Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Music of crime

Music and crime. In much the same way that place has come to be seen as a crucial element of crime fiction, music has also become linked with crime writing.

Think Rebus, alone at night with a bottle of whisky, we'll learn a lot about his state of mind by what his choice of music. If it's The Stones we might suspect he's getting ready to rock and roll on the case but if he summons up Leonard Cohen for company then we can guess that if he's not actually at rock bottom, then he can probably see it. Rebus's record collection became an iconic image of the Ian Rankin's lonely, damaged detective. Whilst the soundtrack to a Rebus novel reflects the author's own taste, it also adds significantly to the reader's sense of Rebus the man.

Peter Temple, in The Broken Shore, uses music, in this case the development of a taste for opera, as a moving and highly effective metaphor for both the healing of Joe Cashin's physical wounds as well as the opening of the man to a new way of experiencing the world.

So, when it came to writing The Old School, I knew that music could play any number of parts in the story. On one level, it could serve the very basic purpose of providing a crime fiction trope that the reader would recognise and expect to see. As the events of the book take place in late 1992, music could also serve as a a useful purpose in placing the book in a specific time. But, as a someone who travelled across the world to Mali on the strength of the hearing Salif Keita's soaring voice one night in a park in Adelaide, I knew that I wanted music to be more than just a device or a time marker, I wanted it to be eloquent.

I had been writing about music, West African music, before I even knew I had a crime novel (or two) inside my head. In retrospect, music was clearly instrumental (!) in unlocking that story.

The choice of songs was made as carefully as if they were a soundtrack, each adding to the atmosphere, and each reflecting something about the character, Ned, as she listens and responds to them. I wanted, originally, to use some lyrics, however, the harsh reality of rights and commerce meant that using the actual words was not an option.

With the wonder of youtube it's now possible to assemble a mini soundtrack to The Old School. For those familiar with the music in the book, I hope you enjoy this reprise. For those of you unfamiliar with some 1970s Joan Armatrading or Malian griot Salif Keita - kick back and enjoy.

Breaking the girl - Red Hot Chili Peppers is a song that, when it first came out, I found particularly disturbing. Having worked in Sexual Assault it was difficult for me to separate the lyrics from their literal meaning. It was easy therefore to imagine this as a song that Ned would find haunting and unsettling, and she does.

He started the car. The tape player came on. Music wound out, sinuous and sinister. 
p. 11 The Old School

Down to zero - Joan Armatrading An old album from a wonderful artist. Joan Armatrading was, in fact, the first serious concert I ever attended. I liked the fact that the music "fit" the scene, when Ned was feeling a bit battered by life, as well as being a latent memory of a song she'd heard in her childhood.

The familiar guitar riff slithered out. Ned’s skin tightened. She punched a cassette in, one of her sister Linh’s oldies. 
Light reggae and a rich voice replaced the Chili Peppers. ‘Down to Zero’. 
p.14 The Old School

Sina - Salif Keita A good example of the high energy drive and excitement of the music of Mali, of which Salif Keita is a fabulous example. Impossible to listen to without moving. Imagine this blasting out of the speakers as TC settles back in the passenger seat.

He rummaged in the glove box, came up with one of Ned’s cassettes and popped it in. 
Salif Keita’s wails and beats leapt from the speakers.
‘Jesus, girl. What the hell is this shit?’
‘It’s African.’
‘African bloody bonking music, if you ask me.’ 
p. 22 The Old School

True tears of joy - Hunters & Collectors Classic Australian sound. Romantic but rough around the edges, passionate but tinged with sadness. A love song that is about lust and desire and wrong choices.

It was a mostly silent trip back over the bridge. Hunters and Collectors on the stereo filled in the gaps. 
Ned stared hard out the window, blinking her eyes dry. 
p.226 The Old School

Television: The Drug of the Nation- Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy Cops spend a lot of time in cars. Driving to and from work, driving to jobs, aside from sitting a desk, sitting in a car takes up a lot of the job. When you share cars, you have to share music and radio choices. At one point Ned climbs into a car to find the radio set on a shock jock talk back station. She drops in one of her cassettes, and when the Disposable Heroes start up ... she has a bit of fun with the lyrics.

Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy replaced the anger of talkback with some equally angry hip-hop.
Beating her hands against the steering wheel, she sang her own version of the chorus. 
p. 294 The Old School

Sanni Kegniba - Salif Keita A sublime piece by Salif Keita that throbs with heat and grief. Sanni the Beautiful is dead, the translated lyrics tell us. The hypnotic music and the keening vocals provide a soundscape to the meeting between Ned and Marcus.

... ‘Sanni Kegniba’ was dissolving in a waterfall of notes from the kora. 
p 273 The Old School. 

Save Me - Joan Armatrading The discovery song. An album track that, as I discovered when I looked for it on youtube, has been used in the series Oz - to devastating effect. This is the track that Ned is re-discovers as she listens to her Discman in the final pages of the book.

She pressed play, and the music began, precise and CD-clean. The simple strummed guitar, 
then piano, then that unique voice, full and round and splendid. 
p.362 The Old School

Now well into Book 2, I'm already "hearing" the soundtrack to many of the scenes ..........

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