Silent No More! Relations Between Books and Music
I’m currently paging through a book by Daniel Handler, himself a new-money chap, which is structured in a unique way; unlike the average novel, broken down into chapters, this book is divided into two parts, the first presented as an opera and the second as a 12-step program to recovery. In the operatic part—I have not yet reached part two—frequently mentions what the accompanying opera music would sound like: the lilting flutes as a character tries to seem jovial or casual, the crescendo of the strings as something dramatic is about to happen, and an unsettling theme referred to as “The Unknown Dread.”
It’s a strange, virtual experience: a novel that is an opera that is an experience told as a first-person narrative. I simply don’t know, when imagining the events in my head, whether to think of them as reality, or to imagine everything playing out on a stage in front of an audience (there’s a curious scene that takes place inside a props studio for a theater company, in which I wonder: are those daggers held by a major character described as fake because they are fake within the narrative’s reality, or are they fake in this meta-reality of the opera? In a work of fiction, what even is more real than the daggers?)
I’m getting way ahead of myself, I apologize. But I bring this novel up because I am so interested in the use of music—or rather, the suggestion of music—within this novel to help set tone. The novel is a silent medium, after all, unlike poetry. But not for long, if a new company, Booktrack, is successful: founded by brothers Mark and Paul Cameron, Booktrack is publishing e-books for iPad and iPhone—and more devices soon, including Android, computer and other e-readers—which will feature soundtracks that correspond to the line the reader is on. For example, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, as the reader finds mention that a woman screams in the distance, a scream will be heard; ambient rain sets the tone. You can see, or hear, for yourself what it’s like by viewing the trailer.
Upon first hearing the idea, I abhorred it; why should a book need music? After all, isn’t one of the pleasures of language sound? Wouldn’t all the noise break concentration? Then again, I find myself reading alongside music, provided there are no lyrics, more and more often. For example, with this Handler novel I’ve been listening to the Heathered Pearls album Polite Isle. One particular song from the album, “Steady Veil,” is rather like pink noise with a little bit more of a tune to it. Once I watched the trailer for Booktrack’s Sherlock Holmes, I thought, “There is something here.” But when I saw the trailer for the young-adult novel The Power of Six, I felt incredibly stressed out and unable to enjoy the experience. Though of course the protagonist felt stressed in that scene, I am sure, so perhaps it works. But I would rather not feel stressed out by reading a novel. Still, I do look forward to seeing what Booktrack publishes in the future.
I’m curious if Donnybrook readers listen to music while reading fiction and if so, what they’re listening too—in fact, what are you listening to reading this, right now?
To my surprise, the Internet has allowed for a music-with-reading culture to flourish. Booktunes, creates music playlists to accompany books (the two playlists for Murakami’s upcoming 1Q84 made waves throughout the blogosphere) alongside interviews with writers whose books are represented on the website. The concept here does make a lot of sense; in my preteen days when I read quite an embarrassing amount of fantasy novels—I refuse to reveal the series here—whenever I heard Dido’s song “White Flag” on the radio I would be taken back to the world of a favorite trilogy, important scenes of which would replay in my mind to the lyrics.
David Gutowski, on his music and culture blog Largehearted Boy, invites authors to share a music playlist based on their recently-published books, explaining their idea of why they associate those songs with the book. It provides opportunity sometimes in a special insight on how a book is written, and creates an interesting new context in which an author may discuss his or her writing and creative process.
For similar reasons, I find it helpful for readers to link up music to books, tonally or content-wise. By using the Dido song mentioned, I could describe to you my memory of that fantasy trilogy, revealing which scenes made the greatest impressions on me and why, open up the lyrics of the song to analyze a character in the novel. As a writer, one could easily use a song as a starting point to create a situation or character; it’s much like how poets and fiction writers may use art to inspire written works.
The culture of recommending songs based off of novels is, of course, different than assigning sound effects and ambiance to e-books, though, to make a generalized, blanket conclusion, I like the idea of mediums coming together. After all, as the debate between e-books and paper-books continues, it’s useful to highlight ways we can use e-books to improve upon the reading experience in ways that we cannot with traditional ones. But what do you think?