Writer’s Music: Bruno Coulais

51DgTPES9yL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I recently finished Katy Towell’s Charlie and the Grandmothers, a spooky story about a boy and his sister sent to visit a grandmother they never knew they had. It’s a tale of children forced to become heroes in the face of losing family to an evil no grown-up ever seems to notice.

Not exactly an original plot line, but for the record, it was the perfect touch of creepy while driving to visit Bo’s grandmother.

 

The story actually put me in the mood for the soundtrack to Coralinea lusciously eerie stop-motion animated film based on Neil Gaiman’s award-winning book. Scored by French composer Bruno Coulais, the music embodies innocence, adventure, malice, terror–all of which comes together to create what I’d like to call “dangerous whimsy.”

The opening music is brilliant for this. I could certainly say the visuals add to the eerie factor, but let’s just focus on the music for now.

Strings play a major role throughout Coulais’ score. They are often light, be it the pluck of the harp strings are the airy-melodies of the violins. There’s an assured delicacy to their movements, like spiders upon their webs. Brass is rarely applied.  Children sing harmonies in major and minor keys using French gibberish, which has got to be one of the most gibbery gibberishes there can be.

Two particular stars shine more in this music than anything else, I think: the harp, and…and that sound…darnit, I wish I knew what it is! It’s like the sound of one’s wet finger moving round and round a glass’ rim: a note, but not quite.

The harp follow Coraline as she explores her new home, moving as her child feet through all the boring rooms of the house and eventually discovering the little door behind the wallpaper.

Coulais made a brilliant choice in keeping the harp and singer separate from the rest of the orchestra: the audience is seeing just how alone Coraline is as she struggles to find what could make this new home worthwhile. There’s also the loving touch of whimsy here as she explores the house, what with the harp’s off-beat touches and major-key melody.

But then we are taken through the door, and we meet the Other-Mother.

Here Coulais uses chimes, piano, and of course, those children singers. This time, though, their key is minor, turning all the harmonies into something…off-putting. That sound of the fingertip on glass hums ever in the background, making the music itself feel just slightly unreal. A xylophone and finger-cymbals keep the feel of the music light and playful, but all the harmonies are now in a minor key. The playfulness is gone, replaced with a sense of wonder, but wonder that one wants to step away from instead of toward.

Such is the joy of dangerous whimsy. Of course whimsy is a bit of the fantastic, a bit of fun. A bit of youth, and a bit of innocence. Dangerous whimsy is the whimsy that hunts the youth and innocence, luring with the fantastic and the fun to…well. The Pied Piper of Hamlin lured children into a mountain. Grandmothers lured Charlie into imagination mines. The Other Mother lured Coraline into her web of wonders to take her eyes. And because this is all whimsy, adults are either blind to it or duped into compliance with it.

Our stories’ heroes deserve a world of wonders in which to both thrive as well as struggle. Whether your hero’s 38, 18, or 8, the villain–or even the setting–must engage the hero. Distract the hero, entice the hero, scare the pants off the hero. Whatever you do, the hero can’t know for sure what’s going on until she’s in too deep to stop. Give your hero a show of whimsical wonders, and she’ll never know the malice that creeps beneath.

Can’t open the music files? Special thanks to @ZoolonHub for finding a link to the soundtrack that will open outside the US.

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Writer’s Music: Ramin Djawadi II

While I often use music to enter my hero’s head or work out a new voice, music also has its uses for entering the dark side, too.

In writing my Shield Maiden stories, Gwen had a mix of antagonists: parents, fellow recruits, captain, and herself, too, but this was all due to her own ego and narrow-mindedness. Only the giant snake created by the Cat Man was a bona fide bad guy with a goal: poison everyone.

With the snake dead, though, I realized Beauty’s Price couldn’t follow the same formula. Wynne really is up against her family, who sees a marriage to the obscenely wealthy Prydwen as a win for everyone. No one seems to mind that Prydwen has more wealth than any law-abiding trader should have, hasn’t aged in over ten years, and insists on marrying all five sisters or else. Wynne’s family sees money and status, and therefore success.

