July 3, 2014
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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Josh Weil once again proves himself a gifted storyteller with his novel, The Great Glass Sea, an inventive book that masterfully blends folktale with speculative fiction.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"Weil (The New Valley, 2009) has fairy-tale elements and a Pushkin romance weaving through a moderately futuristic setting...fine storytelling; it's an engaging, highly satisfying tale blessed by sensitivity and a gifted imagination."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
From the beginning, I knew that Russian folklore would be a huge influence on The Great Glass Sea, but I didn't quite know how deeply that folklore affected my relationship with Russia—nor how fully my sense of that folklore was shaped by both images I'd seen (Ivan Bilibin's jaw-dropping illustrations of traditional fables) and by the traditional music of that land. I'd grown up with it around me in different ways, but, like many things from childhood, it was more something that had seeped into my being than that I consciously associated with myself. Yet once I started writing, there it was, haunting my thoughts, drifting through my head. I don't listen to music while I write fiction, but I do when I edit it—pen in hand, pages printed out (in this case, a stack about three inches thick!), headphones on—and, for this book, that was often the booming voices and lush lyricism of The Russian Druzhina Ensemble. But the book is set in an alternate Russia as affected by the realities of Russia today as by echoes of the past, so, for this playlist I wanted to dig into some more contemporary music. Like researching the novel itself, that opened up a whole new world to me, one that I'm so grateful to have found. And one that I hope will enlarge the musical world for readers of this blog, too.
"Ptashka-Kanareika (Canary Bird)", Myllärit
My playlist for The Great Glass Sea has got to start with Myllärit for a few reasons. First, I've never heard music that captures the feeling of the far-northern republic of Karelia (where the book is set) better than this does—the bleak blusteriness, the wind that whips up over the lake, the way the sun cuts through the clouds, the bent birches in the woods, the dark firs and pines, the overgrown parks and lupines rising through rust. This is music that feels to me like the carvings the region is famous for made of the burls of Karelian birches. It harkens back to a fabled time, the Rus knights and fairy tales of yore, and yet it doesn't feel sunk or trapped in that time; it feels fresh to me – and so very beautiful. All of which makes sense, since the band (whose name means "The Millers") is from Karelia. Indeed, from Petrozavodsk, the very city which inspired Petroplavilsk in the novel.
If Myllärit captures one major part of the book—that feeling of a fable—Mooncake just totally nails the other major part: the slightly futuristic, dystopian, alternative-reality of the Russian in which the novel is set. From the opening of "444", which builds with all the furious power of a rocket blasting off, to the driving, unsettling rest of the song, this piece is so spot on. Not to mention haunting. Plus (check out that distorted guitar roaring in with the cymbals banging behind it) it just rocks.
"Ya Shagayu, Shagayu (I am Walking, Walking)", Russian Druzhina Ensemble
Of course, I can't get very far into a playlist without The Russian Druzhina Ensemble. This piece is mentioned specifically in the novel (see the paragraph excerpted below), but it's also just right to bring in the nostalgia for an earlier period—The Past Life—that infuses the earlier pages of the book.
In winter, they would join the others in a line a hundred wide, everyone side by side on skates, snow shovels in their hands, and, chanting raz! dva! tri!, in one cheering communal rush plow clear a smooth square of ice. All those whooping voices! All that thunderous scraping! Winter birds blasted up into the sky: a swirl of caws and wingflutter above the crowd of skaters as each began their swooping glides below. Someone always brought a boom box. Big brassy marches, orchestral strings, the wail of fiddles and the balalaika's trill and a hundred voices singing Ya shagayu, shagayu—I am walking, walking—in a hundred synchronized puffs of breath.
"Oh, In the Meadow", Russian Druzhina Ensemble
And I'll stick with The Russian Druzhina Ensemble for another song, too. This is what I think of when I think of the festivals that erupt at the rural cultural house in the novel and the brothers at the center of the book dancing in the Cossack dancing competition. Especially about 2/3 through when we get to the shouts and whooping and whistling and the beat starts to pick up; I can picture the crowd shouting and singing and the boots thumping out the rhythm. Here's a snippet from the scene:
In the hall, it was thick with cigarette smoke, the waft of wet wool, alive with thuds of mud-matted boots as the crowd surged onto the dance floor, laughter in their eyes, vodka in their cheeks, whoops and cries and the guitar's sudden strumming, the plucking of the gusli, the fiddler bending to his bow. Hands on hips and waists, boots banging down, the crowd began to dance. Barinyas and troikas, kamarinskayas and khorovods. The brothers wading in. Dima with his high-kneed stomps, Yarik's horse-in-harness prancing. Until the musicians broke, the crowd cleared, the clapping began: the Cossack competition. Always, if the twins were there, they danced it. And if they danced it, they won.
