Kage Baker loved music. Most people do, I guess. But Kage was one of those folks whose life required a soundtrack, and she worked hard at achieving that.

She said it was because of growing up with cartoons. At an early age, she became convinced that life needed background music – and since she grew up on Warner Brothers and King Features and Silly Symphonies and Fantasia, she had a strong inclination to classical music and peculiar pop songs. Saturday concerts and music hall; performed by willow trees playing harp on their own trailing hair, and elephants who blew cool clarinet jazz on their trunks.

When Kage was working, especially on a novel, the soundtrack was vital to her process. It often wasn’t anything that would have made sense on a point-to-point comparison – and anyway, there aren’t many time travel sonatas available. What was needed was some unique connection for Kage, wherein some melody found its true meaning in the story in her brain. I always understood why Tudor dance music was played a lot while she wrote Garden of Iden; but I never understood how the Police’s Synchronicity fit in. It did, though.

Once Kage had settled on whatever music was appropriate, she played that. Only that. Over and over and over … which was often a bit weird, but Kage’s OCD habits produced impromptu art as a matter of course. The Empress of Mars was written to the sound of Vaughn Williams’  Sinfonia Antarctica and Gilbert & Sullivan’s Princess Ida. Some of that makes obvious sense, but the rest remains a mystery. Even to me.

I need music when I write, too. I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s: we all need music while we work; it’s part of our shared generational psyche. I’m not as focused as Kage, and I’m also not as obsessive – I get bored. I like variety. The radio is cool, but you must risk getting a dud in the mix. Therefore the great joy of Pandora Online Radio, for which I must thank the tech-savvy Neassa, who turned me on to it.

I have an English Folk channel there, that rarely fails me. Sometimes it’s disastrous – it just gave me “Fotheringay” followed by some tripe by Van Morrison, of all things; and Jethro Tull has a habit of sneaking in … but that can be amusing. Pandora’s algorhithm, for example, sees a deep relationship between  “A Parcel of Rogues” and “Four Dead in Ohio”.

Sometimes, though, the mix is like standing target for a knife-throwing act. Some song will come up without warning that was one Kage and I used to sing: road music, travelling music, Faire music. Steeleye Span and Pentangle and Stan Rogers. I sing along by habit, and I usually break down midway through when the harmony fails to materialize. Kage sang harmony; she said a soprano, like me, needed to concentrate too much on just getting oxygen to come up with harmony. And she heard the harmonies naturally; her alto was a trellis of hot bronze where my colder, thinner voice could find the support it needed. Without it, I’m just kind of … shrill.

But the music is still important to the writing; even the music that is lined with razors. Sometimes I can hear her voice in it, and it gets into what I write. That’s worth it. It’s another sort of harmony, and if I don’t quite understand how it works – well, I didn’t understand how Mendolssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream evoked Alec and Captain Morgan, either: but it fueled Kage to write The Machine’s Child.

It’s all mysteries and harmonies. I cry when I hear Stan Rogers sing; and then I cry when I hear his brother Garnet sing because I can feel him crying as he sings. Me, I don’t sing quite as much as I used to. But I haven’t forgotten any of the words.

So now I’m off to raise the Mary Ellen Carter, I guess. That her name not be lost to the knowledge of men …



About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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9 Responses to Harmony

  1. mizkizzle says:

    If you ever have to make a trailer for a book, because books are apparently supposed to have trailers now, just like movies, there are sites online that have hundreds of music samples to choose from. You pick a sample that makes a connection in your brain to whatever goes on in your book and voila! There’s the background music for your trailer.
    It’s pretty cool, actually.


  2. Marc Bailey says:

    High, thin harmonies are a fine thing. Art Garfunkle, Graham Nash and Alison Krauss offer great examples. Sing on, Kate!


  3. Tom says:

    Rise again, rise again . . . Tears, yes.


  4. maggiros says:

    When I was working for Harlan Ellison, I don’t know if the music had much to do with the story but he would put an album on and let it play over and over while he was writing. And since it was an LP on a record player, it would get to the end, the needle would lift up and gently drop down again at the top of the first track, and away it would go. So I heard one side of the soundtrack to Orca about a hundred times one week, or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, or some other Morrecone soundtrack he was currently in love with. Not always movies, It could be Django Reinhart or Les Paul, but it’s the movie albums I think of. I learned a lot from Harlan, 🙂


    • Kate says:

      It’s a kind of writer thing. An obsessive kind of writer, evidently. Although it may be just an artistic tendency – Kage’s mother did the same thing while painting. She was evicted from an apartment building in the Hollywood Hills for putting the 1812 Overture on infinite repeat …


  5. Kara says:

    ‘Mary Ellen Carter’ is such a perfect song for Marswife!


    • Kate says:

      Really? I guess so. And I’ve run it by a couple of other people, and they agree with you. So that may the one – maybe a Stan Rogers mix, with that as the lead. We shall see whether or not my head explodes – although Kimberly noted it would be in a good cause …


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