Wynne, who already loves someone, sees no joy at all.

But I didn’t want this conflict to be like another Beauty and the Beast, where Gastan just looks great and wants Wynne and Co. simply because they’re pretty, too. There has to be a reason.

I needed to see what Prydwen sees when he looks at Wynne. That begins with getting him out into the open , to see him interact with Wynne.

His movements would be slow, smooth, calculating. One who moves about in plain sight with ease, whose true gifts are only discovered when it’s too late.

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The music needed to stay fantastic and period, so I dug through the scores of Legend, Chronicles of Narnia, Cadfael–no luck. Nothing, not even the White Witch’s music, had that right touch of creeping, subtle menace. All I could hope was in a big enough mix of albums I’d stumble upon the right theme.

And wouldn’t you know it: on the last day of the boys’ school, I found it.

The rhythm slithers on the ground. The melody distracts, draws attention away from the percussion so we think nothing when it fades only to return, stronger, faster, surrounding us, defeating us.

One heartbeat later, and the horse jingled into view at full gallop. The rider pulled hard upon the belled reins, stopping it at the garden’s edge. Beast and master shone with golden hounds embroidered upon crimson cloak and covers. Rings of red and orange gems glittered round every gloved finger. Such wealth displayed with such ease and without a single guard felt wrong, very wrong.

I could feel his gaze upon us, unrelenting as the sun in the heat of summer. If not for the horse’s content chewing, I would have screamed but to break the silence. “Pray forgive me, but I feel as if I should know you both.” He clicked his tongue, and the horse closed the distance between us. I could see every thread of his hounds, down to the points of their teeth. He had approached me, so there was no choice: I had to look up at his clean, polished face. “Perhaps my business has brought me to this town in the past. My memories are not always my own.” His smile revealed teeth white enough to be pearls.

No lord looked so perfect, not in body or status.  …. “You, more than the boy, are far more familiar. I am now certain I have met you before.”

No, you are wrong! I wanted cry out, to leap into the Gasirad and beg sanctuary, but my mind, curse it, thought otherwise. “Perhaps you think of my sisters? They meet many who do business with my father, Master Adwr of Hafren.” Surely he was thinking of them. Let him deal with their Sly Accidents before his horse, forcing him to carry them in all weak and wounded and be compelled to attend them. Let them coo and paw upon his chiseled jaw and ringed fingers. He can have their choice of them, for all I cared.

“Sisters?” He swallowed the word down. My own stomach burned. “How many?” The question came hard and fast. No smile, however warm and easy, covered the odd strike that came with such a question.

Yeah, why did Prydwen care about there being five sisters?

Jean LeeWhen I  initially brainstormed Beauty’s Price, I liked the idea of five sisters because it mirrored the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice. But when I met Prydwen, I could see he had a thing for five: five identical jewels on each hand. He later comes with five guards. He jumps at the knowledge of five sisters. There’s something about the number of a thing that suddenly makes that thing matter. Considering his wealth, that need is related to power: the number 5 is powerful to him somehow. The more collections of 5 he gathers, the stronger he gets…

…and I could see a moment where a collection is broken, and the rage that rises. He cannot afford to lose a set, any set. I could see a moment in the story, far and away, where Wynne steals a horse to escape. I can see him standing upon the hillside, watching as she gallops off in the rain, pounding rain, yet he can spot his crest upon the horse. His horse. The wretched girls who have clearly influenced her against him, terrible friends, and only three of them, not a good number, they made her take his horse and they’ll never give it back. He can see them stop on the other side of the valley. They can see him as he moves to another steed of the collection…and stabs it through the throat. One after another, until the remaining horses are dead.

Never. Ruin. A set.

Prydwen’s nature and motivations fascinate me. I’m determined to pull them out of hiding, but his inner self is like Gollum, a silent master of caves, impossible to find on purpose. Djawadi’s score tripped me into the right tunnel. Now we sit, he and I, with our riddles in the dark, watching the other, waiting for the words that betray a weakness. I will not let my villain beat me at this game.

