Chris Womersley’s Playlist for His Novel "City of Crows"

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City of Crows

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.

Chris Womersley’s City of Crows is a haunting and lyrical novel set in 17th century France.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

“Fascinating historical truths clash with swashbuckler tropes. . . Worth reading for the writing alone.”

In his own words, here is Chris Womersley’s Book Notes music playlist for his novel City of Crows:

Music has always been central to my writing process. I find it immensely useful as a way of measuring the tone or register of a scene I am preparing to write or, indeed, even the feel of an entire work. Although I never listen to music — particularly anything with lyrics — while I am actually writing, I’ll often have music playing while I’m setting up for the day; making coffee and booting up my computer and generally fiddling around. A great song always has a quality of an incantation in that it seeks to transport us somewhere – and for me a great piece of writing has the same quality. Happy travels.

“Da Pacem Dominie,” Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (Composed by Arvo Part)
I love this work by the Estonian composer Arvo Part and find it deeply moving and incredibly meditative. The title is Latin and the translation is Give peace, Lord. “Da Pacem Dominie” is a choral composition based on several Biblical verses and although it was composed in around 2004, it is based on a sixth century hymn. This piece conjures the smell the cold stone and censers of medieval churches.

“Song to the Siren,” This Mortal Coil
Who doesn’t love this cover of the great Tim Buckley tune? Anyone who was a moody, quasi-suicidal teenager in the 1980s would have had a cassette featuring this track, along with the Cure album Pornography, a few Birthday Party tracks and a bit of the Jesus and Mary Chain. This particular song is ethereal and intense, with its summoning of the divine.

“Blood,” Jed Kurzel (Macbeth 2015 soundtrack)
Shakespeare’s Macbeth – with its themes of witchcraft, destiny and the darkness lurking in men’s hearts – is perhaps an obvious touchstone for City of Crows (and it was first produced in 1606, less than 70 years before City of Crows is set) and I immediately loved this soundtrack by the brother of the film’s director Justin Kurzel. I find this particular tune – dark and moody, slightly frightening – quite lovely.

“1000 Miles,” Dirty Three
The Dirty Three have been musical companions of mine for many years. I used to see them perform at a local hotel in Melbourne in the early nineties and they sounded just as amazing then as they sound now. I have always loved them because their music is at once beautiful and terrifying and its something about that combination that I’ve always attempted to achieve in my writing. Immensely passionate and gritty, but with a soaring quality I find terribly moving.

“Weight of Water,” Low
Low have always been one of my favourite bands and this melancholy song has never failed to cast it spell over me. It’s simple melody feels to me like the deceptively calm surface disguising a deep and roiling body of water. The lyrics might well have been written for the character of Charlotte Picot in City of Crows. Just leave me to the river/ Let it cleanse my face/ I have no power to ward it/ Like the baptism of the earth.

“Magnificat,” Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (Composed by Arvo Part)
Another incredible liturgical composition for the voice, based on the hymn of praise and taken from The Gospel of Luke. This piece is for me emblematic of the mystery of the divine world, which is a key element to City of Crows – the unknowability of the world beyond our own.

“Rosary,” Scott Walker
This might seem on the surface to be the oddest choice in this playlist. Scott Walker – a pop superstar of the late 60s with The Walker Brothers – has become one of the more unpredictable of contemporary musicians. Who knows what the hell he’s singing about in this song, but there is something about the incantatory cadence and nervy delivery of this piece that I find mesmerising. Weirdly, I always imagined Scott Walker as a musical companion to the character of Lesage in City of Crows.

“Troubled Waters,” Cat Power
This is the song I always imagined would be the most suitable tune for the final act of City of Crows if there were ever a film made of this novel. A woman gives in to her darkest self. ‘I must be one of the devil’s daughters,’ she croons with an air of resignation – but also, it seems to me, of defiance. One of the devil’s daughters indeed. Written by Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow in the first half of the 20th century. Heartbreaking, beautiful.

Chris Womersley and City of Crows links:

the author’s website
the author’s Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Publishers Weekly review
Sydney Morning Herald review

Sydney Morning Herald profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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