Some books just sing to you. Literally. Some books are filled with music and lyrics and song and sound. Oftentimes, it’s because the author has a background in the study of music. With that in mind, I asked our panelists the following question:
I’ve always been profoundly affected by music — I think most writers and artists are — but have never had any talent whatsoever as a musician or singer, much as I would have love it. Probably because of that, I’ve always accorded (in my personal life as well as my fiction) mystical or near-mystical powers to anyone with genuine musical or vocal talent. Most of my fictional musicians are loosely inspired by real people: Lie Vagal and Syd Barrett, Ted Kampfert and Bob Stinson, Nick Hayward and Richard Thompson, Tony Maroni and Joey Ramone, among many others. (I’m not sure why there are more men than women — Patti Smith is one of my great heroines.)
As far as fiction goes, I’m more influenced or inspired by the real deal than fictional characters. Rock and popular music are so full of over-the-top characters: who could make up Keith Richards?
Actually, Ed Taylor did, in his brilliant roman à clef, Theo, told from the point of view of the ten-year-old son of a Richards-inspired guitarist. Zachary Lazar also used the Rolling Stones to great effect (along with Bobby Beausoleil, underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and Marianne Faithfull) in his novel Sway. Scott Spencer (Endless Love) has a good Dylan novel, Rich Man’s Table. And the UK writer Kevin Brooks has a great novel called Naked, about a fictional 1970s English punk band.
You’ll note that none of these are SFF stories (though Sway has some eerie supernatural undertones). One of the best contemporary fantasy novels about music is Sarah McCarry’s beautiful, dark, utterly mesmerizing All our Pretty Songs, which conflates the myth of Orpheus with that of Kurt Cobain, and is told from the perspective of a rock musician’s daughter. McCarry’s more recent, equally marvelous books, Dirty Wings and the forthcoming About A Girl, explore similar territory. Francesca Lia Block (Weetzie Bat, Ecstacia) writes terrific novels that often feature contemporary musicians. There’s also George R.R. Martin’s classic rock and roll horror novel, Armageddon Rag.
And we haven’t even started on the real-life bands that use SFF elements in their music, from proto-prog grouns like Hawkwind and Yes, to myriad black metal artists, to Patti Smith’s hallucinatory UFO songs “Birdland” and “Distant Fingers.”
I am a distressingly musical person. I say “distressingly” because…well, look. I had this button when I was in high school, which I wore on the lapel of my jean jacket with the sequined patches (I was a unique kid) that said “every line a straight line, every pause a song cue.” While I have managed to grow past the first part, the second, not so much. I burst into song at the drop of a hat. Sometimes I start singing about the need to drop the hat. And because I am a filker* by nature, sometimes I’ll be singing a tune you know with words you don’t. My latest masterwork, “Do You Want To Go To Innsmouth?”, has been sung to unsuspecting victims on multiple continents.
Given that some form of song and/or music exists in virtually all human cultures, I’ve always felt that there should be some reference to song or music in most novels. In that regard, I’ve probably incorporated music and song as elements in some fashion in most of my novels. In some, such as The Towers of the Sunset, Archform:Beauty, the three Ghost books, and all five Spellsong Cycle books, music has been an integral plot and structural element. In the Spellsong Books, beginning with The Soprano Sorceress, the combination of song and instrumental music is the very basis, and the only basis, for magic, whereas in Of Tangible Ghosts and the two succeeding Ghost books, one of the two main characters is a former opera diva who is a university professor of voice. The main protagonist in Archform:Beauty is a classically trained operatic soprano and junior faculty member who moonlights as an electronic music singer for commercials. As for the “transmission” of my love of music, given that I was likely one of the worst clarinetists who ever picked up the instrument, that wouldn’t have been possible without my wife, Carol Ann, who is, unsurprisingly, an operatic lyric soprano who is now a full professor of voice and who taught me everything I didn’t know about voice and opera, which turned out to be essentially everything.
While I feel that any good depiction of music and song in context improves almost any novel, some of my favorite novels that deal with music are Louise Marley’s Mozart’s Blood, The Brahms Deception, and The Glass Butterfly. I also was partial to the harpers in Ann McCaffrey’s Pern books, and the use of music in her Crystal Singer trilogy. Interestingly enough, but not surprising, Marley is an operatic mezzo-soprano while McCaffrey described herself as a soprano with a “burr” in her voice that kept her from going as far as she would have liked in a professional singing capacity.
