Book Keeping: A Reader's Community

A Playlist on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell

Katherine Angel


I think Unmastered was most deeply nurtured and structured by music. I have come to realize that I think through music; it’s a wordless way of analyzing, of critiquing, which I can gradually translate into language. I think a lot about how the landscapes that musicians create can work as a kind of philosophical position; a kind of answer to certain questions about how to live. I like to imagine that when people ask me questions about the book, I could answer by just playing them songs . . . that would be bliss! I think music can be a more powerful form of argument than verbal argument.

In the years when the book was slowly brewing, I was listening obsessively to Kate Bush, especially The Hounds of Love and The Dreaming (both manifest themselves in Unmastered). She creates such striking, almost fantastical landscapes; her songs are panoramic. My relationship to her work is like to a body of myths: it’s an amazing repository of images, sounds, and stories that I always return to. I especially love the veritable ark of creatures careering through the music: hounds on the chase, dead foxes, sheep (‘Their breath is warm / and they smell like sleep’), white horses to ride, gulls (‘a seeking craft’), swallows (‘wings fill the window / and they beat and bleed’). There is also a lot of water: lakes (‘take my shoes off / and throw them in the lake / I’ll be two steps on the water’); rivers (‘it’s wonderful / everything so white / the river has frozen over’); and vast, terrifying oceans seen from outer space (‘Watching storms / start to form / over America / Can’t do anything / Just watch them swing with the wind out to sea’). Unmastered is, I’ve realized, quite liquid, and full of water: seas, ports, cliffs, boats. I have a fraught relationship to water; I’m terrified of deep water. I think a lot of Bush’s work deals in the hugely powerful forces of fear and desire, grating against one another. And I now see Unmastered as dealing with two forces constantly working themselves out: on the one hand, the longing to be in the water and trust it, letting the waves lap over you, whatever that water is (love, desire, grief), and, on the other hand, a terror at its power to engulf you and absorb you into its monstrous will. The phrase ‘Get out of the waves! Get out of the water!’ (from Waking the Witch) swum around in my head during the years the book was forming. The song, with its blackbirds, pink posies, and helicopter soundtrack, is about a witch trial by drowning, the sort where your clothes were weighted down with stones. If you floated, you were guilty; if you drowned, you weren’t – the perfect expression of a double bind. And in fact Unmastered is partly about double binds: the paralysis, invisibility, and silence that can be induced by ways of talking about sexuality that rely on tropes of indictment and trial. I now think of the book as my way of getting into the water, and trusting it. Getting into the water embodies the opposite sentiment from the voice in the book that says: ‘Get off the pole, you stupid bitch’.

I also listened to Nightshift, by the Commodores, an absurd amount during the time was book was gathering momentum. I discovered it through Claire Denis’s film, 35 Rhums, which I watched over and over – along with Beau Travail. She uses music in an important structural way in her films; it’s part of the conversation, part of the reflection. In 35 Rhums, the moment when Nightshift plays is quietly erotic; there’s a sadness to it; it’s a moment of a daughter detaching herself from her father, and turning her attention to another man. It’s a very charged, pulsating, ambivalent scene.

Joy Division is also a band I returned to repeatedly. I think of their music as incredibly tight and disciplined, but always threatening to spill over, erupt, break down. ‘Disorder’ is a perfect example. There’s a kind of contained sense of chaos in it; it’s extremely sculpted. Nothing is superfluous; their music is scalpel-like, and works at a pace that I think triggers a slight sense of fear and fretfulness. But it’s also bare and focused. It’s the musical form of the kind of writing I like, I guess. There’s also something shrugging, indifferent about their relationship to audience; their songs present you with something; they just show you something. They don’t try to help you. In ‘Disorder’, Ian Curtis’s voice, along with the bass, is precise, almost military. It’s repetitive, it induces a slight sense of trance, but then a sense of disintegration comes in, almost from outside the song; strange whooshing sounds. Curtis changes register and everything begins to evaporate. It’s unresolved. It just stops. I love that—the confidence to just do something, and then walk away.

When I’m actually writing, I can rarely listen to anything with a human voice. And the music has to be just the right amount and right kind of stimulation; I need it to help me go in the direction I’m already going in, without shaping that direction. While writing Unmastered I listened, obsessively, to Michael Nyman, especially his music for Peter Greenaway’s films—his reworkings of Purcell and Mozart in The Draughtsman’s Contract and Drowning By Numbers. ‘Wheelbarrow Walk’ is a perfect example of Nyman at his most playful. The strings are precise and cutting; the saxes and clarinets create a kind of sexy, knowing lilt. It’s joyful, and slightly lewd. ‘Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds’ has an air of fortitude and defiance to it. It’s supremely mischievous. His music has this motoring effect on me; it gives me courage. I think Nyman’s also playing with sincerity and performance, with conviction and artifice. There’s something slightly arch and flourishing about ‘Chasing Sheep’—it makes me want to do an elaborate curtsey in some improbable headgear—but it’s also full of a heartfelt joy, a will to life and pleasure. His pieces often open at an already insistent, urgent pitch and intensity: they’re unapologetic. I went to see him and his band at the South Bank in London; they opened with this and it was like a shot of adrenaline in my arm; I was on a baroque high for several days.

Listen to the Unmastered playlist here.

KATHERINE ANGEL is the author of Unmastered. She is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine at Warwick University. She has written on sexuality, pornography, and the relationship between culture and desire for The IndependentProspect, and The Observer, among others. She lives in London.

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