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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 Eaton’s Symphony No. 3 is one of the year’s finest novels, symphonic in structure and spectacular on a sentence level.
In his own words, here is Chris Eaton’s Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Symphony No. 3:
I listen to a lot of music when I write. At the same time…literally, I suppose…I listen to very little, in that I listen to the same records, on repeat, maybe for an entire week, maybe even longer. A month? It’s a mnemonic, of sorts, something I use to get me back to the same headspace I was in when I stopped the day before, so I can maintain a prolonged tone. I don’t know that I always needed that. Maybe I don’t need it now. But in my current life with—among other things—two young children, I believe that it helps.
I entered into this novel by chance, spurred on by a video a friend sent me trying to prove Vincent Van Gogh was Jack the Ripper—using his own paintings as “proof”. As a reference in another project, I created a fake book that did something similar to the video, and chose Camille Saint-Saëns as my victim, almost at random. I just wanted to take an artist’s oeuvre and somehow use it to “prove” that they had done something else. Gradually the excerpts from this “fake book” grew longer and longer, joined by countless other fake books, until the original project began to swell out of control and I thought, you know, maybe let’s just take one of these fake books and run with it.
But not only did this outlandish idea seem more and more plausible as research continued (Saint-Saëns was living in Whitechapel at the time, while working on his third symphony that he called his Organ Symphony despite it containing very little organ; then, just before the murders stopped, he disappeared from public life to travel the world for years—the newspapers of the day are full of stories wondering where he went; his next opera, sent home from Lordknowswhere, is about another famous artist in the 1500s who actually committed several murders, went on the lam, and only came back when pardoned by the pope in exchange for some of his art), the book also became about an artist trying to capture the entire world in thirty-six minutes of music, not through a story but just the feeling…of the world…especially in a time when the symphony was supposed to be dead…because Beethoven had already done it all. At that point, the book stopped being about murders and was instead about other societal violence and anger. And I stopped trying to write a story so much as write a symphony with words, tried to write a sculpture, to write a painting, where the narrative thread is less important than using the different sounds and the no-sounds and punctuation and feelings to capture…everything–at least a proximal everything. Hopefully single phrases and sentences and passages and pages exist on their own as much as parts of the whole, and people can be moved by the brushstrokes in the lower left corner, or an out-of-place spatter of red, or the entrance of a dissonant bassoon.
I suppose one might expect that I listened to Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 a lot while writing it. Or even a lot of classical music. But aside from at the beginning and the end, because I wanted to mirror the structure of that piece, with the most extreme tension sitting in at the organ, I listened overwhelmingly (though certainly not exclusively) to contemporary hip hop, which I might argue is the classical music of our time for the way the rhythms and samples and melodies struggle so often against each other, rather than forward in tiresome unison, and for the way emotion lives in each and every moment.
Fever Ray – “This Country”
Fever Ray’s Plunge is one of those records that stands out as one that I listened to for even longer than the others. I would finish a lot of these days so strung out that I could barely speak to my family, and caught in this echo chamber of anger, I genuinely began to despair more and more.
The process of making this playlist, which necessitates going back and re-listening, trying to locate the exact tracks I want, is really wonderful. I love all this music. But this song, as I listen and write this, feels like the time I was walking along Bloor St in Toronto outside the Paradise Theatre and it was summer so the doors were open and I recognized the beginning scene of Requiem for a Dream and all I could hear was “Be! Excited! Be! Be! EXCITED!”
Kanye – “I am a God”
Was there anyone more angry than Kanye at this moment? This was the song I imagined to be constantly playing in the mind of Camille Saint-Saens.
Blood of Abraham – “Dangerous Diseases”
I first discovered BoA when Are We Not Horses first found its legs. The director who made this video, Jonnie Ross (who is a genius), reached out to make a video for us and sent this as his portfolio. Even then this song was old, and the video never happened (we still barely had enough to tour, let alone pay for videos), but I became an instant fan of the band. They only made two records but they’re both amazing and often accompany me at my work desk.
King Cobb Steelie – “Rationale”
Another older one, from around the same time as Blood of Abraham, though now, as then, it feels separated from time. Certainly in the early-to-mid-90s, no one was doing this sort of thing. And I can still remember seeing them live for the first time, with their two percussionists and everyone arranged in a horseshoe, not around the lead singer but the bass player, who played with such frantic joy when he played that he needed the entire center stage to display it. I’m sure I have written many books to this band and feel beyond blessed that most of them have become my friends.