Neither should yours.

 

 

Writer’s Music: Ramin Djawadi

Soundtrack_Season_1Bo and Blondie return as I finish up the dishes. Both have sticks and bits of pink frosting about their faces. Pink frosting + sticks = cake pops.

The boys catch this in .000025 seconds. “ICE CREAM ICE CREAM!” Bash shrieks. (Hush, certain terms are not worth arguing.) “One for me? Have it? One for me?” Biff hops in place as Bo pulls two slightly mashed cake pops out of one paper bag. Blondie hands me another bag–awfully hard for a cake pop…

Music? Music I get to own?

“I got you season 1 because it had Sean Bean on the cover,” Bo says as the boys scale his lap while holding their cake pops like trophies into the air.

“Daddy said it’s for your writing.” Blondie hugs me, and whispers: “I’m going to play legos now. Don’t tell the boys.” Walk walk door-slam lock-click.

Honestly, 6 going on 16…

Anyway.

I ripped off the plastic and stuck it in. The quest for Gwen’s theme has not been easy; much of my music library was already committed to other stories, a lament I must have shared so often that Bo felt the need to surprise me with this. I don’t watch television or movies, so I have no idea what’s currently “good.” I needed something old, of period. It couldn’t just be fifes and mandolins, but some orchestrations get ridiculously bombastic or phony-sounding. It had to have a light sense–Gwen’s only a New Adult, after all–yet there needed to be…something gutteral about it. A swift movement. Dominating. Not to be intimidated.

I played the first track: Game of Thrones’ main theme.

YES! The cello was the perfect representation of one not to be daunted, one whose movement was echoed by the world, not vice versa. The drums pound like horses, like rain–yes, all this, want, me, yes, now.

BUT. Hmmm.

No, this couldn’t be it, not by itself.

Gwen isn’t ALWAYS like this. She thinks herself strong and powerful, but that’s just her pride talking. She feels that the only thing she’s got claim to in life is the blood feud of her mother’s family. She’s a middler with no love for her family or home. She has to rise up in memory of her mother’s memory. She has to claim blood by her own hands.

She has to be a killer. And what kid can will themselves ready for this?

Gwen has to face her pride and all the fears meddled with it. That’s a tremulous time. No drums there, no bad-ass cello. Something softer, more thoughtful…

Dammit, but I really like the theme!

So I continued through the seasons, noting which tracks fit my corner of Droma and/or my Shield Maidens. One of the great blessings of being a hermit is that I’ve never watched a frame of Game of Thrones, and therefore had no scenes/characters from the show to butt their way into my imagination as I listened.

After hours of exploring, I found young Gwen’s theme in season 3’s “For the Realm”:

Such a gentle guitar, yet through its echo of the main theme, I could still sense the old strength there. I set this guitar before the main theme, and felt Gwen’s character grow as the music changed. Perhaps you’ll feel the transformation, too, when you listen. All I know is that I’ve finally found Gwen’s theme. Her uncertainties, boastfulness, strength, and valor all come together for me here. About time.

Click here for more on Ramin Djawadi.

Click here for more on Gwen and Middler’s Pride. 

Writer’s Music: John Powell

71urxg-0jl-_sx355_I wanted to label this post “John Powell III,” since technically I’ve shared his music twice in the past, but those posts were during National Novel Writing Month. Care to hear them? Both selections are brilliant. The first, from his Academy Award nominated score How to Train Your Dragon, is just…wow. It’s beautiful, lifting, hopeful, and the swell cuts off at just the right moment. The second is from the same album I’m about to talk about, The Bourne Supremacy. It’s a fantastic bit of action, with all the ups and downs a fight and chase scene require.

Both tracks as well as “Berlin Foot Chase” should help you see why John Powell is one of my favorite composers. His music has such a brilliant narrative feel that never draws from the visual story, but strengthens it from start to finish. For all the action and tension in the Bourne movies, it’s Powell’s keen sense of when to reign in the strings and percussion and when to really give’em that makes viewers clutch the armrests and hold their breath.

