“Incendio”: the story behind the music by Tess Gerritsen

Posted on 5th November 2015 by Tess Gerritsen
Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen has composed a piece of music to accompany her new book, Playing With Fire. Here she talks a little about the inspiration behind the two interconnected works.
While in Venice for my 60th birthday, I had a nightmare.  I dreamt I was playing my violin while a baby sat beside me.  The melody I played was strange and disturbing, and the baby’s eyes suddenly glowed red and she transformed into a monster. That nightmare turned into my novel Playing with Fire.  It’s about an obscure piece of handwritten music called “Incendio,” which makes a three-year-old girl go berserk every time she hears her mother play it on the violin.

In the book I describe the music as a beautiful and mournful waltz which accelerates in tempo and climbs in a series of arpeggios high “into the stratosphere.”  Then the melody twists and turns, transforming into a “malevolent” piece, harsh with augmented fourth chords.  During the Middle Ages these were called “Devil’s chords” and were actually banned from ecclesiastical music because they were considered evil.  Even though “Incendio” didn’t exist outside my story, I needed to describe this fictional piece with enough detail to make my readers understand why the music might make a three-year-old go berserk, yet be beautiful enough to enchant everyone who listens to it.

I was halfway through writing the novel when the music itself came to me in a dream.  I think that all those months of writing about “Incendio” had somehow worked its way into my subconscious, and I woke up with the melody in my head: a mournful waltz, just as I’d described in the story.  Immediately I sat down at my piano and played the first 16 bars, recording it on my phone so I wouldn’t lose it. Now I had the first motif, which I composed in the key of E minor because of its rich sound on the violin, and because it would simplify the playing of double-stops,  which are two strings played simultaneously.  The first 42 bars came quickly to me: the opening melody followed by a more complex variation of that melody, then the introduction of a second motif, and then…

That’s where I ran into trouble.   As a child, I learned to play both the violin and piano, but I have no formal training in music composition.  Over the years, I’ve composed waltzes and jigs for my jam session friends, but never anything classical like this.  Here my challenge was to build a quiet waltz into something that grows more and more disturbing and diabolical, something complex enough to challenge even an excellent violinist.  I already knew it would end in a series of funereal chords echoing the opening melody.  But the crazy, diabolical part in between? I had no idea how to make that happen.

I spent days at the piano, building onto my piece a few measures at a time.  I ended up trashing most of the new measures.  At the worst possible time, I had to leave on book tour.  While traveling, whenever a fragment of music would pop into my head, I’d frantically scribble the notes on manuscript paper, which I carried with me everywhere.  I also worked with “Noteflight”, a music writing program I have on my iPad.  It has an audio playback feature, which is handy if you can’t get to a keyboard and you want to listen to the section you’ve just composed.
In all, it took me about six weeks to write the entire 98-bar “Incendio”.  The violin part is far too difficult for me to play, and I knew I’d need a superb violinist to record it.  I shared my piece with a London music producer, and he recommended Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, the international concert violinist. He felt she had the fire and passion to bring “Incendio” to life.

The very first time Susanne and I spoke over the phone, I knew she was the right choice.  She was living in Paris at the time, and she described what it was like to practice “Incendio” with her windows open, the music pouring out over the streets of that beautiful city.  She’d read the manuscript of Playing with Fire so she knew that the music has a tragic love story behind it, and those emotions come through in every soulful note from her violin.  Susanne threw herself so completely into the project that she even contributed her own frantic cadenza toward the end of the recording, to emphasize the heroine’s descent into madness. 
Creating both the story and the music has been a strange journey for me, one that I never imagined would happen.  I think of Playing with Fire and “Incendio” as gifts from the universe, mysteriously handed to me in the form of dreams.  I can’t imagine something like this will ever happen to me again.


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