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July 30, 2018

Caoilinn Hughes's Playlist for Her Novel "Orchid & the Wasp"

Orchid & the Wasp

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Caoilinn Hughes's novel Orchid & the Wasp is an ambitious and lyrical debut with an unforgettable heroine.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Hughes delivers a compelling exploration of what it means to create art, skewering the arbitrary restrictions of art-world gatekeepers along the way. At the emotional heart of this book lies a darker question, though: What does it mean to make a performance of your own life, in service of your family, when the cost might be to lose them forever? As strange, musical, and carefully calculated as its unusual heroine."


In her own words, here is Caoilinn Hughes's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Orchid & the Wasp:



Orchid & the Wasp: A Soundtrack


I’ve written about my intense relationship with noise and my zany audio habits for LitHub. For Largehearted Boy, I wanted to share the pieces of music that I listened to obsessively while writing Orchid & the Wasp, and/or some of the music referenced within the novel. Music was a trick I used to help get me into the writing over the course of four years: though I risked losing my sanity, by playing the same tracks over and over, the familiar atmosphere and association acted as a kind of muscle memory so that I could dive quickly into the novel each day. I have listened to some of these tracks thousands of times. Tens of thousands, even. There is a lot of music in the book too, because one of the characters—Sive—is an orchestra conductor and composer. I do love music. I love silence more than anything, but that is like loving happiness: just because it’s theorizable doesn’t mean it’s obtainable or sustainable! Whereas Nils Frahm is one YouTube search away…

1. NILS FRAHM, “Toilet Brushes”

Here is Nils Frahm performing “Toilet Brushes” live at St John-at-Hackney Church.



Nils Frahm is a German musician who combines contemporary classical with electronic music, mostly working with a piano (various types at the same time!), a drum machine and synthesizer (I think). My favourite album is Spaces, which is made up of a series of live recordings from various spaces over the course of two years. Of that album, “Toilet Brushes” is the one I could have on repeat in my coffin. It is an unstoppable piece of music. It swells and surges and rolls, wave-like, tsunami-like, becoming grander and consuming more of you as it advances. Just surrender, I say. The rhythms are inimitable. I cannot watch this performance without feeling a surge of heat to my neck and face, without forgetting to breathe, without clasping my hands to my chest, wondering how it’s possible that this piece of music could exist and billions of people have not experienced it. It’s metaphysical. Its tone and temper could be described as ‘urgent’, but not in a stressful way so much as urgently life-affirming. In equal measures joyous and devastating.

2. MAURICE RAVEL, Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

Here is the wondrous Yuja Wang performing with Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (Rome, June 2016), conducted by Lionel Bringuier.


This 18-minute piano concerto is an aural joy bomb. The fact that the piano part is only for the left hand makes it incredible to watch, too, and gives the piece a deep, serious sound. But it’s always working against its constraint, defying it. It doesn’t go to the seemingly-inevitable dark places (even by virtue of the fact that it’s in a major key signature), and the evasion of this is fascinating. It reminds me of a quote by poet Derek Mahon about form being the necessary cage that artists must rattle the bars of. The contrast between the restricted, rebellious piano part and the grand, romantic, glorious orchestral sections—particularly the strings and percussion in the first half—is damn satisfying. In Orchid & the Wasp, the conductor character programs this piece and, at some point in the story, when Gael observes a gallery owner who has a disability in her right hand, she echoes what her mother had said of this concerto: ‘Left hand … Closer to the heart.’ Hear hear.

3. ALT-J, “Nara”



Any Alt-J album would be my desert island disc. I could have filled this whole soundtrack with their songs. But ‘Nara’ is the song to play for the end of Chapter 4 of Orchid & the Wasp. You’ll know why if/when you read the book!! Alt-J. Alt-friggin-J. I am lost of words to describe this band. A band like no other. I wanted to include one of their lyrics as an epigraph: “Like all good fruit, the balance of life is in the ripe and ruin.” Alas, I decided it wouldn’t be right to include it, because the epigraph would have been my choice rather than the book’s choice. Sometimes what the art work and the artist want aren’t the same. But dear Higgs is that not a lyric to make a person stop writing?! This song is a love song like no other. Turn up the volume. Sink into it.

4. WITOLD LUTOSLAWSKI, “Fourth Symphony”

Recorded in live concert in 2011 at the Théâtre du Châtelet, performed here by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.



The opening of this 22-minute symphony is slow and seductive, until glissando on the strings clears the palate for a trumpet to announce the first theme boldly, taken up by more tentatively by the clarinet and the piano—later, a flute. This kind of instrument-by-instrument handholding creates such intimacy and intensity (not to mention intricacy), remaining impossibly (excruciatingly?) delicate somehow. The harp dapples in the background, hinting at below-the-surface activity that will inevitable arrive and explode into sound… but when??? Minute 6.58! The time signatures change throughout, and Lutoslawski introduces an element of chance into his rhythms (an aleatoric technique) that forces the conductor to cease conducting at various points (this is a masterpiece in conducting by Salonen, by the way). The range and complexity is just awesome. The piece gets more description in Orchid & the Wasp when Sive is studying its score.