Powell is also one of the few composers that’s helped me work through multiple WIPs.

I like having a score to my story. I rarely get a story from my daily life; instead, a scene comes to me during a song, and the scene is so. damn. vivid. I can’t let go of it. I’ll listen to that song, again and again, see the scene replay before my mind’s eye, and…pause it, I suppose I’d call it. I’ll study one character in his motions, then another. The place where the scene is. And then I seek other songs that pull new elements of the characters out, bring the other settings to life. Rather like making a patchwork quilt, you could say. Only the right combinations of colors and patterns will do. And when it comes to my WIPs, certain bands or composers have already been stitched into place. I can’t use them again, for they FIT precisely where they are.

That’s partly what makes this Middle Grade fantasy story so bloody maddening–I mean, incredibly challenging. I was given the character first from Michael Dellert, then the place. While I was able to imagine a plot line, one that I hope is, um, decent, I couldn’t FEEL anything.

Music helps me feel outside myself. Without music, I struggle to place myself next to Gwen. The #13WeekNovel freewrites have helped me talk to her a little, but I’m still not SEEING from her point of view. Even Powell, whose music has been of use to me in three different WIPs just doesn’t fit in Gwen or Droma, blast it.

So, as I embark on this quest for Gwen’s song, please enjoy one of my favorite bits of Powell. Yes, this is the end of the post, and in less than 1000 words! MIRACLE!

Click here for more on John Powell.

Click here for more on The Bourne Supremacy.

Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna V

The Good Dinosaur Soundtrack Cover.jpgI never thought I would include a Disney score, especially when they have such a choke hold on their music files (shakes fist at The Nearly Omniscient Mouse). This is why you don’t see a complete song at the bottom of this post. (Update: Special thanks to fellow writer Michael Dellert for helping me find a YouTube video of the music!) But how can I not write about Mychael Danna, especially when he outdoes himself yet again?

Having lived my life in the woods and farmlands of the Midwest, I couldn’t help but adore Danna’s The Good Dinosaur. The story itself is an old one: think of a family out west working the homestead. The boy is thrust from his home by the elements, and must now cross the wilderness to return home. Now substitute the boy for a dinosaur. Ta da–movie!

Opinions on the film run a pretty wide gamut, so I’m just going to leave them be. What I love is the western flavor Danna uses in this score. It’s sweet, almost bittersweet, in the strings. The occasional fiddle tune comes along, some banjo, some woodwinds and piano. The brass swells, lone and strong. His mix of percussion at tense moments reminds us a child is the hero, that he must be so despite the terrors of the sky.

Yet of all the orchestral elements, I still find the strings to be the true stars in this score. Violins are such a unique instrument in their ability to relate whimsy or sorrow at the turn of an eight note, which I think is one of the reasons Danna uses them so much here. They bring a reader to tears when the protagonist mourns his father, to laughs when he’s running away from dino-chickens. There’s a majesty to the strings I have not heard in a long time: a melody so simple, yet elegant, like leaves rustling in the sunshine.

Poetry without words.

Click here for more on THE GOOD DINOSAUR.

(Fortunately, the Amazon page for the score has sample tracks, so you can listen to the work.)

Click here for more on Mychael Danna.

Writer’s Music: Eleni Karaindrou

54efd546af91d980f5f2c53c61e47d1d3977f305I’d like to think that Eleni Karaindrou’s Ulysses’ Gaze appeared in my albums of its own volition. A find during my graduate school years, when I struggled with my instincts over what my professors declared to be good writing. Literary fiction sprang from dark, terrible real-life things. No one likes to read happy endings, and for Christ’s sake, don’t write for kids. And, of course, the unspoken rules, the loudest of them being genre stories were a waste of time. So I was left trying to understand what “proper” story could be told in my voice, its confidence shattered.

The voices in Ulysses’ Gaze contend over the same melody throughout the album. The melody remains the same; it is the sound of that melody, so altered by the simple shift from viola to other instruments, that creates new emotion, be it longing, uncertainty, or malice. As the oboe, French horn, and others speak the melody to each other, I cannot help but imagine the four Pevensie children first entering Narnia together, unsure as to what they stumbled upon or what to do, the French horn voice of Aslan calling from afar.