My debut novel Signal to Noise, takes place partially in 1980s Mexico and revolves around a trio of teenagers who discover they can cast spells using vinyl records. A lot of music is mentioned, including both English and Spanish language songs. I ended up making a short playlist to promote the book and a reader made an almost complete playlist of all the songs mentioned. I think he collected 60 songs or something like that. I hadn’t noticed that I’m that interested in music until someone pointed out that the protagonist of my short story “Them Ships” also seems to be into music. And the protagonist of what I hope will be my second published novel opens the book listening to Depeche Mode while he is in the subway. So maybe I do include music more than I think I do.
Anyway, my desire in writing something that featured sound in some way or another stems from the fact that both my parents and my grandfather worked in radio stations.
Musical and lyrical elements are not the same, so I wouldn’t correlate them (well, it’s not the same in my mind). But, anyway, Spanish and English “sound” differently, so they have a music of their own. If you read Neruda in Spanish he “sings” in a way he doesn’t in English. A basic issue of translation. I remember reading The Last Unicorn in Spanish and it had certain bits of songs which made me wonder what they sounded like in English, whether they rhymed or not, and how the meaning had changed.
I write about characters whose obsession with music shapes their self-understanding and the way they view the world. (Did the same thing with occultism in my second book, Andromeda Klein — obsession and the focus on obscurity as a an identity-sustaining distancing mechanism is broadly similar throughout subcultures.) As for the second question, I’ve written, in my head, uncountable versions of “Nowhere Nothin’ Fuckup” (from PKD’s Flow My Tears) over the years, since I first read it as a small child. And though maybe it doesn’t qualify, I’ve always been terrified that one day I’ll hear the music of Erich Zann.
The most musical of my novels are The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage, which make up the Songs of Earth and Power duet. The strong impact of composers such as Mahler and Janacek, and the equally strong love I have for film scores–for Steiner and Korngold and Herrmann and Goldsmith and so many others–merged in this urban fantasy set in part in Los Angeles. Poetry also played a major part, leading me to make an attempt to add some verses to Coleridge’s “Xanadu’–and hint at what the “plot” might have been. As for my science fiction, one of my earliest stories, “The Venging,” starts with a ballroom of dancers swirling to the feverish strains of Ravel’s La Valse. I still love music of all sorts, and spend many relaxing evenings listening to music in all media, but most especially records. I have nearly my entire collection of records I began gathering when I was a teenager!
All through college (lo these many years ago) I strummed a guitar and sang folk ballads; my dream was to become another Joan Baez, only not quite so shrill. But I didn’t know how, and the folk music revival tanked, and life happened, and I started writing fantasy that partially spiraled out of the Old English ballads I had memorized, fantasy in which I tried to make the words echo down eons of time, and resonate with symbolism, and sing in the reader’s ear. In the first novel I wrote, eventually published as The Silver Sun, the hero is a musician, a magical minstrel, although also much more. The mythos and syntax I learned from medieval ballads informed The White Hart as well, especially the poetry. Heck, the influence of the ballads got into all of the Books of Isle.
I left the traditional ballad behind somewhat as I moved on to other imaginary worlds and as my life moved on, but I never left music behind. If I wasn’t playing guitar, I was playing violin, loving Bach or attempting bluegrass fiddle. And pretty soon I was smitten with a new symbolism, that of music videos. I adored Queen, Madonna (until she made a total ass of herself), Springsteen’s lyrics and passion if not his voice, Dire Straits and Journey and “hair bands’ such as Bon Jovi. That early-MTV mythos burst out in my children’s fantasy The Friendship Song, and in Metal Angel, a breakthrough book for me. This urban fantasy is about a malcontent angel who incarnates himself and uses his heavenly musical gifts to play a really mean axe. Singing like the supernatural being he is, he becomes a mega-big rock star, but he learns more about the dark side of music and mortality than he ever wanted to know. Hard rock rhythms drive this novel and shape its plot and its poems, its song lyrics.
