I’m just putting the finishing touches to my new novel Strange Air - a historical ghost story set in Upper Norwood, which will be published in the coming weeks. The novel tells the true story of the Victorian Civil Engineer Thomas Webster Rammell, who was a tireless advocate of air-powered city railways as a safer, cleaner and more reliable alternative to those – like the Metropolitan – that were propelled by steam. For reasons that will become clear, Rammell’s story is intimately interwoven with the history and fate of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, making it impossible to tell one tale without also recounting the other.
One of my remaining tasks is to touch up and double-check some of the book’s historical detail, particularly regarding the interior of the Crystal Palace as it was in its heyday. This in turn has led me back onto the internet – and into Upper Norwood library – rummaging through illustrations and photographs of the second (Sydenham) Crystal Palace.
And my goodness: what a joyful way to while away the hours / procrastinate as I contemplate a pile of editorial changes. I mean, just look at this:
Or indeed this:
Beautiful and intriguing all by themselves, the pictures are even more absorbing when you consider what the park is now – an eerie patchwork of half-forgotten schemes and dreams. Admittedly, I’m no great adventurer, but I can imagine few places where the immense contrast between past and present is so great and so tantalisingly documented; where the longing to go back in time, to see it all as it was, is so acute.
As you can tell, this latest bout of research has re-kindled in me the intense, melancholy buzz that fired me to write Strange Air in the first place. I am, in the best possible sense, ending where I began. And that’s not only satisfying, but also inspiring – so much so, that I’d quite happily go round and write the whole thing again, if only my editor thought it necessary. Alas, no such drastic overhaul is required, meaning I’ll just have to crack on and write a whole new ‘Crystal Palace’ novel instead.
In the meantime, click here to be kept up-to-date about Strange Air.
In a way, this isn’t surprising. I’ve always been prone to the odd sentimental flashback. But what confuses me is that I’m definitely more excited than worried about where we are now – at least in terms of technology, and its unravelling possibilities.
I guess the truth is that progress doesn’t really lend itself to binary emotions; it’s rarely so simple as x being sacrificed for y. It’s more dialectical than that. What may appear to have been lost often resurfaces later on, in an improved form, having been ousted by something less satisfactory in the meantime.
Take, for example, the emotional experience of hearing about and acquiring new music.
When I was growing up, hearing about a new release by a favourite artist meant a strange mix of surprise, information overload, and gratification that was neither instant nor massively delayed. With less information at my fingertips, I rarely had any advance warning, so by the time news reached me, not only did the details arrive wholesale, the thing was actually available to buy.Yes, I had to wait until I had enough money, and a way of getting to the shops, but that only filled me with the best kind of anticipation: a few days, maybe a fortnight at most, before the treasure could be obtained.
In the 2000s, some of these emotions fell by the wayside; others were distorted out of all proportion. Powered by the exploding internet, new releases were announced months in advance. Anticipation, not immediacy, became the marketers’ watchword, with promoters devising ever more atomised campaigns in which information – album name, tracklisting, artwork – was revealed with self-defeating sluggishness. As the internet evolved, the moment of musical discovery itself became frustratingly piecemeal. Teaser tracks were leaked – intentionally or otherwise – long in advance, and lead singles were sent to radio months before they were available for purchase. It became increasingly hard to ‘discover’ an album with anything like the same surprise and satisfaction I’d known as a kid.
Even now, in the 2010s, the music industry seems dazed by the internet. The flip-flopping over ‘on-air on-sale’ sits awkwardly beside bands throwing out their releases with almost excessively little fanfare. Having been dazzled by over-experimentation, many still seem unsure what emotions they want to stir in their audiences.
There are, however, notable exceptions, and my favourite is Bandcamp: a versatile online platform for artists to air and sell their music directly to fans, with an elegant emphasis on the power of an immediate digital download to bankroll a later physical release. I’ve bought several albums on this model, and each time the emotional experience has been the perfect blend of ancient and modern – a heady mix of immediacy and anticipation.
I mention it now because one of my favourite artists – the brilliant folk singer Chris Wood – has just signed up, announcing on Twitter last Thursday not only the release but the immediate availability of his new album.
The surprise was sprung. and it was the perfect Easter gift. Granted, I’d known the album was coming – unlike, say, Jim Moray’s Skulk, which I knew nothing about until the moment it was available - but I’d assumed None the Wiser was still several months away, to be announced weeks in advance. But no. The actual release came pretty much out of the blue.
What really makes Bandcamp work, however, is that these immediate emotions – surprise at the news, delight at getting to hear the whole album right away – are followed by anticipation of what’s still to come: a physical release, complete with artwork, liner notes, the whole shebang… On top of which, there’s the investment of dealing directly with the artist, and contributing to the CD that will follow.
It’s a great system, and I’m a big fan. Though not a model that will work for all artists, for whom massive marketing budgets can still be justified, I reckon Bandcamp and its ilk are here to stay. And the reason is simple: because they restore excitement to a process which, by rights, really should be exciting.
Film music has always been a pet passion. As a kid, I routinely hunted down the scores of films that had left an impression. With lengthy delays before the VHS release, and limited access to the family player, hearing the music was the most reliable way of rekindling the magic of my favourite movies. The first 7-inch single I owned was the ‘Theme from E.T.‘ (right). And I remember coveting a tape recording of a Star Wars Trilogy LP that we’d borrowed from the local library. (When that was eventually superseded by the Arista anthology of near-complete Star Wars scores… well, I’m not ashamed to say I went a bit Yub-Nub in my celebrations.)
