Posts Tagged music

Peter Shaffer, my earliest muse – how we create the infinite

I’m not good at nominating favourites. I find the question too complicated to answer so absolutely. For instance, a favourite book? Favourite in what subset of a subset? It’s like comparing apples to aardvarks. But I do have a few authors I’m wholeheartedly absolute about, and one of them is Peter Shaffer, whose death was announced today. I thought I’d dig out this piece as a tribute.

equusFirst published at For Books’ Sake, October 2011

We create the infinite: my favourite 3 fictional characters when I was 16

Francisco Pizarro. Dr Martin Dysart. Antonio Salieri.

This trio of unhappy protagonists crossed my desk many years ago in English class. An illiterate Spanish general. A burnt-out psychiatrist. A composer in the Habsburg court. Two are historical, but I met them in fictional form in three dramas by Peter Shaffer – The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus and Amadeus. Disillusioned antiheroes kicking themselves for bad lives, and confronted by startlingly peculiar chances for redemption; perfect for darkly brooding A-level students.

General Francisco Pizarro, leader of the Conquistadors, is on a mission to capture the city of the Incas for the glory of Spain and the Catholic Church. He’s an unusual choice as commander, being the illegitimate son of a pigherd – and illiterate to boot. His whole life has been driven by a need to prove himself, and to his men he’s a hero. But Pizarro sees nothing worthwhile in himself. He’s disgusted by the blood he’s shed and the Catholic faith he has killed for.

His mission to find the Inca city of gold is a work of spite, proof that a pigman can win fame and riches before he dies – but even that will be scant comfort for the fear that needles his soul. But as well as gold, he finds Atahuallpa, god-king of the Incas.

Royal Hunt of the SunPizarro is drawn to the dignified, aloof creature. Atahuallpa has absolute belief in his nature as a god, putting to shame the Catholic priests who are hypocritical, brutal and self-serving. The Inca king is almost Pizarro’s twin in circumstance. He was illegitimate and killed his own brother in order to take the kingdom. Self-made and brave, he is, in short, Pizarro himself – but complete.

Pizarro’s men sentence Atahuallpa to death. Pizarro fights to keep him alive, but Atahuallpa senses what his friend needs and promises to rise again if he is executed. With little other choice, Pizarro allows him to be strangled. When the sun rises we watch in fervent hope that it will revive him, but Atahuallpa remains still. The world shrinks back to flesh, blood and murder. A lifetime’s mistakes, gravitationally condensed as tight as a neutron star. We have seen something strange, transforming and ungraspable.

At the age of 16, I’d gobbled a lot of powerful stories but this was the first that descended on a bolt of lightning. Possibly it was because my school was obsessively religious. We were crammed to pass divinity O level, and made to sit it again if we failed. I got the grade as an academic duty but was disappointed with the subject and its blind spots – including the exclusion of all religions beyond Christianity. Then along came this play, where a man who needs a god meets a man who might be one. It turns out they’re nothing but men, but nevertheless we feel the power of the infinite.

At that moment I realised I too had an unshakeable belief – in human beings, what we create and how we scare and heal each other.

And most specially in the artists and writers who could give us such experiences.

Equus followed the same pattern as The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Dr Martin Dysart is another jaded, repressed soul confronted by a passionate, otherwordly innocent. His patient, Alan Strang, has blinded a stable of horses, driven by a profound, primitive worship he has fashioned for himself after a terrifying encounter with a magnificent steed. Dysart’s mission to treat Alan’s delusions and normalise him is how he has sterilised his whole life.

amadeus-flierAnd Antonio Salieri in Amadeus has dedicated himself to composing music. Along comes Mozart – uncouth, rude and effortlessly gifted – and much better at being alive. True to Shaffer form, Salieri destroys him.

Writing this post, I realise how many of those synapses are still smoking. My first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, is about the phenomenon of past-life regression, where you touch into the life you lived before. The romantic in me wants reincarnation to be true, but the scientific half can see reasons why it isn’t. The story is set in the world of classical music, where players seem to be channelling the spirit of the composer. Also, if there was ever any evidence for man being touched by the transcendental infinite, music must be it. I wrote that whole book without realising that Mr Shaffer was secretly at the controls.

Invented gods. Past lives. Future lives. Whatever the explanations, these are wondrous creations, and so is what we do with them. ‘Account for me,’ says Equus’s Dr Dysart, confronting what he’s seen. In my own accounting, I owe a great debt to Mr Shaffer.

