Catherine Chung’s Playlist for Her Novel "The Tenth Muse"

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The Tenth Muse

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Catherine Chung’s novel The Tenth Muse is timely, poignant, and captivating.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

“Chung’s impressive, poignant second novel (after Forgotten Country) explores the intersections of intellectual and familial legacies…. Chung persuasively interweaves myths and legends with the real-world stories of lesser-known women mathematicians and of WWII…. Chung’s novel boldly illustrates that truth and beauty can reside even amid the messiest solutions.”

In her own words, here is Catherine Chung’s Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Tenth Muse:

Oh my god, can I just shout in to the ether how much I love Janelle Monae? The song I listened to the most–the video I couldn’t stop watching the first year I was working on The Tenth Muse was Q.U.E.E.N., which is about everything I’m interested in, and which took my breath away on every level. It’s got attitude, it’s got time travel, it’s filled with arresting images and ideas and plays with identities (and how we contain multitudes), the costumes are inspired, and the music moves from funk to jazz to rap, while the lyrics–agh, I don’t even want to describe it, because I just want everyone to watch it and feel what I feel when I watch it. Monae makes so many big moves musically and lyrically, but all with a sense of perspective and humor, and she is so bold about playing with ideas about time, humanity, collaboration, self determination, image–to see someone execute something so ambitious and mindblowing so flawlessly feels both free and freeing to me.

Speaking of time travel and culture, one of my cousins got me into the Korean pop group BTS, and then I discovered pretty much all my cousins and my mom are obsessed with them, too! Their music and videos are stylish and exhilarating and surprisingly brainy: in addition to time travel and multiverses they play around with everything from the Icarus myth to neuroscience, and are packed with references to writers and thinkers like Ursula Le Guin and Nietzsche. Here’s Blood, Sweat, and Tears.

One of the songs I listened to most was a recording my singer and composer friend Faye Chiao made for me. It was a cover of Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love” (I know Adele’s was a cover, too!) but I listened to it all the time, and that sense of generosity and wanting to give everything to another person just to make them feel beloved definitely made it into the book. Faye, who studied physics at university (female artists with backgrounds in the hard sciences, unite!), was also working on a song cycle called To See The Stars about stargazing and astronomy and the Hubble telescope, which I saw for the first time when it opened at the Einstein Planetarium of the National Air and Space Museum. I really love being close friends with such a talented and brilliant composer: I love getting to listen to what she’s working on and to talking through the artistic process with her. Our conversations always feed my work.

Amy Winehouse. I will never stop being sad about her. I can’t pick a single song! Back to Black, Love is a Losing Game, You Know I’m No Good, and Rehab.

Alabama Shakes “Hold On.” Brittany Howard, people!

I spent a lot of time researching my book at The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton where I met the composer Sebastian Currier, who was the Artist-in-Residence there. I loved his music and our conversations–he’s a huge reader and brilliant on many topics, and I learned so much from the way he thinks about things as well as the way he approaches his work. Here’s an excerpt from Theo’s Sketchbook, made up of 13 short pieces that traces the life of an imaginary composer. Currier’s ensemble pieces are also incredible.

Speaking of composers I met while I was working on the book: I spent a month in a castle in Italy at a place called Civitella Ranieri and met so many amazing people, including a woman named Ute Wassermann who has a whole forest of birds inside her throat. Seriously. Her work is gorgeous and unsettling and deeply strange. She’s a magical fairy person, if ever I met one.

I wasn’t at Civitella with the composer Du Yun, but I saw her perform at the reunion, and holy hell, you guys. I am still reeling. Her work is visceral, visionary, and more moving than I can properly express. Angel’s Bone won the Pulitzer in 2017 and it is stunning. I strongly recommend you listen or watch the video, which rearranged parts of my heart and brain, and changed what I thought music could do.

Another favorite badass, brainy, brilliant composer is Kate Soper, whom I met over ten years ago now. I love everything she does, and how she does it–her opera Here Be Sirens is funny, moving, intellectual, just everything at once.

To go in a totally different direction altogether, The Bremen Town Musicians is an old school Soviet cartoon told in music based on the folk tale of the same name that my daughter is obsessed with, and I’ve watched it more times than I should admit. It’s joyful and fun and gorgeously done, and I don’t understand any of the words, which can sometimes be a great thing.

Catherine Chung and The Tenth Muse links:

the author’s website
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
BookPage review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Entertainment Weekly interview with the author
Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for Forgotten Country

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 – ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 – 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 – 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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