August 8, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Dashiel Carrera's brilliant debut novel The Deer is both innovative in its form and unforgettable.
Alexandra Kleeman wrote of the book:
"Haunting, magnetic, compulsively beautiful, The Deer shines a dark light into uncertain corridors of mind and memory, into the churn of narrative itself. This book leaves an indelible impression, and with it Carrera makes a stunning debut."
Long before my turn to fiction writing, I tuned my ear to the rhythms and contours of musical composition. Haunted by the stories of Paul McCartney waking from a dream to write ‘Yesterday’ or John Coltrane’s seamless sax solos, I spent hours wandering the streets of Providence praying the perfect melody would spring into my head. When finally I did turn to fiction—to compose The Deer—the metaphors of musical composition abounded. Pairs of paragraphs were attuned with the formal contrast of musical movement; tempos were weaved into the patter of punctuation; and writing sessions mirrored musical recording sessions.
The Deer was composed in “takes”—performances left continuous and unaltered. In the analog era of recorded music, when editing a performance midway through was too technologically difficult, a take had to be accepted for what it was, even if it contained a scratch, a chirp, a wheeze or involuntary laugh (as Bob Dylan did so famously on “Ballad of a Thin Man”). These patterns of mistakes became an irreplicable stylist maneuver, not unlike that deployed in surrealist automatism, and it is through this maneuver that The Deer was created. If an individual paragraph didn’t work, rather than tinker, I would start over and write a new one. Listening became the hallmark of the composition process—not translating thought to paper.
For me, The Deer is an album more than anything else. “Side A” and “Side B” were not complete until I had read the entirety of the work out loud with the sense that it sounded “in tune.” The below tracks were instrumental in developing my ear and laid the sonic foundation for the novel.
1. Grouper — Made of Metal
The Deer’s prose took shape in the late and dreaming hours, that interstitial state when our known understands of the world shift in and out of form. To let a dreamlike work breathe requires restraint and discretion, and Grouper’s Ruins remains, to me, an exemplar of what can happen when this is pulled off successfully. Performances spill out across the room directly to tape in whatever manner they appear; tempos fluctuate with each emotional shift; famously, a microwave beep from a power outage is left on the record unedited. Grouper tells us, “The album is a document. A nod to [a] daily walk. Failed structures. Living in the remains of love. I left the songs the way they came.”
2. Leo Ornstein — Six Preludes for Cello and Piano II. Con Moto
Leo Ornstein’s arrangements often sound like two instruments meeting for the first time and trying to develop a new language, one which builds up harmony, counterpoint, and rhythmic threading from scratch. His bold turn from one of the world’s most revered pianists to avant-garde composer booed from the stage is a testament to his courage. Ornstein’s world is tragic, boisterous, tender, and inimitable.
3. Alex G — Poison Root
I adore “Poison Root” for the same reason I adore the double horned goat on its cover—Alex G has a way of driving the seemingly banal to a subtly surreal extreme. While none of the sounds or tones on “Poison Root” break the mold individually, the layers fit together with such startlingly unique care. The bark of the dog at the beginning, the naked hand claps, the listless plucking on the banjo—Alex G peels back the curtain on the workaday to expose the strangeness lying in our peripheries.
4. Keaton Henson — Small Hands
“Small Hands” is a sacred song, home recorded, never meant to see the light of day. To listen to it is to gain a window into the consciousness of the cripplingly shy British singer-songwriter, voice trembling with uncertainty, almost on the verge of falling apart. Like spotting a deer, “Small Hands” feels dangerous in its tenderness—a work of such startling beauty and fragility that one sudden movement could make it disappear.
5. Big Bend — 1000 Ways
Big Bend is one of those terrifying talents that composes in relative obscurity, a stern reminder that for every artistic work revered 10 more lie hiding in some corner of the Earth, never quite pulled into the light. His command of texture and composition is extraordinary, adapting at various times the forms of electronic music, ambient music, pop, and heavy metal percussion. In doing so, Big Bend splays the shifting internal workings of the mind into sonic form. For The Deer, he is everything—an attempt to understand what exists beyond the limits of the conscious mind and render it beautiful.
6. Julien Baker — Rejoice
The line “why did You let them leave and then make me stay?” has always given me chills. Now thrust into indie rock stardom, Julien Baker’s debut Sprained Ankle told the story of a troubled teen Baker who crashed her car and went to rehab at an inconceivably young age. With “Rejoice,” Baker repeats a single guitar line over and over again until it crescendos to the belted prayer “I rejoice, I rejoice.” Sometimes emotional drama is at its most powerful in a stark landscape.
7. Cloud Nothings — Wasted Days
When I was writing The Deer I would often stop and listen to Attack on Memory late at night, smoking cigarettes under the open moon. “Wasted Days” is the album’s famed 9-minute jam, in which what begins as a post-punk twist on the midwestern emo genre descends into something akin to free form jazz. “Wasted” taught me how formal experimentation can arise naturally from an emotionally fraught state without a hint of contrivance. The album’s producer, Steve Albini, is legendary for his documentarian approach to records, and here, the brilliant Dylan Baldi and gang sound just as wild and uproarious as they do on stage.
8. Mary Halvorson — Away with You, No. 55
Jazz guitarist extraordinaire Mary Halvorson is master of the motif, transmuting harmonic blocks up and down the guitar neck in shocking new assemblages. Away with You, No. 55 is most astounding to me, however, because of its long, careful drum solo, whose subtle textures and light brushes call to mind the loose, temporally dilating rhythm of speech. Oftentimes in writing The Deer, I would think of its rhythm while I wrote.
9. Delia Derbyshire — “Falling”, from The Dreams
The “unsung heroine of electronic music,” Delia Derbyshire worked with poet Barry Bermange to construct The Dreams from spliced together footage of different interviewees describing their dreams. The word “falling” appears often in musical lyrics, but here the phrase is repeated so much it undertakes a kind of semantic satiation, in which the long vowels of the word fade into the ambient bedding Derbyshrie tucks behind them, and I, as a listener, am left descending into the unknown.
10. William Basinski — Dlp 1.1
The first line of Side B of The Deer—“I am alive but not alive”—came from an old iPhone voice recording in which I had repeated the phrase over and over again through the swinging blades of a table fan. Like The Disintegration Loops or Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room, Side B of The Deer plays out through sliced, remixed reels, shredded into oblivion. At some point, the echoes swallow the original sound whole. The question is: what are we left with?
Dashiel Carrera is a writer, musician, and media artist from Newton, Massachusetts. He received his BA from Brown University in Literary Arts and is currently a PhD student in Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Toronto. The Deer is his first novel.