat," a central character, was Schubert's "Death and the Maiden," Quartet No. 14. "Rasputin," the Demon Lover, was written to Mussogorsky’s* "The Great Gate of Kiev," from "Pictures at an Exhibition. " "Herbert" was Brahms, of course, both tough and tender; his was the Brahms "Requiem": the music of a heart cracking. And the "Tolstoi Quartet" was written to the music of Mozart. At first look, in the early stages, and in the early life of my naive Quartet, their Mozart - music seems to have a playful mischievous child-like nature,. But later, as I came to know the "Tolstoi Quartet" better, I heard a more imperative Mozart: hints of pleasure, of secrets, of schemes and hidden messages.
The triumphant self-confident can-do New World chapters were accompanied, as I wrote them, by Louis Armstrong, by a 'brace of trumpets,' the big swing bands, and the swooping American confidence, each passage as if created spontaneously, of George Gershwin.
The "Doktor Felix" chapters were written to "The Rakes Progress," by Stravinsky, and parts of "Carmina Burana." Felix is also the wicked puppet master of so many ballets. He takes possession of your body and your will. Like Herr Drosselmeyer, he makes you dance until you drop - as in Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker," "Coppelia" and in the ballet/movie "The Red Shoes."
While writing Unspeakable Things, in that meditative trance, or "flow," where one is concentrated, deeply within and yet at the same time without; shaping the piece, I seemed to hear Bruch's "Kol Nidrei." It was the underground river running through the whole endeavor. It was and is the lamentation of the Earth herself. I sensed again the caramel caress of my beloved cello. To weep, and expiate: to heal, soothe; perhaps to accept, and even laugh & maybe find happiness somewhere....
In Unspeakable Things, with its contrapuntal "New World Symphony" clashing with "Kol Nidrei" and everything else, I sat alone and let the book almost write itself. Words were streaming from my fingers faster than I could catch them. It was like liquid silver, writing that first draft. And suddenly, despite myself, sweet Hope sprang up, demanding to be heard.
Kathleen Spivack and Unspeakable Things links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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