March 7, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Andy Mozina's debut novel Contrary Motion dazzles with its heart, humor, and storytelling.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Mozina’s finely detailed, painfully funny novel is a rollicking performance that will keep readers on the edge of their seats."
I've never played a musical instrument, so writing a novel about a concert harpist taking an orchestra audition was a challenge. Maybe listening to music while I wrote would help me understand what being a musician is like? No, it would not—just as eating hamburgers won't turn you into a hamburger, but only a larger version of yourself. Instead, knowing some of what harpists know would take a lot of interviews with harpists—including my wife.
But music did help me write this novel. Songs provided the emotional template for scenes when Matt, the novel's protagonist, is dealing with his father's death by playing harp at a hospice, or jonesing for his ex-wife, or trying to be a good divorced dad to his troubled daughter. Music also gives me hope and mental energy and companionship, which I need to get any writing at all done.
In keeping with the theme of contrary motion, the music that made this novel emotionally and practically possible oscillated between hardcore and dreamy.
Symphony No. 9, Beethoven
Why not start with the Big Kahuna? When I was drafting the novel, I'd usually fire up Beethoven's 9th as I sat down to write in the morning. I listened to a version recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, an apt backdrop for composing a novel set in Chicago. There's no harp part in the 9th, so it wasn't about trying to experience something Matt experienced. Rather I wanted some wordless power. (Anything with lyrics I could understand would be too distracting at this point in the writing process.) Somewhere in the middle of my work on the novel, I came across Adrienne Rich's poem "The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at Last as Sexual Message," which reduces the mighty 9th to the bloviations of a lonely, sexually insecure little man. I think she might have been onto something! The poem's first line--"A man in terror of impotence"—happened to pretty well fit Matt (and this less-than-totally-confident writer). Still, regardless of whether the 9th is a bombastic act of male compensation, by the fourth movement and that big crescendo when the whole choir blasts in, I'd be head-banging and air-conducting—and I'd have written something. Joy, indeed.
"Echoes," Pink Floyd
Dreamy, cinematic, strange, complete with surreal screeching albatrosses and notes pinging in underground caverns. David Gilmour's patient guitar work arcs across the inside of my cranium like slow lightning. Good for writing sessions because mostly wordless, it's also a journey through darkness and confusion that turns out OK, which is what you hope for.
"Too Drunk to Fuck," Dead Kennedys
Writing a novel with some episodes of male sexual dysfunction, I had to figure out the right tone: too much despair might induce eye rolls, too jokey would seem evasive. I love how this number raucously captures the way the intense pursuit of pleasure ultimately distances you from pleasure. This paradox is everywhere in the novel. Plus it's the only song I know of that ends with vomiting, and (spoiler alert) Matt also pukes once in the novel.
"That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be," Carly Simon
In a different key altogether, a super sad song about a slide toward an unfulfilling bourgeois marriage. The way the specter of divorce haunts Simon's vocals was a touchstone for Matt's relationship with his ex and also hangs over his relationship with his daughter.
"Uncontrollable Urge," Devo
What would a protagonist be without an uncontrollable urge or two? Matt has one moment of deranged desire that I can't bring myself to describe here and an urge for his ex-wife that's out of control. Devo's tone has always been a marvel to me. In this song the sense of deranged desire slaloms between earnest and tongue-in-cheek, and in everything I write I try to pair the funny with the serious. I love the way the backup singers dryly comment on the declarations of the crazed lead: "I've got an uncontrollable urge!"… "He's got an uncontrollable urge."
"Like A Hurricane," Neil Young
A song about a woman the singer can't handle makes another good fit for Matt who has troubles aplenty with his new girlfriend: "I want to love you, but I'm getting blown away." Young's guitar manages to be dreamy and hard-edged at the same time.
"There, There," Radiohead
With its loping percussion, searing but tuneful feedback (like music for mosquitoes) and chiming guitar, this sucker slowly gathers power. As several songs on this playlist illustrate, I do love a song that takes its time before the lyrics start. And what are the lyrics? I have no idea. The only line I ever catch is "just ‘cause you feel it, doesn't mean it's there," which I would sing while walking around the house until I realized my wife tends to take any household-sung lyric as relationship commentary, so I mostly mouth these words to myself in my office now. Overall, in this song I hear the sound of someone slowly losing it for a variety of reasons. Yeah, this is what I tried to get the novel to feel like at times.
Fantaisie for Violin and Harp, Op. 124, Saint-Saëns
This harp/violin duo plays a surprising role in the novel when Matt's daughter gets, of all things, a seemingly incurable case of the hiccups. In a positive display of contrary motion in a relationship, early dominance by the violin yields to some virtuosic harp. A lot of sentimental attachment to this piece. I have a recording of my wife playing harp on this that I've listened to a lot while writing over the decades.
Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz
Subtitled "An Episode in the Life of an Artist," this five-movement symphony, according to program notes written by Berlioz himself, is a narrative about a lovesick artist who tries to kill himself with opium when he realizes his love is unrequited. He survives only to have some scary fantastical visions. Thematic inspiration for me? Not at all. I only listened to this whole piece once during the writing of the novel. I immediately knew I didn't connect to it, and for some reason even the lurid narrative fell right out of my head. But the piece contains the technical challenge that would make or break Matt's climactic audition and inspire the novel's title. So I spent a fair amount of time with the score of this piece and a recording of just the harp playing the excerpt that's almost always asked for in auditions, trying to figure out how to describe the experience of playing the gnarly arpeggios with contrary motion—notes at cross-purposes with each other.
"Blue Line Swinger," Yo La Tengo
Another slow-builder, this is no doubt the theme song of the novel. The wild, grinding guitar and the melancholy vocals beautifully combine hardcore and dreamy. Murmured by Georgia Hubley, the lyrics border on a diagnosis of Matt and also amount to what I've got to call a support fantasy: "You, you won't talk about what we see when the lights are out/ And I'm willing to hold your hand while you're lost,/while you're so full of doubt/… Out of darkness, you will come around/ I know you will/ I know you will/ and I'll find you/ and I'll find you there."
Andy Mozina and Contrary Motion links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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