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April 23, 2020

Jessica Winters Mireles's Playlist for Her Novel "Lost in Oaxaca"

Lost in Oaxaca by Jessica Winters Mireles

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Jessica Winters Mireles's novel Lost in Oaxaca is a moving and timely love story.

Foreword Reviews wrote of the book:

"Travel and awakening combine in [this] delicate romance. . . .Lost in Oaxaca is a vigorous, sensitive account of crossing borders to reimagine what love looks like when it's poured without reserve."

In her own words, here is Jessica Winters Mireles's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Lost in Oaxaca:

The summer before my senior year as a piano performance major at USC, I fell in love with a line cook at the restaurant where I worked as a waitress. An indigenous man from Mexico with only a junior high school education, he certainly wasn’t the guy my mother would have chosen for her classically-trained pianist daughter. He spoke little English, was undocumented at the time, and was the sole financial support for his parents and nine siblings back home in Oaxaca. She tried to talk me out of marrying him, claiming the “cultural differences” between us were just too vast for our marriage to ever work.

Fortunately, I ignored her, and listened to my heart instead. Had I not, my novel, Lost in Oaxaca would never have been written.

My life as a musician began at age six, when my mother sent me to the woman across the street for my first piano lesson. My grandmother was a concert pianist, and I inherited her rosewood Steinway concert grand at age ten (actually, my mother inherited it, but I got to practice on it.) After a twenty-five year career of teaching music lessons myself, I decided to explore my other passion: writing. I actually conceived the idea for Lost in Oaxaca while teaching daily lessons on that very piano.

Most novelists develop their stories from their own lives, and so it makes sense that music plays a large part in the narrative of my novel. My protagonist Camille, a classical pianist, loses her shot at a concert career because of a devastating injury to her fingers. She becomes a piano teacher by default, mostly living out a miserable existence, until a gifted piano student changes the trajectory of her life. This is where Camille and I differ—I’ve never had the desire to become a concert pianist—I always knew that teaching was my calling. What Camille and I do have in common though, is our deep love of music.

Prelude in D Major BWV 925 by J. S. Bach

In the opening chapter of my novel, Camille is trapped on a bus in the mountains of Oaxaca during a monsoonal thunderstorm. She is able to calm her rising panic by humming the melody of her favorite Bach Prelude. The actual prelude is not referenced in the novel, but this particular piece is one of my favorites, and I had it in mind while writing this scene. Composed as a teaching piece, J. S. Bach included it in a notebook for his son, W. F. Bach. The joyful motive is delightful, and the key of D Major evokes a sense of genuine rejoicing. I highly recommend listening to Angela Hewitt play any and all Bach.

Concerto in D Major Hob. XVIII/11 Vivace by Franz Joseph Haydn

As a child, I had the opportunity to perform the first movement of this wonderful concerto, and so I let a young Camille perform it, too. During a scene in which Camille is undergoing a limpia (spiritual cleansing) by a curandera (healer) in Oaxaca, she flashes back to the time when as a little girl, she performed this charming piece with an orchestra, and proudly received her first standing ovation. Haydn was known to be a jolly fellow, and in the Vivace movement (also written in the key of D Major) he evokes not only humor, but great joy.

Clair de lune by Claude Debussy

One of the most celebrated and easily recognized piano pieces of all time, Clair de lune (Moonlight) can also be a thorn in the side of the proverbial piano teacher. Because of the undying popularity of this Impressionist piece, many piano students are eager to add Clair de lune to their repertoire, even if they don’t yet have the emotional maturity or technical capability to do it justice. This means that piano teachers across the globe must, to put it bluntly, listen to the butchering of this exquisite work on a regular basis. As a piano teacher, Camille is not immune to the phenomena of mediocre students massacring their music, and at one point in the novel, she complains about it bitterly.

Für Elise by Ludwig van Beethoven (a.k.a. Bagatelle No. 25 in A Minor)

Again, here is an example of another lovely piece of music put into the hands of young pianists who are unable to handle the technical difficulty it presents. Sure, the famous opening motive is easy enough to navigate, but as soon as the young student (or late-blooming adult) reaches the middle part with its more complicated rhythms, the piece dissolves into an uneven mess. Skip the YouTube videos of precocious five-year olds playing this piece. Instead, listen to a recording performed by a reputable concert artist; only then will you be able to comprehend the beauty and sophistication of this remarkable composition. I suggest listening to Lang Lang play it.

The Entertainer by Scott Joplin

I’ll never forget the first time I heard this piece. I was eleven years old, and my dad took me to see the classic movie, The Sting. The soundtrack featured Joplin’s Rags—the most famous one being “The Entertainer.” Of course, I had to learn to play it, along with every other kid on the block. Again, popularity bred contempt, at least in the minds of piano teachers, who had to scramble to find arrangements to fit the tiny hands of their students. And in case you don’t know this already, Ragtime is not to be played at breakneck speed. Even Joplin said not to rush his tempos, in case “good players lose the effect entirely.”

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565 by J. S. Bach

Camille shares a long and complicated relationship with her mother, who is not only a stereotypical “stage mother,” but an alcoholic, as well. Camille, who lives in the guest house on her mother’s estate, spends a great deal of time trying to avoid her. As a joke, Camille programs her cell phone to play the opening theme to this iconic piece whenever her mother calls, as the familiar melody unquestionably sets the stage for imminent drama.

