Joe Mungo Reed’s Playlist for His Novel “Hammer”

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In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

“Reed’s riveting second novel is at once a romance, a geopolitical thriller, a meditation on art, and an investigation of the moral compromises that everyone makes in the gravitational presence of wealth. Reed does a masterful job of complicating his characters’ motivations…Richly textured, compulsively readable, and brilliant throughout.”

In his own words, here is Joe Mungo Reed’s Book Notes music playlist for his novel Hammer:

Autumn 1 – Max Richter, Raphael Alpermann, Daniel Hope, Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin, Andre de Ridder

The first mention of music in Hammer is when one of the main characters, Martin, goes into the bathroom at the auction house at which he works and encounters a colleague humming Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons.’ I chose to mention this piece of music because it felt suited to the building atmosphere at auction house on the night of a sale: grand, confident, perhaps even too brashly obvious. I’ve chosen the Max Richter ‘recomposition’ here, because this stripped-back version feels true to how the piece might be hummed. I’ve selected ‘Autumn’ because this is the season in which the novel opens.

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988: Aria – Johann Sebastian Bach, Glenn Gould

The novel is set in motion by a chance meeting between old friends, Martin and Marina. Martin works at an auction house, while Marina has married a wealthy oligarch, Oleg, whose art collection is much coveted by the house’s specialists. When Martin and Marina last knew each other they were at university, along with a mutual friend, James. Marina and James were both studying music at that time, and coming to terms with the limits of their own abilities as musicians. Later in the novel, Marina watches James play the piano in a run-down hotel bar, comparing the rigidity of his style with the spontaneity and passion of a true virtuoso like Glenn Gould.

Marquee Moon – Television

Another musical interest of Marina’s is American proto-punk. This is not so much because she loves the sound, but because interest in this niche was a route to friendship with another girl at the English boarding school at which Marina felt like an outsider. I chose to mention this particular song, ‘Marquee Moon,’ because it feels like a piece of music that fits uneasily within the genre (and thus mirrors Marina’s marginal status). Next the records of the New York Dolls or the Ramones, those of Television seem strikingly ponderous and delicate.

Common People – Pulp

Meeting her old university friends causes Marina to reflect on a time when she was trying to disguise her privileged background. She thinks back to days when she was studying and attempting to spend as little money as other students despite the fact that her father was a multi-millionaire. On this theme, Pulp’s catchy song about a rich woman slumming it at art school seems very appropriate.

Ode to Divorce – Regina Spektor

At the outset of the novel, Oleg and Marina are struggling in their marriage. The relationship seems anheconic, characterised by an emptiness that both characters spend the novel seeking to escape in different ways. This song evokes such a faltering, stale relationship.

Grandfather’s House – Brian Eno, John Cale

There are two country houses in Hammer: Oleg’s large mansion, and the sprawling commune in which Martin grew up. Both houses are ones that characters are considering leaving behind. This song – in which the narrator speaks sadly of losing a family home – speaks of a similarly wrenching departure from a country house.

Arcadiana: VI. O Albion – Thomas Adès, Calder Quartet

In saying goodbye to the home in which Martin and James grew up, James plays a piece of music of his own composition. I wanted to represent this moment by including a piece by a contemporary British composer in this playlist. The gesture in the title towards a nostalgic kind of Englishness seems appropriate to moment in which characters bid farewell to an idyllic-seeming home on a warm day summer day.

Your Song – Elton John

At one point in Hammer, Marina decides to organise a birthday party for her husband Oleg. In considering her plans for this event, she recalls that Oleg’s ex-wife once organised him a private party at which Elton John played. I’m not sure how many private concerts Elton John really does play, but it seemed like the kind of thing that might happen at a particularly lavish event. I’ve chosen to represent this moment in the novel with ‘Your Song,’ because I can imagine the sentiment speaking to a rich oligarch who is used to possessing whatever they wish. I can picture the line, “you can tell everybody that this is your song,” being gratifying an acquisitive character like Oleg.

First Viola Sonata – Nikolai Roslavets, Lawrence Power, Simon Crawford-Phillips

The jewel of Oleg’s prized art collection is a painting by Kazimir Malevich, and Malevich’s work is discussed at a number of points in Hammer. Roslavets and Malevich were contemporaries, who moved in the same artistic circles and shared similar aims. Both were excited by the idea of revolutionising their artforms, but both suffered persecution as their approaches fell out favour when the preferences of the Soviet state shifted towards more conventionally ideological works of art and away from those created with an ethos of radical aesthetic experimentation. As was the case with Malevich, Roslavets’ artistic reputation was only revived in the final years of the USSR, many decades after his death.

Joe Mungo Reed was born in London and raised in Gloucestershire, England. He has a degree in philosophy and politics from the University of Edinburgh, an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University, and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Manchester. He is the author of the novel, We Begin Our Ascent, and his short stories have appeared in VQR, the London Evening Standard, and Corriere della Sera. He is currently living in Edinburgh, UK.

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