Jamila Woods – “Breadcrumbs”
I feel like Jamila Woods saved my life. Finishing a book is always stressful. But as this book gathered steam and the world I was trying to wedge into it became—at least seemingly, though it was likely not the world that changed so much as eyes being opened—angrier and more horrible. My grandmother died (at the amazing age of 104) and my mother sank deeper into Alzheimer’s which was hard on everyone but especially my father and we moved back to the east coast of Canada where my partner and I were both born, theoretically to be of more help, and our youngest wasn’t sleeping so I wasn’t sleeping and…well…the anger and intensity of the music I was listening to and the anger and intensity Camille Saint-Saëns’s world started to act like a feedback loop that had me chronically on edge and full of self doubt and then I discovered HEAVN. Working to HEAVN lifted me out of this partly because it’s an album of hope and love and empowerment; two lyrics still repeatedly jump to mind for me: “Woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me,” and “I may be crazy, but at least my crazy is my own.”
When we learned that she was giving her final performance of HEAVN the next weekend (before LEGACY! LEGACY! came out), my partner Laura bought us tickets spontaneously and we travelled to Chicago to see her. I’ve had a difficult time with live music since deciding to stop Rock Plaza Central, because so much of it can feel like it’s “put on”, that it’s just a show and not a shared experience of creation between performer and audience. I’ve seen behind the curtain, so to speak, and couldn’t unsee that. This show was not like that. It was magic and real and special and life-changing for me (when, as she does in “Breadcrumbs”, she sang “today I look like somebody you used to know / tomorrow I’m a stranger and I’d better go”, I broke down crying and was supported only by the crowd) and has brought me back to appreciating live music again. From the super-polished big bands to the rougher indie bands that come to our town’s music festival Sappyfest to the local cover bands that play our Fall Fair.
If you don’t already own this album, you really should.
Noname – “Forever”
Rapsody – “Crown”
Sampa the Great – “Final Form”
Jean Grae – “Shadows Forever”
Was it writing about such horrible egotistical men that made me find solace in the music of women? J.Woods stands out because of the concert and the sheer number of times I listened to that record, but these other four artists will always live in my heart as good friends who helped me through hard times. More great music to feel better about when you feel like you’re only one person, particularly with lines like:
“Whatever you dream you can do.” – Rapsody
“Fuck it, I’m gonna live forever.” – Noname
The Sampa song wasn’t actually out when I wrote the novel. It’s from her new album that came out last month. But I listen to it so often these days and both Mixtape and Birds and the BEE9 definitely added to the creation of the novel.
Noname recently started a book club (www.nonamebooks.com) and while I know I can’t be included in it, I’m enjoying being a reader in it and still hope one day I can create something as important as these works and that one will encounter her and it will bring her some fraction of the joy her life and music have brought me.
Swetshop Boys – “Need Moor” and “Birding”
Have always been a fan of Das Racist and have followed Heems ever since. This partnership with Riz Ahmed is angry and funny and pertinent and danceable all at the same time. I wanted to include “Need Moor” for its attack on consumerism, one of the great violences of our time, but couldn’t resist adding “Birding” as well, as birdwatching was one of Saint- Saëns’s many obsessions.
The Parlor – “In” (from Kiku)
The Parlor are one of my favourite bands of all time, have provided the soundtrack to so many parts of my recent life, and have never disappointed with any of their records (including three under a different name: We Are Jeneric). But the sorrow in their latest album Kiku, which documents their grief in trying to have a child, is so breathtakingly beautiful that it faultlessly carried me through a lot of the second half of this book, which deals with similar themes.
Prince – 17 Days (from Piano and a Microphone 1983)
Many important people died while writing this book. Each was a blow. Everything he did was symphonic, but I think it’s this album of stripped down piano where his genius really shines through.
Chris Eaton and Symphony No. 3 links:
the author’s Wikipedia entry
Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for Chris Eaton: A Biography
Literary Hub review
Quill & Quire review
Vol. 1 Brooklyn review
also at Largehearted Boy:
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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
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