"Katorga (Servitude)", Raznotravie
This is probably my favorite song on the whole playlist. I didn't know Raznotravie until I started digging around, but once I found them I was blown away. Not only by the way they build their songs and the singer's voice, not only by the way that they incorporate elements of folk music into something that feels utterly contemporary and fresh—but also because this particular song, Servitude, hits a theme of the novel perfectly: the way that the brothers' lives become overwhelmed by work, cloven by pressure to produce…And, as such, speak to (I hope) the way that so many people feel in the worklife of a world wholly given over to the capitalistic pursuit of constant growth. I mean listen to that deep inhaled sigh at the start of this. That's all of it right there.
"National Anthem of the USSR", The Red Army Choir
How could I leave this out? I couldn't. Not just because for sheer swelling chest-puffed grandeur there ain't much that can touch it, but because the old communists who attempt to take over the plot partway through the book would want it here. I can hear the poor deluded old bastards them singing right along. Hell, I sing along when I hear this. Here's a bit from the scene where the book's protagonist, Dima, is lured/dragged to a bathhouse where he finds himself the focus of a crowd of old, naked men, intent on reliving days long past:
"What's the occasion?" Dima asked.
The old man smiled his poppy seed smile. "You." He walked to the other end of the bench, slopped his soapy water over the grated drain. "To congratulate you."
The man passed by, flip-flops squeaking. Filling his basin at the faucets again, he said, "To welcome you."
From all around: a rumble of mumbled greetings.
Dima stood with his soaped-up basin in his hands. "Welcome me to what?"
"To the Party."
"The Communist Party?"
"Of course," the man said, and in one heave dumped the entire basin of hot water over his own head.
"Our Madhouse Votes for Putin", Rabfak
Of course, the Communists aren't the only ones trying to take over. And, when the Consortium pushes things too far, everything starts to go to hell—with Dima at the center of it. Strikes and marches and rebellion against the powers-that-be: I don't know of a song that gets that better than this one. It was written by Alexander Yellin (who, ten years earlier, wrote a pro-Putin pop-anthem) and became a YouTube sensation, capturing the frustration of so many in of the Russian populace. Rabfak performed it at political rallies and it just says "fed up" to me as well as anything I've heard.
"Vremya X (The time of X)", Louna
Except, maybe, for this one. If Rabfak's song feels like "fed up" to me, then this feels like the frustration has broken open and stuff's going to hell. Which is just what happens in the book when the Consortium decides to push back. I heard this as part of White Album, a massive compilation by Russian artists released a couple years ago in protest of Putin's regime. There's a lot of great stuff on it, but this one struck me as especially eruptive.
"Waltz Boston," Alexander Rozenbaum
Of course, uprisings come with a whole lot of risk, and there's a point in the novel when the world of the book is left with nothing but a yearning, a wish for things as they once were, and, along with that, a kind of relinquishing of hope, a sad acceptance of how things are. Wistful and sad and a little defeated: that's this song for me. It's also especially apt because the people who bring the hammer down in this book are Oligarchs in Moscow and this kind of music, known as Russian Chanson, often romanticizing aspects of the criminal life and the underworld, is apparently particularly popular among the silver-suited sharks of Moscow's cut-throat business world.
"Opus 21, #5 (Lilacs)", Sergei Rachmaninoff (performed by Dmitri Alexeev)
Speaking of nostalgia and yearning, I couldn't leave out Rachmaninoff. In part because there's a scene where Dima and his mother listen to this piece:
And if it rained, or sleeted, or simply was too cold, they would sit inside and listen to the radio. In the bare apartment it had taken on the feeling of furniture, and he would carry it, cord dragging behind, to wherever his mother was—the sewing machine, the bath—and tune it to the Rachmaninoff or Mussorgsky that she liked. Between every piece, advertisements blared. The last notes of Lilacs were trickling away, and Dima had reached out to turn the volume down, the first time Yarik's voice came on. His fingers stilled.
You know me, his brother said.
But, even more, this just feels so romantic to me. And there's a romance in this book, especially in the second half, that's both sweet and sad and, I hope, affecting the way this "Lilacs" is.
"Sing, My Dear Skylark", Russian Druzhina Ensemble
But, in the end, the most important love in this book is between the two brothers, Dima and Yarik. That's the heart of this novel. And I feel it here. Yup, The Russian Druzhina Ensemble again. Listen to those men sing. It sounds almost like a dirge to me, reminds me of priests, monks, an older world, a time gone by, possibilities gone, too, and yet shot through with a certain strength, an everlasting emotion. And that feels like the end of the book to me. Just right for the end of this playlist, too.
Josh Weil and The Great Glass Sea links:
Abandon All Despair Ye Who Enter Here interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The New Valley
Metro Pulse interview with the author
New York Times essay by the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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weekly music release lists