Words and Music

December 27th, 2006

Los Angeles — The directions were simple, if a little odd: take the freeway from the Santa Monica beach area (where I live) to Van Nuys, in the San Fernando Valley; find the address; follow the walkway behind the house; keep the swimming pool on your left; and don’t open the door if the red light is on.

So I managed the navigation, and here I am in a beautiful little hand-built recording studio, listening as a friend of mine, Stephen Cohn, mixes the “sound track” he wrote for A Nail Through the Heart.

Anticipating your questions:

(a) What’s “mixing”? It’s getting the balance right between the Western-style orchestra and the eight or nine traditional Thai instruments Stephen used when he wrote the music. When the session is finished, we’ll be able to hear everything from the full-out string section to the little Thai finger cymbals.

(b) What’s a book doing with a sound track? This one’s a little harder to answer. It’s music created in response to A Nail in the Heart by Stephen, who won an Emmy for scoring a television documentary and whose modern classical music has been performed and recorded by orchestras both here and in European cities such as Vienna, London, and Prague. Stephen read the book in manuscript, liked it, and began to get musical ideas about it. And weeks later, we wound up here, working on music I think is terrifically beautiful and which really does reflect – in a completely different way – the world I was trying to create in the book.

A million years ago, Stephen and I were members of a remarkably obscure rock and roll band. We wrote songs together, went on the road together, and played some of the worst nightclubs in the world together. We were attacked by a wrench-wielding motorcyclist in San Diego, and for two memorable nights we shared a camper shell in a garage with half a dozen dogs that devoted their lives, day and night, to pooping. The owner of the club we were playing had promised us accommodation, and this was it. The stench in the garage was so bad we could smell it from the street. With the garage door closed.

Despite ties like these, when the band broke up, Stephen and I drifted apart. He went on to compose music, and I did whatever I was doing all those years, which included writing a bunch of books. And then, the modern world being what it is, we got e-mails from two guys who run Internet sites – one in the States and one in Japan – dedicated to our band, and to the much more famous band in which some of our former band-mates later played. The basic question in the e-mails was, did each of us know what the other was up to, and why didn’t we get together to compare notes.

We did, and we had an absolutely great time. And Stephen read the book and was nice enough to say he liked it, and I thought it would be well beyond cool to have someone as talented as Stephen write music inspired by the book.

And that’s why I’m sitting here, surrounded by music, and having a very complicated reaction to it.

First, it’s beautiful in its own right. But second, it’s inspired by something I wrote, and it’s music. People have told me what they think about my books, people have written me letters about them – but that’s all words. This is something completely different, a different art form altogether. What’s more, the person who’s responding is an artist in his own right. It’s a kind of feedback I’ve never imagined.

So I’ve found myself blinking back tears several times. Stephen wrote three pieces, a title theme, a theme for the continuing character called “Rose,” and an actual sound track for the second chapter – music that would accompany the action if it were on film. Every one of them moves me differently.

The Nail Through the Heart theme captures one of the aspects of Thai life I find most fascinating, the graceful, almost ceremonial beauty of so much of it, and the dark and sometimes turbulent undercurrents always roiling just beneath the surface. When I hear the music, I can close my eyes (I just did) and see a sort of panorama of the Bangkok in which my book takes place.

The theme for “Rose” is probably the piece that moves me most deeply. In it I can hear her poise and beauty, but also the strength and bravery that help her find her way through a difficult life. She comes fully and in three dimensions into my mind’s eye when I hear the music. It actually may change the way I write her. It’s amazing to me that someone can see in a character I created things I didn’t see myself.

The “Superman Chase” is the sound track to Chapter Two, which begins with the words, “A blur at the edge of sight, a blue blur across the sidewalk . . .” Stephen turns this image, and everything else in the chapter, into music in a way I couldn’t have imagined until I heard it. (Later, I describe an underground garage as being illuminated by “watery sunlight,” and Stephen used a percussion instrument that’s actually filled with water to capture that image musically.)

I’ve just decided to put the music on the site, so you can hear it for yourself. If Stephen’s willing, he’ll also develop some notes about how his creative process worked. I hope you’ll give it a listen, and – if you read the book – that you’ll listen to it again afterward.

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