Piano Concerto in D Minor, K 466 Allegro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

I won’t tell you what happened to Camille’s fingers (you’ll have to read the novel to find out) but I will reveal that because of her injury, she suffered great mental trauma, manifesting in a pattern of recurring nightmares. These dreams always involve her performing a concerto with an orchestra in front of a large audience. While stranded overnight in the mountains of Oaxaca, Camille is tormented by one of these nightmares. For this scene in the novel, I chose the Mozart piano concerto in D Minor—a favorite of mine. The syncopation of the opening chords creates a sense of impending doom, which coincides perfectly with the horrific drama that unfolds during Camille’s nightmare. It is one of only two Mozart concertos composed in a minor key (out of 23) and is unusual in the sense that, unlike many of his other concertos, which can generally be characterized as “happy and light,” Mozart evokes great pathos in this masterful work.

Piano Concerto in G Major M. 83 by Maurice Ravel

During a scene where Camille and Alejandro (her love interest) are lying together in bed during a thunderstorm, Camille relates to him the story of when she played this particular concerto while attending the Aspen Music Festival as a sixteen year-old. During that memorable performance, an afternoon thunderstorm rolled in and the sounds of the thunder and rain uncannily accompanied the character of each of the concerto’s movements. I was probably around the same age as Camille when I originally heard this piece, and I fell in love with it at first listen. Jazzy, playful, lyrical, exciting—it has all the components to thrill the listener—whether she’s sixteen or sixty.

Piano Concerto in C Minor, Opus 18 No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff
All By Myself by Eric Carmen

I’m embarrassed to admit that I was enamored with Eric Carmen’s 1975 pop song, “All By Myself” before I’d ever even heard of Sergei Rachmaninoff. I had no idea at the time that Carmen had based the melody of his song on the second movement of this beloved concerto; all I knew was that at the angst-filled age of thirteen, the melody of that song made me swoon. A few years later, when I heard the complete concerto performed, I was hooked on Rachmaninoff for life. Around that same time, an older gentleman boorishly commented to me that because I was a girl pianist with small hands, I’d never be able to play a Rachmaninoff concerto the way it was meant to be played. In my novel, I let Graciela—a petite, indigenous girl from Oaxaca with the tiniest of hands, win the grand prize in a piano competition with this very piece. She played it just fine.

Piano Concerto in A minor, Opus 54 by Robert Schumann

The summer before Camille goes off to college, she becomes the youngest student to win the concerto competition at the summer music program she is attending in Santa Barbara. For this scene in the novel, I chose this concerto for Camille to perform, mainly because at age seventeen, she is on the cusp of becoming a woman, and is awakening to many new and exciting emotions. I especially love the interplay between the piano and clarinet in this piece—it’s almost like a love duet. Full of great drama and elegance, this Romantic masterpiece complements Camille’s emotional state as she finds herself falling in love for the first time.

Rhapsody in G Minor, Opus 79 No. 2 by Johannes Brahms

During the same time while Camille is attending the summer music program, she performs this difficult rhapsody in a master class. In the middle of her performance, she completely falls apart in front of a large audience. She tries to blame it on her nerves, but the real reason is because she is distracted by a handsome young man who is right outside the concert hall listening to her play. She doesn’t yet know that he will be instrumental in changing the course of her life. To me, this majestic piece conjures up a sense of trepidation—a definite metaphor for the direction in which Camille’s life is heading.

Sones y Jarabes de Yalálag

The first time I heard Jarabe music was in the mid 1980’s when my husband took me to his cousin’s wedding in Los Angeles. To this music, I learned the traditional dance of his hometown of Villa Hidalgo Yalálag in the mountains of Oaxaca, which is where much of my novel takes place. I was intrigued that this traditional music had traveled all the way from his village in Oaxaca and was flourishing in the Yalalteco community in Los Angeles. Camille has much the same reaction when she is exposed to Jarabe music in Yalálag, and is quite surprised to find that much of it reflects a classical European influence. “Sones” refers to Mexican folk music and dance, and the word, “Jarabe” literally means “syrup” and refers to the constant rhythmic changes that occur throughout the music.

Romantic Latin Music

I’m a sucker for a good romantic ballad, and Latin musical artists are the kings and queens of this genre. There’s a scene in Lost in Oaxaca where a broken-hearted Camille has left Alejandro behind in Oaxaca, and is traveling from San Diego to Los Angeles. She turns on the car radio and hears a romantic ballad sung in Spanish, and although she can’t understand all the words, she knows it’s about heartbreak, because she hears the word corazon over and over again. The following is a short list of some of my favorite Spanish language love songs:

Es Por Ti by Juanes
Déjame Ir by Paty Cantu
Si Tú Supieras by Alejandro Fernández
El Problema by Ricardo Arjona
Cuando Me Enamoro by Enrique Iglesias and Juan Luis Guerra
Para Siempre by Kany Garcia
Bendita Tu Luz by Maná
Corazon Hambriento by India Martinez featuring Abel Pintos

Born and raised in Santa Barbara, California, Jessica Winters Mireles holds a degree in piano performance from USC. After graduating, she began her career as a piano teacher and performer. Four children and a studio of over forty piano students later, Jessica’s life changed drastically when her youngest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of two; she soon decided that life was too short to give up on her dreams of becoming a writer, and after five years of carving out some time each day from her busy schedule, she finished Lost in Oaxaca. Jessica’s work has been published in GreenPrints and Mothering magazines. She also knows quite a bit about Oaxaca, as her husband is an indigenous Zapotec man from the highlands of Oaxaca and is a great source of inspiration. She lives with her husband and family in Santa Barbara, California.

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Book Notes (2018 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2015 - 2017) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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

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