May 3, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, Anna Smaill's novel The Chimes is a striking debut that poetically portrays a dystopian future where music has replaced the written word.
Shelf Awareness wrote of the book:
"Creates an artistic and cerebral vision of a people without past or future . . . Smaill's melodious prose lures the reader like a pied piper. With literary trappings, but a solidly speculative heart, The Chimes is a cantata of pure delight."
For a book about music, it was surprisingly hard to devise a playlist for The Chimes. In part this is because I rarely listen to music while I am writing. However, it also reflects something about the book's genesis: it was born out of a strangely personal love-hate relationship with music itself. Some of my first memories are of lying in bed listening to my father playing Bach preludes and fugues on the piano at the end of the hall. Occasionally he'd play the guitar for us too - usually English and Irish folk songs. At five I begged my parents for music lessons and at seven, after two years of recorder, I began to learn the violin. When I was 17 I enrolled in a degree in performance music. During this year something strange happened – I began to find it nearly impossible to listen to music. It began to feel like a language that I couldn't understand. It took quitting the violin for music to come back to life for me. I began to write seriously and music re-entered my life in a more balanced way. The Chimes is a response, I suppose, to this all-or-nothing phase with music. This playlist is a hybrid – a mixture of tracks that inspired the world of the book, but also pieces that are included in the plot itself.
'The Dead Girls' – Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark
I am not sure by what odd alchemy this song helped me to build and inhabit the world of The Chimes, but it is without doubt the novel's theme song. Whenever I listen, it takes me directly back to the early days of writing the book. Aesthetically, the lush, superheated, new romantic vibe is a million miles from the pre-industrial world of The Chimes, but yet it's complementary too. There's something in the fatalistic romance of the lyrics, the epic strings, those long swathes of sound that all just seemed to allow and encourage the world of the book to grow. One of my chapter titles is a blatant act of homage.
'Black Velvet Band' – The Dubliners
This song was one of the handful my father used to play on the guitar, and it turns up in The Chimes as the melody for the 'audition' that Lucien conducts to test Simon on his musical and mnemonic skills. I remember loving the song – especially the chorus – but being fascinated and horrified by the hero's transgression and the lover's betrayal. As Simon says, the song 'is about when innocence is really blindness. How when you want something very much, so bad you can taste it, your mind likes to trick you that it's in your grasp.' This recording is about the closest to the way I remember my Dad singing it.
'The Butcher Boy' – The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem
Another folk song that has haunted me for a long while, and that perfectly threaded itself into the pre-modern backdrop of The Chimes. It's one of the oldest stories around: young girl falls in love, falls pregnant, is abandoned, commits suicide. Yet I can't think of any other melody that so perfectly catches the bittersweetness of love when it's unrequited. The emotion worked its way into the book – desire, trust, the threat of betrayal. Maybe this was in in part because the early days of writing felt themselves like a clandestine, ill-fated romance. This is a brilliant recording of the song. Watch the youtube video for added Aran sweaters.
'Experiment IV' – Kate Bush
This song without doubt influenced and underpinned the plot of this book. I love how Bush is both deeply playful and deeply serious – it's an aesthetic I was determined to capture somehow. The sonic weapon of this song is the protoype for the Carillon, but also influenced the novel's final act of destruction: 'They told us what they wanted was a sound that could kill someone from a distance.' 'From the painful cries of mothers and the terrifying scream. We recorded it and put it into our machine.'
'Comfort Ye My People' (from the Messiah) – Handel
In the world of the novel, the Carillon (the sonic weapon that organises and controls the populace) is incredibly violent, yet there's a benevolent impulse behind it as well. It's so loud that it literally forces people to their knees, but it also offers a kind of near-religious oblivion, as well as a perverse sort of education. At Vespers the instrument plays a canon – a contrapuntal composition that interweaves melody and variations. Listeners are encouraged to follow the shifting of the melody for their own intellectual improvement. When Simon arrives in London at the start of the novel, the theme for Vespers is this aria from the Messiah. Simon is very far from any comfort, yet the allusion is not meant to be entirely ironic.
'New Generation' – Suede
So, I could have chosen any song off Dog Man Star for this. Suede somehow perfectly capture the post-apocalyptic vibe that is part of the daily texture of London; they are the laureates of glamorous devastation. The upbeat mood of this track, though, and the prettiness of Brett's vocals are perfect for the turning point of the novel, when Simon and Lucien are on the road and on their quest: 'While the styles turn and the books still burn / Yes it's there in the platinum spires / It's there in the telephone wires / And we spread it around to a techno sound / But like a new generation rise.'
Let England Shake – PJ Harvey
This album came out while I was writing The Chimes, and was immediately folded into its imaginative world. I went to see her at the Royal Albert Hall while pregnant, and my daughter jigged around wildly in vitro. I love this track in particular, the hurdy gurdy of it, the offbeat rhythm, the mix of raucousness and beauty and devastating sadness. The video's allusion to Punch and Judy was also a perfect chime with one of the book's key influences – Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker.
'Albion' – Babyshambles
Continuing the unabashed anglophilia of this playlist, but from a different angle. This was on frequent repeat on my train journeys from London to Hertfordshire for work in the early days of the book's life. There is just something irresistably shambolic and nostalgic about this track, and it's all nicely dirtied up by Pete Doherty's hopeless, stumbling delivery. There is a scene in the book when Simon and Lucien walk through Camden and past all the beautiful Georgian terraced houses of Regent's Canal, with their gardens sloping down to the water. A faded gentility in which, without doubt, the residents take their gin in teacups, on leaf-strewn lawns.
'Lillibulero' – Anonymous
The narrowboat on which Simon and Lucien travel to Oxford is named after this famous march. As soon as Simon reads the boat's nameplate, he falls victim to its legendary earworm capacities. 'Lillibulero' is awesomely rousing and stirring – particularly with a full contingent of bagpipes – and, appropriately for this stage of the novel, has a long history as a protest song. Alluding to Lillibulero also has a distinguished pedigree in fiction, I have found. Everyone from Laurence Sterne to Frederick Forsyth has done it, and I eagerly await the approbation that is sure to follow. It's true, though, that for me it will always be synonymous with washing the dishes in the kitchen while my parents listen to the BBC world service.
Symphony of Sorrowful Songs – Gorecki
I very much wanted to keep the book's most important piece of music, the final composition to be played on the Carillon, as opaque and allusive as possible. I didn't 'hear' it, not really, but I did have a strong sense of what it felt like to listen to, what kind of music it was: dischordant, but not dissonant, painful but filled with simple overarching human melody. The closest I could come to a real-world equivalent would be this.
'Bravado' – Lorde
I started listening to Lorde much later than everyone else, probably because I was so shut away while writing The Chimes and rarely listened to the radio. I was editing the novel, getting ready to send the manuscript to agents, when I came across The Love Club EP. It was so brilliant to encounter Lorde's imagination and the seeming limitlessness of her talent, particularly as a New Zealander, and having only recently returned to the country. This song is so great, it has such a driving energy and anger and bitterness, but there's also a heady confidence – 'when the lights come up, I'll be ready for this'. It seemed to magically synch with the end of Simon's journey, and the start of The Chimes'sjourney into the world.
Anna Smaill and The Chimes links:
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)
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)