July 10, 2015

Soundscapes – CITY OF STAIRS

I think I’m like a lot of authors, in that I create soundtracks for my books in my head as I write them. I floated the idea on twitter of compiling own personal soundtrack was for City of Stairs, and the response was extremely positive – so much so that I’m willing to try to ignore how embarrassing it might be to show what sort of music I listen to, or exactly how much of this is cribbed from movie soundtracks.

A lot of this, surprisingly, came from Pandora – back in 2013 or so, I used to put Pandora on a random station as I cleaned my house. When I heard a song I liked, I’d idly try and see if it would fit with a scene from the book I was writing in my head. Most of the time, the song didn’t. But sometimes it did.

I would normally caution you all that I listen to some really weird shit – but having already heard some fan selections for my books, and having heard other authors talk about the music they like, I know I’m not. Even. Fucking. Close to being weird. I’m actually probably incredibly milquetoast. So there you are.

Anyways, on with the soundtrack. Spoilers if you don’t know the plot.


Robert’s personal CoS opening credits song – “Short Careers” by Eric Bachmann

I came across this song while listening to the Nick Cave and Warren Ellis station on Pandora. I was listening to it in the car and would have pulled over to learn more about it, had I not been on I fucking 35 at the time. It’s a song from a movie which I know absolutely nothing about – something about baseball and fight clubs? I can’t remember – but were City of Stairs ever to become its own show, the doleful, threatening, Slavic tones of this would fit right in. Kudos to Mr. Bachmann for doing such a good job.

The Komayd Legacy: Shara, Efrem, and Vinya – The Shostakovich 5th Quartet, 2nd Movement

(Youtube won’t let me link to EXACTLY where the 2nd movement starts – but the piece begins at 10:45)

Lots of Russian and Soviet composers are going to show up here. I’m sure you’re shocked. Shostakovich especially, since he composed in the gray, hellish world of the Soviet Union, where creativity was strictly controlled. The man lived with a packed suitcase under his bed at all times, just in case.

The Shostakovich 5th Quarter has been one of my favorite discoveries since I was a kid. The second movement starts off incredibly strangely – using harmonics, where your finger barely touches the string of the instrument, the players create these incredibly fragile, pure tones that the ear can’t help but find disturbing, like nails on a chalkboard. From there, the piece blossoms out into a beautifully haunting melody, the sound of broken dreams.

Whenever I wrote about Shara’s past – outside of Vohannes – this piece captures the idealism I think she tried to live up to, and failed. When she first stands over Efrem’s body in Bulikov, all of those failures come swimming up for her. There are glimpses of optimism in the piece, right around the 13:20 mark – but you’re never quite convinced it’s going to succeed.

Like I said in the previous piece, Shara starts off broken, and has to figure out how to put herself back together. I think this piece captures that effort.

Sigrud fucks shit up – “The Electrician,” by The Walker Brothers

When I read books or watch movies, there’s times when I think, “Yes. I’m stealing that.”

And I think that’s fine. I can never really rip it whole cloth from the work I’m seeing. Just by having me touch it and put it into my own work, it changes – it’s like light passing through a prism, when it comes out it’s never exactly as it came in.

Anyway, when I was thinking of how I wanted to write Sigrud, I happened to watch the movie Bronson, with Tom Hardy – and, well, anyways. There you go. (Note – this is not the original from the movie – it’s been remixed so the song covers some of preceding scenes – but once Tom Hardy is naked in a cage, covered in human shit and blood and screaming, yeah, that’s the real movie.)

I usually think of this song being played as Shara walks through the carnage leading up to Vohannes’s ballroom, where Sigrud is going to town on a couple of Restorationist goons. It’s fun.

Shara and Vohannes – Prokofiev 5th Symphony, 2nd Movement

Really, this symphony could work as the theme for the whole of City of Stairs. It’s rich and grandly romantic, while alternating between whimsy and melancholy. This particular movement was written in a Soviet haven as WWII raged on in Europe – it feels like there’s a whole story in the movement itself, a World War II epic about families and lovers sundered and searching for one another.

It’s that melancholy and romanticism that works so well to capture the relationship between Shara and Vo – both of them are people with grand ideals and grander ideas, confined within situations that do not allow them to truly be themselves, or do what they wish to do.

I listened to this piece a lot when I was first trying to figure out what character would star opposite Shara (which isn’t Sigrud – he’s more beside her than opposite her) – and I had this idea of a grand, romantic, captain of industry with a tragic past. I always pictured him in a white suit, right from the start – before I knew who we was, that he was gay (or about 80% gay, 20% straight or so), what had made him, and what he wished to do in Bulikov. I vaguely knew I wanted him to be something of a Dr. Zhivago character, though I always knew from the start he would die, a great man torn down by a petty world. I’m planning to revisit Vohannes’s legacy in the third Stairs book.