Regarding other people’s fantasy ensouled by music, predictably (I’m well on my way to becoming a codger) my memory shoots straight back to masterpieces I read as a child. The Wind In The Willows would be just another animal story to me if it were not for Mole and Ratty’s encounter with the piper at the gates of dawn, the great god Pan. And Pan also pipes his wild woodwinds in The Crock Of Gold by James Stephens, ineluctably Irish, erudite, and not meant for kids, yet there it is mystifying me in my childhood.
This is a wonderful topic, writing and music; I’ve always felt as if those two were the flip sides of the same metaphorical golden coin. In everything I’ve written, fantasy or not, I’ve always tried for musical prose.
As a person I adore music in all forms. It is inspiring and has the ability to connect you to a time and place on a deeper level. As a reader musical elements within a story can have the same ability to create a connection. When I first read the question there was one story in particular that instantly came to mind, Rose Lemberg’s “A City on Its Tentacles” published in Lackington’s #1 in 2014. It is a powerful and magical story about the lengths a mother will go to to save her daughter. Lemberg weaves the imagery and notes of a cello throughout her story. There is a connection built between the reader and both the siren’s song of the sea and the deep longing a solo cello can produce. The musical elements within this story are not a main plot point but they are a vital piece of the puzzle in its telling.
Most obviously, in my fantasy series The Vault of Heaven, I have an entire magic system based on music. And it’s not all pretty and delicate. I built it on top of something I call: governing dynamics. It made sense to me that magic in a second-world fantasy would be built on principles, like mechanical law. In my world, I call it: Resonance. In fact, it’s rather akin to quantum entanglement.
In any case, in addition to the raw beauty of music magic that can be used to fight, defend, and destroy, I take readers through the “how” of the magic. This happens primarily in book two, Trial of Intentions. And while there are, in fact, moments of song rendered soft and subtle and sweet (and mournful), just as often it’s loud, staccato, rough and violent. This may well have to do with the fact that as a musician, I love everything from jazz to Broadway to classical to metal. I care as much about the rhythm of music as I do the melody.
And because I love language, lyrics matter to me, too. But in my series I talk about what I call: Intention. There are schools of thought that describe the innate meaning of a sound, separate from its connotation. This idea approaches my idea of “intention.” What you mean when you sing a thing matters in my world. And people don’t always have good intentions, do they? Or at least, not the intentions you’d like them to have.
At the center of the music magic system is a song I call Suffering. This isn’t retiring lament. It’s more controlled screaming. Imagine David Draiman or Morgan Rose and you start to get the picture. And Suffering lies at the heart of much of the series. Entire cultures are divided and controlled by it. Suffering, and other songs of power, can alter the nature of things. Resonate with them.
Perhaps even more obviously — concerning music in my writing — is music as an art and storytelling device in the fabric of culture in my series. There are conservatories, performance taverns, traveling troupes, etc. It’s a thing. People dedicate their lives to it. Some to help. Others . . . less so.
I think beyond the content, though, music has made its way into how I think about the flow of language. How I feel the language. That sounds rather namby-pamby. But the musical quality of language is something I care about. And I’ve had readers tell me they hear it in my fiction. That’s maybe the most gratifying I hear from readers. And to be honest, it’s mostly subconscious on my part. Perhaps spending so much time writing and performing music, it just gets in you.
As a reader, the writer whose prose I think has the most musical quality is Ray Bradbury. Absolute master of lyricism. Beautiful prose. Gene Wolf is also top drawer. Readers should gobble up everything they write.
I had to smile when I saw this question. My book is about poets who set their words to music—a cross between the Celtic poets and medieval troubadours. In Last Song Before Night, the art of poets is a source of enchantments — one which can be used for a multitude of purposes, good and bad.
As a reader, I think the fantasies that mesh lyrics with the narrative give us the richest possible experience: they convey a dimension to the world that no amount of narrative or description can provide in the same way. The most obvious example is Tolkien, for who can ever forget some of those lines, once having read them? As a kid I think I memorized “All that is gold does not glitter” without even trying, as the rhythm gets into your bones. Those rhythms become an essential part of the experience of Middle Earth.
Beyond enriching the world, there are emotional dimensions prose can’t reach as effectively as a song. Sometimes a character epiphany, or state of mind, is sharper when channeled in lyric form. The only drawback is that as readers, we are missing the music; to the lyrics in books that I’ve loved, I sometimes supply my own.
