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June 1, 2012

Book Notes - Corwin Ericson "Swell"

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 Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Corwin Ericson's Swell has earned him a bevy of critical comparisons from Thomas Pynchon to Douglas Adams to Neil Gaiman to Tom Robbins with this delightfully surreal debut comic novel.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"This delightfully loopy debut combines Down East deadpan with elements of Nordic mythology and Pynchonesque pyrotechnics in following the misadventures of Orange Whippey on and around the North Atlantic island of Bismuth. Ericson's Maine coastal setting lies at the edge of the surreal, where whaling interests scheme to control a network of tech-savvy whales that could bring humanity closer together."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Corwin Ericson's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Swell:

At the community college where I teach a composition class, I passed by the open door of a little office with two computers and an enormous timpani. Nothing else, just the computers and the beast. I felt a yearning. I hadn't realized until that moment how badly I needed a massive copper kettledrum in my office.

Dithering momentarily over a tricky comma, I would swivel in my chair and take up the mallets. Flocks of crows would scud from the trees. Pebbles would dance in the outlying parking lots. Students would cover their ears and mouth to each other, "Corwin is thinking!" as thumbtacks wiggled loose from the classroom bulletin boards.

That's how I would like to deafen the workplace during the composition of my next novel. But I wrote Swell mostly at home, alone with my CDs and no tympani. Here are some moments from the novel's imaginary soundtrack.

"Across the Universe" Laibach

In Swell, as Waldena, the Estonindian Thor-cult priestess, swims across the harbor at night clad only in hallucinogenic channel grease, I hear Anja Rupel singing "Across the Universe," from the Slovenian band Laibach's spellbinding cover of the Beatles' song. As George Harrison sings it, the song unnerves me. Despite all the song's transcendental reaching, the refrain of "Nothing's gonna change my world," seems defensive and neurotic. Laibach's version makes me glad my shipmates didn't lash me to the mast. Rupel is a Lorelei in this song. The world is changed; I rip open my mind and hand it to her, thanking her for my annihilation.

"Star Spangled Banner" Mieskuoro Huutajat

Waldena's counterpart in Swell is Snorri, a whaleherder who used to be married to a bear. His taste for saga and epic make him a very expository man. He loves yoiking, an improvisational vocal form best heard by only its performer because it sounds like geese choking on kazoos. When I listen to Mieskuoro Huutajat, the Finnish Men's Shouting Choir, I think of Snorri. If during morning announcements in elementary school, I had been permitted to chant their version of the "Star Spangled Banner," I would still now be saluting. It's a rousing and strange battle hymn with howling wolves and explosions.

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" Apocalyptica

There are scenes in Swell where Snorri's boat, Honeypaws, and Waldena's Hammer Maiden rear up on their hydroplanes and bolt across the waves. To score these passages I choose the Finnish cello and drum band Apocalyptica's cover of Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls." When these men start sawing away, I'm on the prow of imaginary my dragon boat. It's probably pretty easy to look silly wearing leather pants, no shirt and headbanging while playing a cello, but they make it look mighty sexy and heroic. Their chamber-music style covers of Metallica played on classical instruments are more metal than the fussy rock stars will ever sound.

"Immigrant Song," Led Zeppelin; "Now You Will Pay" Laibach; "Sometimes I Feel Like Fletcher Christian," The Mekons

A couple other good songs for clutching a boat's figurehead as your fingers freeze in the splash and sea foam would be Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," which makes Plant sound more witchy than Viking, and Laibach's "Now You Will Pay," with the great chorus, "Barbarians are coming; now you will pay." During a becalming, The Mekons' "Sometimes I Feel Like Fletcher Christian" would be a fitting song for staring into the fog and regretting ever stepping aboard the boat.

Swell is set on the Down East island of Bismuth, where there isn't much of a musical culture. The Islanders listen to Classic Rock and Red Sox games on radios with broken antennae and leaky D-cells on their boats. The Bombardier sisters perform Heart's "Barracuda" at karaoke night. The novel opens with a image of the Blue Öyster Cult logo tattooed on a man's ass. They have poor taste. Plenty of Bismuthians would probably tell you Boston was the best band ever to hail from the Northeast, but that their girlfriends prefer Aerosmith.

"Stabat Mater" Arvo Pärt

The novel's protagonist, Orange Whippey, is taken on a submarine to see a whalefall--a whale's skeletonized carcass on the sea floor--which he likens to a chapel. For this quiet and uncanny scene, he and his fellow aquanauts could listen to Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's choral arrangement of the Latin hymn "Stabat Mater." Pärt's composition is stand-up-straight sublime; a terribly convincing argument for the sober majesty of monotheism.

"Orgasmatron," Motorhead; Kundun, Philip Glass

When Orange and his shipmate contract priapism accidentally on-purpose I can hear Motorhead's abusively propulsive "Orgasmatron" exploding into the Tibetan horns, cymbals, and chanting of Philip Glass's score of Martin Scorsese's film Kundun. "Orgasmatron" is about the gothic horrors of Christendom set to a dirty throb. Kundun is also religious; the discipline and clatter of the temple music is noisily transcendent.

Enough writing. Now I am going break into that office and treat the campus to my interpretation of the opening fanfare of Strauss's "Thus Spake Zarathrustra" on my timpani. Dance apemen, dance!

Corwin Ericson and Swell links:

the book's website
excerpt from the books

Publishers Weekly review
Reader Unboxed review

CultureMob review
The Qwillery interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (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

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
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