Song of the Far Isles is a beautifully magical tale of the music that makes us who we are.
Oran lives on the island of Little Drum where music is everything: birth instruments, life songs and the ghasts (their ancestors who linger to hear the music).
But everything changes when the Duchess arrives from the mainland and orders silence. No more music. Life as they know it, any life at all, will soon disappear.
Oran and her ghast friend, Alick, can’t bear for this to happen. They are determined to find a very special mythical instrument, play it and change the Duchess’ mind, even if it means defying her parents’ expectations and making promises she’s not sure she can keep. Their action-packed quest takes them across the sea, into the path of some musically inclined pirates and towards the secret and unexpected.
The strength of music at the heart of the community in this story is incredible. It is their identify, their history, their memories – the connections between every part of life. The power of the old music runs deep.
I’m honoured to welcome author, Nicholas Bowling, to Scope for Imagination with a wonderful guest post about the music that inspired this story of tradition, folklore and family.
Five pieces of music that helped inspire writing Song of the Far Isles
One of the real pleasures of writing Song of the Far Isles was that I could legitimately spend hours listening to music and justify it to myself as “research”. I listened to all kinds of things while the book was under construction, but there were a handful of pieces that I always returned to capture the spirit of Oran’s story. Fair warning: it’s an eclectic bunch.
- Hebrides Overture, Mendelssohn
Song of the Far Isles isn’t set in Scotland, but the music and the language and the landscape have an obviously Hebridean feel. I absolutely love Lewis and Harris. The opening of Mendelssohn’s overture captures the thrilling wildness of those islands, with their frothing seas and cold winds and huge skies. It’s a hair-raising blood-tingler of a melody. I recommend sticking it on when reading the first few pages of the book – you’ll feel like you’re standing on the prow of Oran’s boat as the storm rolls in.
- Humpback Whale, Nic Jones
SOTFI is not just about music. It’s also about the sea, and the traditions associated with it. This song – about a man joining a whaling crew – captures all those things in a way that’s both melancholy and joyful at exactly the time, while never feeling sentimental. Nic Jones’ tuning and fingering are both absolutely bananas – they give the song a hint of otherness that’s part of the Far Isles and their music. I also just think “Forget your snapper and your prawn” is about the best refrain in any song ever written.
- Familiarity, Punch Brothers
I could have picked virtually any track by the Punch Brothers or their band leader, Chris Thile. Broadly speaking their music is bluegrass, which I always think has a particularly distilled flavour of that yearning, elegiac quality in all folk music. But it is so much more than just bluegrass – their songs are inflected with jazz and classical and every other genre under the sun. I think of it as the kind of music Oran would play: fresh and exciting, while true to its traditional roots; virtuosic and clever, while remaining heartfelt and authentic and as likely to move you to tears as to a wild, idiotic jig.
- Westminster Mass III, Roxana Panufnik
One of the central ideas of Song of the Far Isles is “The Old Music” – the kind of music that was used to create and reshape the world. I imagined it as being somewhere between chaos and order, sounding both beautiful and terrifying (what Frances Hardinge might describeas “frecht” in her amazing Deeplight). This choral piece comes close to what I had in my head. I still can’t make up my mind whether it’s the most exquisite thing I’ve ever heard, or pure hell. It’s both, I think. Listen if you dare. It’ll turn you inside out.
- The Curse of Monkey Island OST
Bear with me on this one. It’s no secret that all the creative endeavours of my adult life have been spent trying to recapture what I felt when I first played this game, aged eleven. I’ve realised recently that at least half of the pleasure in playing any of the Monkey Island games is in the soundtrack. As with most of the music above, the most compelling thing about it is the way it blends joy (and silliness) with a kind of wistful melancholy. Add in the ambient sounds of chirping crickets and lapping waves and creaking ship’s timbers, and you’ve got a three-hour audio feast of evocative loveliness.
SONG OF THE FAR ISLES by Nicholas Bowling out now in paperback (£7.99, Chicken House)
Follow Nicholas on twitter @thenickbowling and find out more at chickenhousebooks.com
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