February 11, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Katharine Coldiron's Ceremonials is a novella inspired by the Florence + the Machine album of the same name, and manages to distill the spirit of its inspiration into a book both lyrical and impossible to put down.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"A gothic novella that captures the sensuality of both love and grief."
The word “ekphrastic” describes creative work that takes inspiration from other works of art. Most often, it refers to poetry about paintings or sculptures. I didn’t see any reason why it couldn’t refer to prose fiction written about, or inspired by, music. So I wrote an ekphrastic novella, Ceremonials, inspired by Florence + the Machine’s album of the same name. I felt the album was telling a story about ghosts and girls and obsessions, and I wanted to write that story down. Each short chapter in the book corresponds to a song on the album, in order, one to twelve.
Of course, a book like this is ripe for a playlist, and of course, that playlist is mostly going to be composed of its inspiration, the 2011 album Ceremonials. But I added other stuff, too. The main narrator of the novella is a nightclub singer, which means music plays a central role in the book, if kind of an inconsistent one. Does a mixtape of half Florence + the Machine and half midcentury band music even make sense? Let’s see.
“Only If For a Night” – This song sets the tone for the whole album, and I wanted my first chapter to do the same. “I had a dream about my old school, and she was there all pink and gold and glittering” – that describes my love object, Corisande, and how Amelia encounters her once she’s dead.
“Holocene” – I wrote a whole bunch of Ceremonials to this song on repeat. It was what I played when I couldn’t listen to Florence anymore. It doesn’t really connect to the book in any other way, but I couldn’t leave it out. And the tenderness of this song, its bone-deep regret, never fails to move me.
“Shake It Out” – “All of the ghouls come out to play.”
“Ave Maria” – In college, I was in junior choir, and the varsity choir (for lack of a better term) sang this song for a Christmas concert once. I thought it was one of the most striking choral songs I’d ever heard. It’s what I imagine the ghost girls in Ceremonials singing at Baccalaureate, or in later chapters when they’re agitated.
“What the Water Gave Me” – To say too much about the chapter that corresponds to this song would be a bad idea, I think. But Corisande knows exactly what she’s doing, filling her pockets with stones and diving to the bottom.
“Every Other Freckle” – Roughly 99% of songs in English are about love, but so few of them are about obsessive love. This one is. “Ooh, devour me.”
“Never Let Me Go” – Half the chapters in this book could have been titled “Never Let Me Go.” This song specifically feels like it’s not a person, but water calling to the singer, which is how I wrote the chapter. Corisande narrates. I liked the idea that she had an in-love relationship to the sea, and that it presages the manner of her death.
“Breaking Down” – This is the weakest song on the record and I usually skip it. The chapter I wrote to go with it is transitional, Amelia going from school to working life, trying and mostly failing to get past her grief.
“Sway” – The version I always think of is from the 1998 film Dark City, sung by Anita Kelsey, but that version is only on YouTube. The image of Jennifer Connelly lip-synching this song in a dark club, barely moving, her body swathed in a prom gown and dim spotlights, was a big inspiration for what Amelia does in her young adulthood. There are some…extremely robust versions of this song out there, but my preferred rendering is a slow, noirish ballad, the beat drained of its spice but not its sexiness. Julie London’s is close enough.
“Lover to Lover” – This is a favorite chapter of mine. The song doesn’t really cover everything in it, but it does some: “I’ve been keeping secrets from my heart and from my soul.” As originally written, the chapter used lyrics from Irving Berlin’s “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket,” but permission for those lyrics turned out to be a lot of trouble. Although I mention the song by name in the chapter, I didn’t add it to this playlist because, alas, the mood doesn’t really fit. If you want to listen to it anyway, I recommend Fred Astaire’s version from The Early Years at RKO.
Ceremonials takes place sometime in the early 20th century, in a jumble of different decades. The music in the book reflects this; a lot of the songs I mention come from the Great American Songbook, much of which was written for 1930s movies. “Eggs” is an example—it originated in Follow the Fleet, an Astaire/Rogers musical with two other Berlin songs on this playlist: “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (my God, that number, it wrecks me) and “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan.”
And yes, I do know an unnatural amount about 1930s movies.
“My Man” – I write about this song in some detail in Ceremonials, and this is the version I had in mind.
“No Light, No Light” – Best song on the record. I’ve seen Florence perform it live, and she seemed genuinely upset when she was finished. It looks like it takes a lot out of her. I wanted the chapter that corresponds to be similarly intense.
“I’ll Be Seeing You” – Bing sings of a kinder, sweeter love than Amelia has managed at this point in the book, and the song was at its most useful during World War II (a little after my vague timeline for the book), when millions of separated sweethearts looked at the moon from different continents. Still, I think of it when I consider Amelia’s ability to see her obsessions everywhere.
“Seven Devils” – “Hours and armies couldn’t keep me out.”
“Get Thee Behind Me, Satan” – The melody of this song is strange, and the title is a mouthful, and generally it’s not the best song Berlin ever wrote. But it played in my head fairly often as I wrote Amelia’s relationship with the Bull, thinking of how hard it was to leave the temptation of him behind.
“Heartlines” – The journey home begins and ends inside the heart.
“Let’s Face the Music and Dance” – Of all the songs in the world, this is one of my five or ten favorites. The melody of the first line inevitably gives me goosebumps. Nat King Cole’s version has a weirdass organ solo, but the timbre and texture of his voice—the relaxation with which he greets both major and minor key—suit the song so perfectly that I overlook it.
“Spectrum” – Amelia. Corisande. Corisande. Amelia.
“A Foggy Day” – Amelia says in the eleventh chapter that she likes torch less and less and Gershwin more and more, and the optimism of Gershwin (which does not sacrifice complexity) is on ideal display in this song. It’s hard to find a badly sung version, so I picked the one by Sarah Vaughan, who is mysteriously less famous than she should be.
“All This and Heaven Too” – “The heart is hard to translate, it has a language of its own.” We begin to move past grief by finding words.
“Ragtime” – After I’d finished writing most of Ceremonials, I was stalled from finishing by the worst bout of mental illness I’d had in a decade. Once I sought good help and started feeling better, I got frustrated that I couldn’t bounce right back to work. At the time, I was afraid I’d never write again. I shared my fears with a writing partner, and she encouraged me to listen to this album and particularly this song. The emphasis was on “Don’t you hurry. Don’t you worry, kid, we’ll be seeing you. We’ll see when you’re ready.” She told me to have patience with my process; that now was the time for healing, and that I could only do my best work once I’d healed entirely. She was right, about all that and about the album. “Night Still Comes” and “Calling Cards” consistently soothe and move me. But this song was kind to me when I most needed it, so it remains special.
“Leave My Body” – For this final chapter, I wrote my favorite two sentences I’ve ever written, beloved because I have little idea what they mean: “Here are the scissors. There is the moon.” I needed to see Corisande off as well as this song sees off the album. I hope I did.
Katharine Coldiron and Ceremonials links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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