My stories and I have a symbiotic relationship with music. I write to the beat of several different drummers playing congas, bodhrans, jimbes, doumbeks, and snare drums, as well as guitars, banjos, fiddles, hurdy-gurdies, dulcimers, keyboards and unaccompanied human voices. All of my books actually have soundtracks and theme songs, even if I’m the only one who hears them or knows what they are.
The inspiration for Song of Sorcery came directly from several story-songs from The Child Ballads. With simple, often recycled tunes and sometimes interchangeable verses, these songs spark my imagination. Although often quite long, traditional ballads gain much of their dramatic impact by compressing accounts of dark deeds that may or may not have happened and are vastly subject to interpretation. Imagine, if you will, The Ballad of the Blade Runner or The Saga of O.J. Simpson. Boil down all of those news stories, and the rumors and speculation surrounding the events into few (sometimes less than 40!) pithy verses and, optimally, a rousing chorus, and you have a comparable ballad.
The compression means that there is information the ballad may imply but doesn’t actually say, and makes me listen between the lines. My imagination supplies what is unstated in the song. It makes a great “what if” springboard for a plot.
The central ballad for Song of Sorcery was the late Merle Watson’s version of Gypsy Davey. The more popular version is about a high-born lady running away from her life and her father’s castle to take up with a whistling gypsy gent. It’s very cheery. Merle Watson’s version is a little darker and in it, the lady is married and has a baby she abandons to run away with Davy, who was, as the prince in “Into the Woods” says, “raised to be charming not sincere.” He dumps her when he grows bored or she becomes inconvenient. The listener is left to contemplate her fate. I didn’t like that ending at all. So, borrowing from a couple of other songs, I plotted her rescue while providing proof that of course she was literally spellbound, and the romantic walkabout was not her fault.
Additional songs (The Brown Girl, Sweet William and Fair Ellender) suggest more plot points and characters, including a hearthwitch sister and a clumsy minstrel with his own sort of magic.
In the just-completed fifth book in the same series, The Dragon, the Witch, and the Railroad, songs sung to the tunes of familiar train songs provide condensed, ballad-romanticized narratives of some events, and also moved the plot forward.
My short story, “Scarborough Fair,” was originally written for an anthology (Space Opera) Anne McCaffrey and I edited of science fiction and fantasy stories centered around music. My story was a direct interpretation of the ancient magical song that these days carries the same name, and I re-used it in my short story collection of the same name.
Most of the time, individual songs don’t provide such literal translation into prose. More often, the music (instrumental or vocal) stimulates my imagination to visualize the place, culture, mood or pace of a story. It also invokes memories. While writing The Healer’s War, I listened to the rock’n’roll songs popular when I was in Vietnam during the war. “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” and “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” were particular favorites. Hearing the music brought flashbacks of that time in my life.
As a reader, I’ve always been entranced by books and stories that echoed the music I love.
Anne McCaffrey drew heavily on her own opera-singing and musical theatre training for material for of many of her stories and books. My favorite among them is The Ship Who Sang. Helva, the brain-ship, best expresses the humanity hidden within her hull when she sings.
I also adored Ellen Kushner’s novel, Thomas the Rhymer, in which she interpreted the ballad, telling the rest of the story.
Jane Yolen is another wonderful writer who has used folklore, folk songs, and myth in her work. Her prose sings without the accompaniment of instruments.
Peter Beagle makes frequent use of music in his books and stories, notably in The Last Unicorn and more recently The Innkeeper’s Song. For our Space Opera anthology, he wrote the most wonderful story from the viewpoint of a medieval “roadie” to a harpist minstrel, “The Last Song of Sirit Byar.” (Beagle has since reprinted the story in his own collection, Giant’s Bones).
Further back, Rudyard Kipling and Sir Walter Scott especially valued songs and included them in their work.
Many writers, certainly fantasy and science fiction writers, are indebted to the bards and minstrels who kept significant experiences vivid in peoples’ minds before the written word was accessible to the masses. (It’s easier to remember something if it’s in a rhyme and easier still if it’s set to a tune) I listen to music to inspire my words just as many musicians listen to stories to inspire their songs and melodies.