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March 20, 2017

Book Notes - Phillip Lewis "The Barrowfields"

The Barrowfields

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Phillip Lewis's novel The Barrowfields is an outstanding and richly told debut novel.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"In his evocative debut about disenchantment and identity, Lewis captures the longing of a southerner separated from his home, his family, and his ambition… Like fellow North Carolinian Thomas Wolfe, Lewis tackles the conflicting choice between accepting one’s roots and rejecting the past, and he does so with grace, wit, and an observant eye."

In his own words, here is Phillip Lewis's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The Barrowfields:

The Barrowfields is set in a small mountain town in northwestern North Carolina called Old Buckram. A young man named Henry Aster is the book's narrator. Much of the story is set in a hillside mansion described as a "monstrous gothic skeleton" made of iron and glass where the Aster family lives, and where untold mysteries reside. Henry refers to it as "the vulture house," and deep inside this labyrinthine structure is an enormous library of ten thousand books, along with a magnificent square grand piano at which Henry's father sits once he's finished his writing for the night and plays nocturnes that resonate with the dark soul of the house. This is in maximal contrast to what's happening in town, where locals play old-time gospel and bluegrass with acoustic guitars, fiddles, banjoes, and mandolins. Like his father, Henry learns to play the piano, and much of the music they play consists of beautiful yet brooding melodies that barely disturb the dark.

Doc Watson, "Omie Wise"
Doc Watson grew up in an area called Deep Gap, which is up in the mountains of North Carolina about 13 miles due east of Boone, and about 14 miles south of West Jefferson, which is my hometown. Born in 1923, Doc became blind from an eye infection early in his life. He picked up the guitar when he was a boy and never put it back down. Doc was the godfather of old-time bluegrass, gospel, and blues. He was respected and revered as perhaps the preeminent musician of mountain music. My favorite Doc Watson songs are the old ballads that tell some gothic tale of woe or murder. "Omie Wise" is one example, and "Banks of the Ohio" and "Tom Dooley" are two more. The story told by Doc in "Omie Wise" is, from most accounts, based on a true story, according to which a fellow named John Lewis (probably not related to me, but short of a DNA test, I wouldn't swear to it either way) who murdered a young girl named Naomi Wise in Randolph County, North Carolina in 1807. According to the story, she became pregnant and he drowned her in a river. Existing court documents from the time corroborate some of the details of the story. If I were to take you to Old Buckram (or to West Jefferson), we'd listen to Doc Watson on our way into town.

Frederic Chopin, Mazurka in A-minor, Op. 17, No. 4
This is a nocturne-like piece that Henry's father plays at the square grand piano in the great room of the vulture house. It begins with three simple notes within an A-minor chord, and then a sorrowful melody begins in the right hand, while in the left there is a descending chord structure that's almost hidden beneath the melody. The middle of the piece features a dance-like segment that is common for traditional mazurkas (a Polish folk dance), but which is out of character for the rest of the otherwise dolorous piece if played brightly in the usual mazurka style. I've found, however, that if you play it a bit more slowly with an aspect of melancholy, it gives the entire piece a sad, nostalgic quality. Thus, in the book I have Henry's father play the piece with "more sadness than the music required."

Led Zeppelin, "Tea for One"
"Tea for One" has to be the darkest song in the Led Zeppelin catalog. Written in 1976 for the band's Presence album, it's a grinding, searing, minor blues piece that laments the slow passage of time and not living up to one's self-perception. Robert Plant was injured in a car accident prior to recording, and accounts say that he did the vocal tracks for the album from a wheelchair. This song is a perfect accompaniment to the bleakness Henry finds in Old Buckram, where, at five thousand feet of elevation, the landscape is perpetually rain-sodden and hidden in the mist. One Saturday in late autumn, to escape his loneliness, he drives out to the Blue Ridge Parkway where he is alone in the world, and while on the road he drinks from his father's flask and listens to the whole Presence album at dangerous auditory levels, which is how this album may best be enjoyed.

Led Zeppelin, "Bron-yr-aur"
This is an acoustic instrumental in an open C tuning written and performed by Jimmy Page. When I was first learning the guitar and before I had discovered alternate tunings, this song became my nemesis as I tried to play it in a standard tuning, a feat which I now know is probably impossible unless your name is Leo Kottke or Satan. One night I became so frustrated that I contacted an overseas operator in Scotland in an attempt to get Jimmy Page on the telephone so I could ask him how to play it, but obviously the person with whom I spoke correctly identified me as a lunatic and disconnected the line. Later I came across the sheet music for the piece and finally learned of the open tuning. "Bron-yr-aur," named after a Welsh country cottage where Zep wrote some of their music, has a doleful, patient quality to it that reminds me of summer in the mountains of North Carolina. "Tangerine" and "Ten Years Gone" are two more favorites.

Frederic Chopin, "Fantasie-Impromptu" in C-sharp minor, Op. 66
The so-called Fantasie-Impromptu is an extraordinary piece that Chopin withheld from publication during his lifetime, possibly because he believed it too similar to Moscheles's "Impromptu in E-flat," Op. 89. The beginning and the end of the piece are tumultuous and dramatic, while the middle section slows to a sweet, simple melody with variations over arpeggiated chords. At the end of the piece, Chopin reintroduces the simple melody a single time in the left hand as the music fades to silence. Henry often plays this song in his house at law school while he imagines that his love, Story, might appear at the door and hear him pouring his heart out for her. Finally, he gets his wish and gets to play it for her with all the passion that he's imagined. The Vladimir Horowitz version of this song from his last recording session is the preferred recording.

