The eight songs on this playlist didn't "inspire" The Buried Giant
, nor did I play them out loud while writing. And with the notable exception of the Arvo Part, the visual landscapes conjured up by these tracks are unlikely to match the setting of the novel. But each of them relates in some significant way — usually at the level of theme or emotion — to what happens in the story. I'm not going to spell out just how — I'll leave that to you. But let me say a little about why each song is special for me.
1. "Hickory Wind" by Emmylou Harris
There's a great subgenre of songs about homesickness, in which we're left unsure just what it is the singer is really missing. A place? A person? Or maybe an era of his or her life spent there? I love it when a song deliberately plays on this ambiguity. "Georgia on My Mind" is a classic example. (Georgia, of course, could be the place or a woman's name.) The wonderful Irish weepie, "The Mountains of Mourne" is another. But Emmylou's plaintive reading of this Gram Parsons song is my choice here.
2. "Did I Ever Love You?" by Leonard Cohen
This is from Cohen's latest album, released as he approached 80. It's up there with his finest songs: desperate, hilarious, heartrending. The singer's barked question, "Did I ever love you?" sounds like it's become the biggest one he could ask about himself. He sounds furious, not so much at the woman he addresses, as at the bewildering speed with which the years have vanished, and the coming of doubt about his life's meaning. His follow-up question is even more of a killer: "Was I ever someone / Who could love you forever?" But for all the despair, you sense the answer is "Yes." The funniest and saddest song I've heard in years.
3. "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" by Arvo Pärt
This was suggested by Stephen Page, musician and CEO of Faber (my UK publisher), when we were struggling to find music to accompany a short video promo for The Buried Giant. As soon as he mentioned it, I knew it was right. Pärt is a remarkable figure who seems to stand by himself outside time or genre. His work is modern, sometimes avant-garde, yet appears to emerge from a mediaeval world. This track matches perfectly the bleak, windswept landscapes of my novel. But he's a giant composer and needs to be listened to unencumbered by such associations!
4. "Blame It on My Youth" by Keith Jarrett Trio
I only know this song in instrumental form, so I can't tell you what the title actually refers to. Is it what a teenager might say to a traffic cop when caught speeding? ("I'm only young, officer. It's not my fault!") Or are these the sentiments of someone advanced in years, who looks back and sees the course of their life has been crucially defined by decisions taken — or not taken — in youth? The way Jarrett's trio plays it here, it has to be the latter. The music unfolds as warm, poignant recollection. There is some regret about those wild years and what they might have cost. But not too much.
5. "Keeper of the Flame" by Nina Simone
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So many love songs are about the start of love or the end of love. This one's about the battle to keep love alive over the long distance, through hostile, inclement conditions. Simone was surely one of the very greatest singers ever. She brings resolution, stoicism, and courage to the song, as well as a sense of carrying wounds that may never heal.
6. "Man with a Harmonica" by Ennio Morricone
This comes from the soundtrack of perhaps the greatest Western movie ever made — Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. The harmonica you hear swaying in and out becomes increasingly significant in the film's plot, until we realize it's an emblem for a haunted man's darkest memory, and a talisman for bitter revenge. This music accompanies the final one-on-one confrontation between the film's two master gunfighters. It's full of violence and hatred, but tinged also with a Proust-like wonder at memory's power to transport one back to a vanished past.
7. "Dark Turn of Mind" by Gillian Welch
This song's eerie power comes from what the singer isn't quite telling us — what lies between, or perhaps buried beneath, the words she offers with apparent candour. It's not stated, but you sense the indelible damage done in the past to the singer's very soul, and also, chillingly, the capacity for vengeance to be taken out on anyone unwary or innocent enough to come near. Gillian Welch is a songwriter of the highest order, and she and David Rawlings have taken the art of the acoustic duo to a new level.
8. "The Summer We Crossed Europe in the Rain" by Stacey Kent
Am I allowed to do this? Here's one of several songs I've co-written over the past decade with saxophonist Jim Tomlinson for this sublime jazz singer. Since this is a playlist to accompany The Buried Giant, I can perhaps be excused for closing it with a song whose lyrics I wrote while working on the book. The couple in the song are no longer young. The years have taken a toll on their marriage, and on them as individuals. So they resolve to go on a journey, one they hope will recapture the romance of their youth and remind them of why they love each other. Stacey Kent is a singer who, like today's best movie actors, never displays her superb technique ostentatiously, but deploys it for the subtle creation of character and nuance. She's as good as it gets, and I'm truly lucky to be able to write for her.