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October 30, 2017

Book Notes - Phil Harrison "The First Day"

The First Day

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Phil Harrison's novel The First Day is a lyrical and wonderfully imaginative.

The Irish Independent wrote of the book:

"Brilliantly written throughout...A truly excellent novel, on all counts...With tight, dispassionate, superbly controlled prose, Harrison channels the spirit of Don DeLillo or an unflinching yet compassionate investigation of matters of the human heart and—[like] Graham Greene—the heart of the matter."

In his own words, here is Phil Harrison's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The First Day:

In writing The First Day I was particularly interested in the relationship between form and voice. Not academically, but effectively - what type of sentences, what lyricism or resistance to lyricism would do most justice to the particularities of the story and characters I was creating. These characters - a charismatic, messy, flawed preacher and the sceptical, perceptive academic he falls into an passionate affair with - demanded (as all characters do) the right form to represent their inner worlds, or at least their inner worlds insofar as the narrator has access to them.

All this to say - both painting and music provided crucial references, even if somewhat oblique, to that process. Paintings are referenced in the book (a couple appear almost as characters) but music remains largely hidden in the final work, and yet it played an important role - and continues to - in allowing me to think about and play with the strange, unpindownable connection between voice and form. Why does one piano piece (say Frahm's 'Improvisation for Coughs and a Cell Phone') work, where another, cursorily similar, doesn't? And what does it mean for a piece of music (or a sentence) to 'work'?

The playlist below contains some music that I was listening to while writing, some that simply interests me structurally, and some that I just love (and what is the point of writing a book if it doesn't involve love?).

Nils Frahm - An Aborted Beginning

Frahm's expansive, spacious live performance on his Spaces LP bookends this list. I'm a huge fan - there's enough structure to know roughly where he's going, but never so much that you feel in control. Moments of haunting beauty constantly break through, and his freedom at the piano is astonishing to watch (youtube it!).

Ólafur Arnalds - 1995

Arnalds' melodies are deceptively simple and immediate, but he is often counterpointing two lines that run against and around one another, to stunning effect. I listened to a lot of Arnalds as I wrote.

Unloved - Guilty of Love

Belfast's musical genius David Holmes is behind Unloved - I pretty much couldn't stop listening to this track for about a year. With an almost Lynchian feel, Jade Vincent's vocals are utterly timeless. And the lyrics resonate deeply with the themes of the novel: 'Mistakes I've made, / whether mine or happenstance, / wrong or right, / I'm guilty of love / I confess.'

Hamilton Leithauser - A Thousand Times

Plaintive vocals, almost Dylan-esque in delivery; a cracking song about the persistence of desire, the relentless refusal to be controlled. Love's gonna get you in the end.

Quirino Do Canto - Mino di Mama

Mad Cape Verdean rhythms with an almost Latin feel, this compilation came out on one of my favourite labels last year and I fell for it immediately. It just feels relentless; it drives and drives, almost impossible not to move to.

Hilary Hahn - Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004: I. Allemande

I just love the way this piece wraps itself around you. It's somehow both angular and soft at the same time. And Hahn's playing is so unforced and unshowy, no unnecessary stresses. Beautiful.

NxWorries - Lyk Dis

Wonky hip hop; melodic, wry lyrics over the top of beats that just about arrive on time. And all that syncopation; you can nod your head just about any time and you'll hit a beat.

James Blake - I Need a Forest Fire

I saw James Blake play this live in Belfast just after the book was signed. The crowd was awful and he was superb. The bass goes so low and his vocals so high, and in between the music lurches in little chunks, completely unhurried. The lyrics are simple, even a little nonsensical, and yet there's an immediacy to them which just connects.

Jóhann Jóhannsson - By The Roes, And By The Hinds Of The Field

One of my favourite albums of the last year, I listened to Jóhannsson's sweeping, cinematic music on repeat towards the end of the writing process.

Arvo Pärt - Spiegel im Spiegel

I've been listening to Pärt religiously since I discovered him in my early twenties. It's hard to describe how affecting the music can be; so seemingly simple but often structural complicated, with melodies playing against and alongside one another. There's a meditative quality; the music feels somehow generous, like it gives you something as you listen; it's a kind of materiality of the sublime. If the novel had a soundtrack with only one artist on it, it would be Pärt.

Recondite - Levo

Like a bell ringing over a huge, rumbling bassline - how could you not like this? It feels cinematic to me; I thought of this track when writing a scene of one character following another, the steady, inevitable movement towards something about to happen.

Ian William Craig - Purpose (Is No Country)

The vocals seem to shimmer, vibrate. It reminds me of going to a little mission hall as a kid (like the one in the novel), where there were no instruments, just the shaky voices of working class men and women trying to do some justice to their desire to worship God in the way they felt best. If it was beautiful it was a complicated beauty.

Górecki - Symphony o. 3: II Lento E Largo - Tranquillissimo

You really need to listen to all three movements, of which this is the middle one. It is haunting, piercing music; Dawn Upshaw's voice moves from controlled expression to release, teasing you along the way. But when she really goes your whole body tingles. Too beautiful.

Benjamin Clementine - Condolence

One of the most interesting voices in pop music today - I stumbled across Clementine online somewhere and became a little obsessed. He sounds like Nina Simone and Randy Newman rolled into one. The music is immediate but somehow strange. He is English but made a name for himself in France; and this strange dislocation works its way into the music, creating an utterly individual, compelling sound. I still go back to this LP almost every week.

Björk - History of Touches

Endlessly inventive, formally experimental; and yet Björk just keeps making great pop music. This album is largely about a break up, and I listened to this song a lot while thinking about the central relationship in the novel; how memory and desire gets embedded in a body and doesn't let go, hides in there somewhere waiting for an outlet.

Max Richter - Path 5 (delta)

This is an excerpt which Richter wrote as part of an 8 hour composition to be listened to as you sleep. It was first performed in Berlin, in a huge auditorium where each audience member, instead of a seat, had their own bed. BBC Radio 3 broadcast the whole thing one night between midnight and 8am, and my girlfriend and I went to bed and slept through it, as directed. I have no idea what it did to my dreams, but I did sleep like a baby. Again, two voices move in and out of one another - like a relationship - and something beautiful is created in both their combination and the space between them.

Nils Frahm - Improvisation for Coughs and a Cell Phone

One more Frahm to finish, an improvisational piece in the vein of Keith Jarrett's Köln concert. In some ways you could say writing a book is one big improvisation. There is a certain amount of freedom, but you still just have words on a page, and the trick is to make something sufficiently familiar to connect, but sufficiently unknown and unknowable to push and pull the reader into some new space, some new engagement. And for all the difficulty that entails, what a joyful way to spend one's time.

Phil Harrison and The First Day links:

Irish Independent review
Irish Times review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Litro interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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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)
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