5. PRINCE DU PANTHA, “Satellite Sniper”



I encourage you to listen to this whole track, and if it doesn’t alter your mood by the end of it, I don’t know what will. I was leeking insomniac tears when I started writing this, and now that I’ve listened to it three times, I can see again. Its simplicity fills me with a sense of possibility. It’s unintimidating and atmospheric. You can hear the influence of minimal techno and house music, but this is more like a soundscape to me than dance music. That said, at minute 2.42, if you’re not bobbing your head or tapping your feet, either I am an alien or you are! The second half of this song does that enviable thing of being uplifting without pandering. The whole “Black Noise” album is great writing music—energetic but unobtrusive.

6. GYORGY KURTÁG, “Double Concerto Op. 27 No.2”

Concerto Budapest playing at Budapest’s Palace of Arts in 2011. Gábor Csalog on piano; Nicolas Altstaedt on Violoncello; Conducted by András Keller:



This is one of the composers whose music the character Sive loves. One of her admirers (a restaurant owner) plays one of Kurtág’s pieces when she arrives to his restaurant, which is a rather bold move, because Kurtág’s non-chamber music isn’t exactly easy listening / lounge music! It doesn’t keep a steady time signature; it doesn’t climax satisfyingly; it shifts from reckless abandon to highly-strung rigidity; it’s tumultuous and eerie. At first, this piece sounds like tuning up, or even accidental music. This live recording lends it a fittingly unfinished, grainy quality; the visuals are distorted; and I love the close-up of the broken horse hairs on the cellist’s bow. This music will make you feel ever more anxious as you listen, but I’m including it because the writing process can feel just like this— increasingly unsettling, incoherent, deranged, nostalgic-for-what-might-have-been, and discomfiting; especially half-way through a novel—and this sounds to me like unlikeable, laudably honest realism.

7. FLORENCE PRICE, “Symphony No. 3 in C minor, 1st Movement”

Sound recording, performed by The Women's Philharmonic, conducted by Apo Hsu:



Florence Price was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. This first movement is under 11-minutes, and but it is much larger in scope. I believe it was composed in 1940, and that informed my interpretation upon first hearing. Part of the reason for my including it here is because the book has so much to do with ambition; especially women’s ambition when neither money nor power is sought as an end-goal. Is there only room for cynical, corrupt (white entitled?) ambition in this late capitalist age? One of the three epigraphs is from the fourth African American woman to earn a doctorate degree, sociologist Anna Julia Cooper: “I constantly felt (as I suppose many an ambitious girl has felt) a thumping from within unanswered by any beckoning from without.” When I came across Price’s compositions (after having found Cooper’s glorious, devastating quote), the control and command of her music gave me the shivers and inspired the temperament of various moments of Orchid & the Wasp. Especially that final note!

8. BOB DYLAN, “Jingle Bells”

This should be listened to at the start of Chapter 9, Part II. It needs no explanation. It’s dreadful!! (The “Jingle Bells” track isn’t online, but you can hear “Must Be Santa” here, if you want to get the gist, and don’t like to sleep at night: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8qE6WQmNus)

9. FREDERIC RZEWSKI, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”

Here is the first part being played by Rzewski:



This 1975 piano composition by American composer Rzewski gets several hundreds words of a description in Orchid & the Wasp, so I won’t repeat that here (you’ll have to read the novel!) except to say that it found its way into the story not only because I love it, but because it became one of several unofficial anthems of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It is made up of a set of 36 variations on the Chilean song “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún. I’ve listened to this piece hundreds of times and it still delivers integrity, inspiration and variety. I love getting to see the composer performing it himself.

10. DONNLA HUGHES, “She Moved Through the Fair”

My sister—actor Donnla Hughes—has always been my biggest source of inspiration. There is so much in Orchid & the Wasp that comes from the intensity of my sibling relationships and from the extraordinary fortune of knowing such good, gifted people. This acapella rendition of “She Moved Through the Fair” should surely be the iconic recording. The song is one that all Irish people have a complicated relationship with. Those who have read the book will hear it differently. But whatever way you hear it, do just that.

11. APHEX TWIN, “Blue Calx”



From one of the world’s most influential electronic composer-musicians, this is a 7-minute track from one of his Ambient Sounds albums, and there are several reasons why I put it last here, and include it at all. It’s a minimal piece of music, which one might find under the search term ‘blue noise’. It’s the polar opposite of most of the music included here, in that it is not progressive—it barely changes from beginning to end. It’s a very relaxing track, despite its low-level haunting. It gives me a feeling of suspension, or liminality: in between one mood and another, one place and another, one rhythm and another, one state of consciousness and another. It feels true to the soft snow environment of the end of the Orchid & the Wasp, gently falling. Thank you for listening!


Caoilinn Hughes and Orchid & the Wasp links:

Booklist review
Irish Independent review
Irish Times review
Kirkus review
Shelf Awareness review

Irish Echo profile of the author
Tin House interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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