Monday, May 12, 2014

Music As Time Travel...

In my last two posts, I focused on the myth and reality of medieval women.  Now I’m going to change tack completely, and talk about music, and how useful it is as a way of world-building, particularly when writing historical fiction. 

Some of you won’t like listening to anything while either reading or writing.  But music has always been an integral part of my life, so I’m one of these people who often associates a certain track with a certain scene, or a certain character. If I’m working on something, I’ll quite happily play the same track over and over again to get the vibe right until I’m done.  This drives my husband batty, of course!

When I’m writing historical fiction, the first step I take in thinking my way into the minds of my characters is to listen to the music that would have accompanied their lives.  This was particularly appropriate for John Sempill, for we know that the ‘real’ John Sempill had an interest in music.  Documentary sources tell us that there was a harper named John Haislet amongst his retinue, who performed before King James IV at Ellestoun in 1504 (William Haislet, who has a strong supporting role in ‘Fire & Sword’, is his hypothetical father, though sadly in reality we know virtually nothing about John Haislet's life and background).

The Collegiate Church of Castle Semple, Near Lochwinnoch
Sempill also founded a school for choristers – a ‘sang school’, in the Scots parlance – at the Collegiate Church of Castle Semple near Lochwinnoch.   The founding charter even tells us something about the boys’ training: we know that in addition to basic schooling in literacy and numeracy, they learned a new form of singing  called ‘prick song’.  No puerile sniggers please – this is the late medieval term for polyphony, where multiple lines are sung simultaneously by the vocalists. It was still fairly new and avant garde in the late 1400s/early 1500s, but Sempill seems to have been eager to promote it.  

What did it sound like?  Well, thankfully, we can still hear the same music that John Sempill would have been familiar with all those centuries ago.  Collections of Scots lute music dating back to the early 1600s still survive, for example, and while these originate from a later historical context, many are ‘traditional’ airs which had much earlier origins.  

But it’s in the realms of religious choral music that later medieval Scotland really excelled. Our foremost figure was the composer of polyphonic music, Robert Carver (1485-1568), who can to this day arguably claim the top spot as Scotland’s most talented composer. Some of his music survived the cultural purges  of the Reformation so we can still hear it performed by groups such as Scottish early music ensemble ‘Capella Nova.'

James IV was an enthusiastic patron of Carver's work, so much so that we even know which music was played at specific events in his life. We can hear both the mass that was sung before the ill-fated departure of the Scots army for the fatal field at Flodden, and the mass which was performed in its aftermath just a few weeks later when the shattered remnants of the Scots government (including, no doubt Hugh Montgomerie) gathered in Edinburgh for the coronation of the infant King James V. You can hear it performed here:

With such a rich musical heritage to accompany my writing, you’d think I’d listen to nothing else, wouldn’t you?  That’s not true – I’m writing a novel aimed for modern audiences which uses contemporary dialogue, and besides, I’m a child of my own time. So I’m afraid that you’ll usually find me listening to indie rock music as I batter away at my keyboard.  But every so often, when I need some extra inspiration, I’ll put on some Robert Carver, and suddenly, I find myself transported back into another world!


Terri-Lynne said...


Oh, come now--did you really think you'd get away without ONE infantile snicker? I wouldn't be doing my job if I let that slide. :)

Truly gorgeous. I absolutely love this. I will add it to my queue of stuff I listen to for inspiration.

Writing mostly fantasy, I find myself often listening to movie soundtracks for, of course, epic movies like LOTR, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Narnia etc as I write. I have recently been working on a contemporary story of mental illness, fericious love, and secrets, and found myself listening to a lot of "emo" sort of indie rock!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Louise. That is quite gorgeous. Wonderful to set out what your characters would have known for themselves.

It's folk nearly all the way for me. There's a lot of folksongs in my writing; some obvious, some not. 'The Unquiet Grave' (Child no.78) was particularly important in determining a theme, as were 'King Ofeo' (Child no. 19) and 'Thomas the Rhymer' (Child 37). Set the mood and the world up just right.

Having said that, it wasn't quite not all folk. I wrote the very end of 'After the Ruin' listening to Vaughan Williams' 'The lark ascending' on repeat.

Unknown said...

You're not the only one to succumb to an infantile snicker, I know... It's a pleasure to spread the word about Carver 'cos his music's sublime, but for the actual writing, it was mainly 'Aion' by Dead Can Dance and Blur's album '13' with a bit of Talking Heads thrown in for good measure ('Burning Down the House!'). Clannad for Book 2, and with Book 3 it's Elbow and Kasabian... It's like a working dog with its harness - I slip on the right music and can just slot into the right mind frame!

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Louise, thank you for another lovely post & I particularly enjoyed the music!

I'm one of those people who cannot properly write when I'm listening to music. But I do listen to a LOT of music when I'm mulling over scenes away from the computer.

We should do a playlist month at HoF. Would you all be up for it? Maybe I could set aside one of my months this autumn just for us to share playlists for our stories. Reviewers & regular contributors (and maybe a few guests) could all participate. We'd call it the HoF Literary Music Festival. ;)

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin...I love this idea! I would definitely play along.

Unknown said...

Heh, I'm pleased to try and boost the signal for poor old Robert Carver, Scotland's un-appreciated national treasure.

Oh yes, I'm up for the playlist suggestion!