The music encourages footsteps into the unknown, even if your characters cannot agree on how to go about it. It struck me that such a scene could help reveal important traits in my protagonists, who escape the plans of their scheming parents by fleeing into enemy territory. Once surrounded by stars and silence, they quietly argue over their plan, back and forth like Karaindrou’s variations of “Ulysses’ theme.” Their freedom is precious and sad. Yet hope is out there, echoing their words in the wilderness.

Perhaps your characters need some time in a quiet wood to debate their future. Give them Karaindrou, and watch your story step into the unknown.

Click here for more information on Eleni Karaindrou’s ULYSSES’ GAZE.

Writer’s Music: Hans Zimmer

sherlock-holmes-original-soundtrack-cd2-coverIf you’ve noted my “Wisconsin Stills” page, you know that my love for Holmes and his London goes back into childhood. Little did I know Hans Zimmer had also settled into a corner of my music-world at that time through his involvement with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and Muppet Treasure Island. Now his Sherlock Holmes score is integral in my writing for children.

When it comes to writing about trolls, I wanted to relay a sense of their industriousness and superior attitude. They are particularly proud of their city hidden away from the rest of the world, but a hidden city is no fun to live in when you are a child. My narrator is the pet human for a girl troll who insists on finding adventure in the least likely places. That is, I wanted the character to insist on adventures, but I had no clue how to get the girls into trouble. Originally I played the first half of the track “My Mind Rebels at Stagnation” over and over as I described the girls’ walk to their mutual schools. What better way to sneak in descriptions of the bustling city and the trolls’ day to day life? How…normal.

I felt like the boy in To Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street. Should the girls imagine an adventure? How would the readers know what is fact in this universe and what isn’t? Way too confusing so early in the story. Then I finally allowed the second half of “My Mind Rebels” to play out. The tone shifts completely here from the rhythmic gear-like sounds of strings to brass swelling with menace. I finally pictured a bully showdown. Too normal. A bully showdown involving a dare. Better. A bully showdown involving a dare with the monster guarding a magical troll bridge. Take that, Mulberry Street!

Click here to find out more about Hans Zimmer’s Sherlock Holmes.

Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna

 

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I use several of Danna’s albums when I write, The Sweet Hereafter especially when I need an atmosphere of unsettlement. There is no orchestra here; often only a few string or woodwind instruments play at a time. Percussion is limited. Harmonies come and go like sunlight beneath a breaking cloudbank.

My protagonist flees an abusive home. She finally is in control of her fate…until a bizarre accident wrecks her bus. No one questions the circumstances, nor does anyone think it strange when another bus, empty of passengers but filled with everything the stranded travelers need, just so happens to come along on an otherwise abandoned stretch of interstate. Only the protagonist feels the wrongness of it all, from the ground beneath her to the sudden stillness of the trees.

I could not have closed my eyes and worked this through if not for Mychael Danna’s The Sweet Hereafter. I visualized the empty road easily enough, but I enjoy the quiet of Wisconsin’s empty places. I could not make myself uncomfortable. And then I put the tracks “Bus,” “Bus Stop,” and “Why I Lied” together, and found myself shivering inside my protagonist’s skin.

Danna’s music also makes a writer’s point: use only what you need, and use it well. It’s all too easy to dive into sweeping descriptions of the world’s logistics. Background, right? Context? Readers need it!

No, no they don’t. Keep it simple. Share just enough to catch the reader’s eye, keep him following you a few steps behind, and broaden the reader’s vision as the story advances. Danna’s “A Huge Wave” is the perfect track to reflect this idea.

I include here a sample of The Sweet Hereafter. If ever you need your characters to feel unsure of the world about them, lose them in Danna.

Selection: “Bus”

Album available for purchase through Amazon, link below. Music file shared with permission of Mychael Danna. Yes, he is that awesome.

Sweet Hereafter, composed by Mychael Danna