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‘The atmosphere to express the inexpressible’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rebecca Mascull

for logoIf you’re friends with me on Facebook you’ve probably seen the post where I remarked how every guest on this series seems to end up writing the following phrase in their emails to me: ‘reliving the heady drafting times’. That’s what this series is all about; the joy of discovery, the celebration that we can create a story out of impressions, hopes and dreams. My guest this week is no exception. She describes her two novels and how they were shaped by songs that challenged and changed her intentions for the stories. These songs suggested new time periods, characters and locations, and key story events. But most of all, she says that music makes her reach and search; hence the heading of this week’s post. She is Rebecca Mascull and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Unending feelings of loss and loneliness’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Chrissie Parker

for logoMy guest this week has a historical novel with two timelines, each of them full of loss and turmoil. Music by Portishead, Jem and The Moxy defined the characters and their dilemmas, hurling her into their lives and channeling their emotions as she wrote. Modern Greek music by Elena Paprizou and Glykeria inspired the setting – the island of Zakynthos. She also writes short stories and poems and performed at the 100 poems by 100 women event at the Bath International Literary Festival 2013. She is Chrissie Parker and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Music was solace, understanding and escape’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jake Kerr

for logoMy guest this week describes a journey – of looking for a life path, of circling around it many times until he found where he was meant to fit. He says he thought he wanted to be a DJ because he loved music, and indeed became a music industry journalist. Then one day he started writing stories – and realised this was how he wanted to use the experiences that music gave him. It was clearly a good move as he has been nominated for the Nebula, the Theodore Sturgeon and StorySouth Million Writers awards. He studied fiction under Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria and is now contributing to Hugh Howey and John Joseph Adams’s Apocalypse Triptych. He is Jake Kerr and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Music: a space to make sense of life’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Sarah Yaw

for logoMy first guest this year says that when she was very young, she spent a lot of time in theatres, watching her dad rehearse with bands. She would fall asleep to the sound as he played bass for the likes of Don Cherry, Lou Reed and his own band, The Everyman Band. Later she became consumed by music herself, pouring her soul into the playing of the clarinet. Tendinitis cut her music career short and a teacher suggested she write, encouraging her to write in the voice of one of the authors they’d been reading that term. ‘Voice’ – it was that word that started it. She realised that writing was musical, a sequence of rhythm, tension and release – and so her first novel took shape (and went on to win the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize). She is Sarah Yaw and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Summoning Christmas in July’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jan Ruth

for logoThis week we have a seasonal Undercover Soundtrack – and one that examines the imaginative lengths a writer has to go to. When you hunker down to read a Noelish tale on a snuggly sofa with snow at the windows and a fire crackling in the grate, spare a thought for the writer, who was probably in flip-flops and T-shirt, shutting the curtains against the sun blazing on her laptop screen. Such was the lot of this week’s guest, who began writing her Christmas collection of off-beat romance stories in July. She says she relied heavily on music to create the mood – and risked husbandly disapproval (though he didn’t mind the unseasonable baked goods that were also necessary). So are we about to drag you through the infuriating radio canon of Slade, Mariah and Bing? No, let me reassure you this Soundtrack is a dignified collection, with Katherine Jenkins and Sarah Brightman. Mostly. Drop by the Red Blog to meet Jan Ruth and her Undercover Soundtrack for summoning Christmas in July.

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‘Harmony from fragments’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

for logoMy guest this week had a real struggle to get her novel into shape. She was used to seeking inspiration from music, but found that nothing she listened to was helping. In her head was a jumble of characters and voices, all clamouring but making no sense. Then she happened upon a video of her own daughter-in-law, singing an a capella composition of her own that layered and alternated lines from random blogs. This quirky piece gave her the courage to put her characters together – and see where the harmonies came. She is Rochelle Jewel Shapiro and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘We become readers in our listening’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, EJ Runyon

for logoMy guest this week wrote her book from a soundtrack of nostalgia – she describes it as a mix of Spanish-language songs and an American flavour of yearning. She used music and lyrics as signposts and milestones, to transport her into the mind of a child, to show the passing of time and the key moments of her young life. At one point, the character learns the violin and the author searched the internet until she had tracked down actual lesson books that would have been used by a child of that period. She is writing coach EJ Runyon, and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Hidden forms that tell a story’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Stephen Weinstock

for logoYou can’t read much about writing advice before you trip over an essay about story structure, and how it works invisible magic on the reader. My guest this week has used sophisticated musical structures as the skeleton of his fantasy series, a series of nested reincarnation tales inspired by The Thousand and One Nights – and his influences range from Alban Berg to Frank Zappa. For him, music does not so much conjure up a scene or a character as an entire shape, of how an idea moves into a story and where it eventually goes. He is uniquely qualified to do so, as he is a composer, pianist and dance accompanist for musical theatre with the dance faculties of UC Berkeley, Princeton, Juilliard, and the ‘Fame’ school (though he has not yet said if he is reincarnated). Stephen Weinstock is on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

SHORT BREAK I’ll be taking a short break from blogging but will be back with a post on 30 November.

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‘Spurred by the song’s rhythm, my typing fingers flew’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Dianne Greenlay

for logoMy guest this week has a taste for the adventurous. Her novel is set in the pirate-infested waters of the West Indies in 1717, and her characters are unwittingly pulled into a hazardous sea journey. The music that sustained this imaginative voyage is epic and foreboding, but not without its lighter elements. My guest discovered in her research that sailors used dance to ward off boredom on the interminable days at sea, so she wrote a scene to the soundtrack of a reel. But it became more than dance; when the characters shrugged off their tensions they began to behave in unexpected and delightful ways. In case you’re imagining it’s all lace, beards and cutlasses, though, there’s a distinctly modern note at the end: Moby makes an appearance (no, not the whale). The author is Dianne Greenlay (one of my co-conspirators at the League of Extraordinary Authors) and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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