Extended Play: the Elastic Book of Music, Gary Couzens (ed.)

Review by Jonathan Oliver

Like a masterful DJ picking all the right tracks in the right order Gary Couzens has brought together some of the best stories about sounds, songs, music and their impact and put them together in one mega-album of a collection. Throughout these literary tracks are interspersed anecdotes, reminiscences and thoughts on music’s relationship to literature by some of the most respected musicians around, including Chris Stein of Blondie, J.J. Burnel of The Stranglers and Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol.

This is such a wonderful idea and it really gives Extended Play something of an edge, an added depth of insight. And as for the fiction itself, I really can’t fault Gary Couzens’ choices. He has an excellent ear for what good fiction should be.

We open with ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ by Marion Arnott who is, for my money, one of the best crime and horror writers around. Her work is extraordinarily dark yet also profoundly beautiful and lyrical and ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ displays her talents beautifully. Here the music in the story is the rhythm of abuse meted out on Francis by his horror of a father. To escape this abuse Francis finds out that he can leave his body. He also finds out that he can enter the bodies of others and it is here that the anger Francis has had beaten into him explodes hideously into a violent cacophony. This story will leave you shaken and its rhythms will stay with you well after the story is finished.

Next is Andrew Humphrey’s story ‘Last Song’ in which Cal meets and falls in love with Lucy, a musician who is also strongly attracted to Cal’s brother Paul who is something of an ex-rock star. Humphrey feeds doubts into the reader as to whether Lucy is of this earth or whether she is something of a muse. However, if she is a muse it is jealousy and sexual conflict that she causes in Cal, not inspiration. Humphrey’s story is quietly threatening, hinting at things lying just below the surface. A masterful tale of music and jealousy.

Relationships are also explored in ‘Tremolando’ by Becky Done in which secrets are discovered about a quartet of musicians. Each piece of the story makes up part of a textual musical movement and we find that as the symphony winds down so the relationships at its heart fall apart. I felt that this story perhaps became a little too melodramatic at the end but for a first published story ‘Tremolando’ is exceptional and I hope to see more from Done in the future.

‘Some Obscure Lesion of the Heart’ by Nels Stanley also features a Muse at its heart. Here a music journalist falls for a musician’s girlfriend. This story positively reeks of sweaty rock gigs in small rooms full of controlled violence and unchained passion. Stanley has clearly been to all these places and he brings them home to us with a raucous passion all of his own.

Tim Nickels gives us ‘Fight Music’ a science-fiction story so unlike anything else I have read in a long time that I found myself sinking into its hallucinatory world. People become weapons which are themselves musical instruments in a Russia shattered by war and mutations. It really defies description but is brilliant.

‘First and Last and Always’ by Emma Lee brings music together with a strong sense of place and geography. A story of love requited and then lost and then a love that is broken. Throughout this are dotted memories of music and cherished albums and a journey through both music and life. Lee’s story is complex and beautiful and shows how important music can be to memory.

‘A Night in Tunisia’ by Tony Richards tells of an unusual transatlantic relationship between a jazz fan and jazz musician. The influence of this little known musician makes itself felt on the central protagonist even beyond the grave until we can see the ghost of songs future stretching into the distance. A great ghost story.

‘In The Pines’ by Rosanne Rabinowitz is also something of a horror story, yet set in three distinctive time periods and following the influence of a legendary song, Into The Pines. The power of this song resonates throughout history, developing its power to break down the boundaries between worlds and give myth form. A complex and satisfying tale.

Finally we have ‘The Barrowlands’ Night’ by Philip Raines and Harvey Welles. A last night at a legendary nightclub and a violent entity known as the ‘Mosh Demon’. But this story is about much more than violence. It is also about the breakdown of family, and despair. A powerful piece to end on.

I cannot sing the praises of Elastic Press and the marvellous new collection enough. Gary Couzens has found some unique and powerful voices and added to them the voices of musicians themselves. A brilliant idea for a collection and one that shows the power of good short fiction in its best light.

Elastic Press £6.99. This review originally appeared in Prism.