But that was then. These days, the film score landscape is more sophisticated. In particular, companies like Film Score Monthly, Intrada, Varese Sarabande and La La Land have made an artform out of releasing previously-unavailable, expanded or remastered soundtrack albums. And it’s fair to say I’m in their debt. Why? Because I find it exceptionally useful to listen to film music when writing fiction.
No other genre quite does the job. Pop music occasionally works, but it doesn’t add to what I’m doing, and the words are a distraction. The latter also precludes opera, let alone musicals. And while instrumental classical music is good, the architecture of symphonies and sonatas is too self-contained to make them satisfactory companions as I wander through the expanses of imaginative endeavour.
Film music, however, is the perfect soulmate – particularly in the complete, underscore-and-all presentations favoured by specialist labels. It provides the ideal blend of ambience and inspiration, rarely interrupting my focus. Though narrative-driven, the emotional arcs are rarely rounded enough to interfere with the shape of whatever I’m doing. Instead, it provides the best kind of mood music, reinforcing my concentration within a broad atmospheric context.
It’s so helpful, in fact, that I frequently buy scores with no prior knowledge of either the music itself or the film for which it was written. And that lands me in a funny predicament. For once I know a score, shouldn’t I then seek out its associated film? After all, film music – however great – is only ever secondary to the pictures it supports. And since my enthusiasm for the genre was first triggered by wanting to remember the movies I’d seen as a child, surely the experience can only be enriched by watching the film itself?
Well, I’m not so sure. For the one drawback of writing to film music comes when I know the film too well. And when that happens – Alien is particularly tricky – I tend to start writing in the stylistic vernacular of the parent movie; imagining myself in its world, imitating its characters when voicing my own. And that’s too much. Yes I want emotional prompts from the music, but that level of familiarity provides too literal an inspiration.
I mention it now because I’ve just bought La La Land’s expanded edition of John Williams’ The Fury. Written in 1978 for Brian de Palma’s supernatural thriller, the score dates from the heart of Williams’ golden period – a time when he also wrote Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman and E.T.
Predictably, the music to The Fury is on a par with those others. Heavily indebted to Bernard Herrmann, it’s rich, varied and intensely atmospheric – definitely the kind of thing I’ll write well to. And yet have I seen the film? Of course not.
So once again I feel that strange obligation, and face my perennial dilemma. Should I track down a DVD of The Fury, or, in the interests of productivity, should I let it be?
The answer is simple. I’m going to let it be. The music must inspire me on its own. I’ve only listened to it a handful of times, but the score is already a valuable asset in my writing process: a prime cut of Williams, uniquely divorced from any specific cinematic associations. Absurd though it may sound, that’s too good a thing to compromise by seeing the actual film for which it was written.
It was, in a word, stupendous. And unsurprisingly so. I’m part of that peculiar subset of theatre fans left cold by the majority of musicals – classics or otherwise – but who consistently and contrarily go berserk for Sondheim.
I don’t know why it is. Actually, scratch that. I do. It’s the humanity, the wit, the dexterity, the warmth, the imagination. Above all, it’s the intoxicating sense of joy in the English language; the Shakespearean determination to master our fiendishly duplicitous lexicon; to achieve a lyrical perfection that demonstrates how, just as mathematics is tailor-made to describe the universal laws of physics, English is a heaven-sent tool for articulating human emotions. All that, of course, and the bloody amazing music.
None of which will come as a surprise to fellow Sondheimians – and all of which, no doubt, will shock and appal those who’ve never understood him.
Because this is the really weird thing about Sondheim. It’s not that he divides opinion so fiercely. It’s that the very things which his admirers proclaim as his greatest strengths are also those whose absence or, indeed, existence, are deplored by his detractors.
So while I celebrate the wit, others find Sondheim too clever for his own good. And while I find no end of empathetic warmth in his characters, others come over almost frostbitten by the clinical detachment.
I mention it because Merrily is a musical which brings these issues sharply into focus. Telling the backwards tale of an idealistic show-writing trio trying to make it big on Broadway, the show offers a meta-commentary on Sondheim’s own experiences and reputation.
It comes to the surface in the climactic number ‘Opening Doors‘, which chronicles the characters’ earliest attempts at collaboration. At one point, their producer-to-be (played originally by a young Jason Alexander, captured on film in the clip below) criticises their big song. Why? Because, in his words, ‘There’s not a tune you can hum.’
You don’t have to be a Sondheim expert to see that this is the composer getting revenge on his critics. But the real genius of Merrily’s retribution isn’t in the cheap (albeit hilarious) shots like the one above; it’s in the fact that the score is arguably the composer’s own most memorable and, indeed, ‘hummable’ achievement.
After last Friday night, I feel surer of this than ever. Not because the musical performances were exceptional (though they were), but because I found myself sitting beside a couple who sang, stamped their feet and conducted their way through every number.
It was, of course, unbelievably annoying. But it was also weirdly invigorating. For a fleeting couple of hours, Sondheim could hardly have felt more accessible or, for that matter, more commercial. It was like the whole world loved him.
Better still, it filled me with hope that one day they really might.