Robert Schumann, "Kind im Einschlummern" (Child Falling Asleep), Kinderszenen, Op. 15, No. 12
I have always loved Schumann's Scenes from Childhood (1838), which comprises 13 short, connected pieces for solo piano with titles like "Blind Man's Bluff," "Knight of the Hobbyhorse," and "Traumerei" (dreaming or reverie), the latter piece being perhaps the most well-known in this collection. While in law school in Chapel Hill, Henry would sneak into a church after dark and play its grand piano while drowning himself in red wine. Kind im Einschlummern, a haunting piece reminiscent of a handbell choir, was a piece Henry would play in the church before finally being ejected one night by the caretaker.

Frederic Chopin, Nocturne, Op. 37, No. 1
I grew up with a piano in our family home, but it was, I came to discover, tuned a half-step down from standard pitch due to what the county's one piano tuner described as deficiencies with the sound board. Imagine playing the sheet music to "Moonlight Sonata" a half-step down along with a recording of the same piece (the sonorities are milk-curdling). Eventually I got my own piano, an 1888 W. W. Kimball ornamental upright that weighed in at about 850 pounds. Once, when I lived in a second story apartment, I had to move it in with a forklift. This piano followed me from place to place for a few years, including to law school, where it sat on the inside wall of the tiny house where I lived at the time. While at law school, I learned this particular nocturne because I fell in love with the slow and stately funeral march hidden inside the otherwise traditional nocturne form. It begins around the 2:35 mark in the 1965 Arthur Rubinstein recording.

Frederic Chopin, Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor (Mvmt III; lento) (the Marche Funèbre)
This piece is an honest-to-god funeral march. It's almost the reverse of the prior piece (Op. 37, No. 1), in that Op. 37 begins and ends with forlorn arpeggios that are more commonly found in Chopin's nocturnes while featuring a funeral march in the middle, whereas this piece begins and ends with a plodding dirge, but hides an exquisite nocturne-type section in the middle. In The Barrowfields, Henry learns this piece as a young man. Following the death of a family member, he absently but instinctively begins to play it one night in the vulture house, but brings himself up short when he hears the notes of its first dark chord.

Amadeus Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 27 (K. 595) (Mvmt II; larghetto)
Henry plays this beautiful piece as Story, his girlfriend, explores the Great Room of the vulture house. As the delicate music plays, she "tour[s] the room as if it were a museum, moving with balletic delicacy from antiquity to antiquity." I first heard this piece after learning about it from William Styron, who mentions it in Sophie's Choice. Including it here in The Barrowfields was a kind nod to the late Mr. Styron.

Ludwig Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 29, Op. 106 (the Hammerklavier) (Mvmt III; adagio sostenuto)
As a young man (age 8 or 9), Henry begins to learn the piano in the fashion of his father, sitting alone in the Great Room at the center of the vulture house, playing mournful pieces by candlelight as his father sits at his writing desk in the corner of the library above. One piece Henry tries to learn after hearing it is the slow movement of the Hammerklavier, described by Wilhelm von Lenz as "a mausoleum of the collective sorrow of the world." This 18-minute piece set in F-sharp minor is remarkable for its length and its meandering nature.

Ludwig Beethoven, String Quartet in A-minor, No. 15, Op. 132 (Mvmt III; molto adagio)
If there is a more sublime piece of music in the catalog of classic music, I'm not aware of it. Henry and his father listen to this together at his father's desk while sharing a glass of wine (Henry is only 16) and Henry's father expresses a wish, now abandoned, that his own writing could have achieved the "perfect sorrow" of the A-minor quartet.

Frederic Chopin, Nocturne, Op. 62, No. 1
This is another beautiful Chopin piece. I often listened to this one (again, the Horowitz recording from 1989) to set my frame of mind for writing about the vulture house and the narrator and his father playing the piano into the night as others slept. It's one of Chopin's last compositions.

Dan Bern, "Estelle"
Dan Bern is a singer and songwriter from the west coast. His songs, often wry, frequently have literary allusions and content. His song "Marilyn," for example, discusses why Marilyn Monroe should have married Henry Miller instead of Arthur Miller, and he makes a compelling case for it (he'd have "tied her to the bed and eaten dinner off of her," is just one of the lines). "Estelle," in the same vein, is a sprawling, rollicking, almost-stream-of-consciousness love song that begins with the persona depicted in the song (hopefully, Dan) painting a still life of a throat lozenge sitting on a copy of Tropic of Cancer (Dan is also a painter), and later, after mesne topics, Dan is hanging out at a coffee shop "and this girl walks in and the universe kinda stops." He tries to paint her portrait but just can't get it right. Henry and Story listen to this song and sing it a few times after an adventure in the mountains under starry skies, as they drive down out of the mountains back to civilization.

Phillip Lewis and The Barrowfields links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

BookPage review
Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review

Signature essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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