The Kaj’s invasion of the Continent, and the Blink – Shostakovich 10th Symphony, 2nd Movement

The Shostakovich 10th Symphony might be the greatest symphony ever written, composed just after Stalin died as a testament to human self-expression and endurance. The 2nd Movement, linked above, is a musical interpretation of Stalin himself.

As such, it feels appropriate for a gruesome period of history in City of Stairs, marked by mass graves, holocaust, and utter catastrophe.

The Kaj, in my own personal estimation, is not precisely the liberator Saypur likes to think he is.

Shara’s Vision

I was watching the first season of Hannibal and found myself really struck by the sound of the bullroarer, a primitive instrument composed of a wooden blade on a piece of rope, which is then spun very quickly.

You can see the bullroarer in action here.

Supposedly this music heals you. Seems more likely that it’s something you would listen to while running through the woods, naked, covered in paint and holding a knife. Which leads us to…

Sigrud vs. Urav

This was yet again another Pandora rec, when the Nick Cave and Warren Ellis radio station played a song and I immediately thought of freezing waters, the sound of boots on ice, and memories being relived in the darkness.

Then I looked at the song itself and realized – oh yeah.

So it’s from a movie. So the movie’s about Native Americans. So what. I don’t care. It works for me.

I was listening to this song, actually, when I suddenly decided that Sigrud needed to have the flashbacks to his life before imprisonment right there, while he was fighting Urav, remembering riding in the sleigh with his children, and later digging up their bones. He suddenly came alive to me as a character as I listened to this song and folded laundry.

Efrem’s Diary – Shostakovich 7th Quarter, Movement 2

Another Shostakovich quartet, and, yes indeedy, another creepy, mournful piece. This quarter was written in memory of Shostakovich’s wife, who had just recently died. If I recall, it’s written in a Phrygian mode – an Ancient Greek key used primarily for mourning. This feels appropriate for a story about dead gods, and a history about the dubious circumstances under which they perished.

The White City – First Delphinic Hymn

Because, y’know.

The Battle of Bulikov 

I first dreamed up City of Stairs in a period of my life when I was working in the packaging department of a factory. It sucked. One thing they did was play the radio at full blast all day while we worked, listening to local pop stations. I grew used to listening to Lady Gaga and Missy Elliot and “Hey there Delilah” and the like as I worked, taping up boxes and thinking about books.

There was one song I quite liked as I worked, one that got played a lot and stood out from the rest of the “would you like to fuck?” style of music that seemed to be everything else that I listened to. (Which I liked fine, for what it was, but got tired of.) I liked how this one song built to a really big, loud, hopeful crescendo, a giant sonic blast.

I was wondering about how to end City of Stairs at the time, and as I listened to this song for the fifth or sixth time, I thought: “I want it to end like that. A slow build as the cavalry arrives – something crazy, like flying pirate ships with guns – and then an explosion as someone flies the pirate ship right into the holy army.”

I didn’t know at the time that it would go on to be one of the most overplayed songs of the decade, nor did I know that the band would come to be both loved and loathed by tons of music fans.

But whatever. Fuck it.

Shara Sails Home – “Intervention” by Arcade Fire

My friend played this once for me about six or so years ago, when we were driving to breakfast super hungover. I immediately liked it, the sounds of joyful revolution, of resolute progress, of bruised idealism. I used to jog to this song when I was feeling blue, and found myself suddenly feeling a lot more upbeat.

It is a little bit on the nose, however – the bit about working for the church while your family dies could be interpreted in a number of ways in a book about the death of religion. But I think Stairs, and this song, are a lot more about power than any religion in particular.


So… what’s next?

Well, City of Blades comes out in January. So what does it sound like? What does it sound like to see Mulaghesh and Sigrud stuck in the former kingdom of war and death, wondering if they can ever really change as people?

Well, at first I thought it would sound like this:

This is a male-gendered song, but the bitterness and regret really speak to Mulaghesh’s character. (The Townes Van Zandt original can be found here. I like it quite a bit too, but the sparse arrangement Earle starts with, mixed with the string quarter in the background, is much more of my bag.)

But then I listened to a song my wife likes a lot, and thought that, well, if someone were to make a trailer for the book, or the show of the book, or the movie of the show of the book, then you couldn’t do worse than this:

I kind of like having female vocals in the lead here, since Mulaghesh’s character is much louder and much more vocal than Shara’s. There’s a frontier aspect to City of Blades, rough people in the wilderness living rough lives, and these bluesy songs work quite with that aspect. Also, a river is prominently featured in City of Blades, and the line “The Good Lord speaks like a rolling thunder” is suddenly much more disturbing when you’re talking about Voortya, the living incarnation of war and death.

Stay tuned for more.