Booklover’s Blog

Can music truly chime with reading?

Το να προσπαθείς να χάσεις τον εαυτό σου μέσα σε ένα βιβλίο, ενώ επικρατεί τριγύρω σου η οχλαγωγία του 21 αι. είναι μία πρόκληση. Ένας συνθέτης πιστεύει ότι βρήκε λύση στο πρόβλημα όλων όσων αγαπούν το βιβλίο, αλλά δεν μπορούν να το ευχαριστηθούν.

In an ideal world, I suppose, we’d all be able to read in peace and silence. But we live in a world full of engine noise, pneumatic drills, headphone leakage, people yakking at mobile phones and, worst of all, piped music.

A few years ago, I tried to write a blog about using music to combat aural sludge and didn’t come up with anything ideal. I found some benefit in matching up Neil Young’s yowling, feedback-heavy Dead Man soundtrack to the gloomy westerns of Cormac McCarthy and made the obvious connection between A Clockwork Orange’s scenes of ultraviolence with Ludwig Van. Readers of the blog also made a few excellent suggestions – such as combining particle physics textbooks with Aphex Twin and mid-20th century heroin-inspired masterworks like The Man With The Golden Arm and Last Exit to Brooklyn with well-chosen jazz.

The trouble is that these suggestions only work in pretty specific circumstances; and there’s always the worry that any other music will be at odds with whatever you’re reading. Light piano music is a nice gentle noise blocker in plenty of circumstances – but hardly ideal when you’re reading about space battles. Ambient music doesn’t go with comedy. Nothing goes with James Joyce.

So I was impressed, if sceptical, when a musician called Steve Buick contacted me to say that he’d also been thinking along similar lines – and declared: “I decided to tackle this issue myself.”

Buick, who, in his own words, produces, “epic movie promos for Sky” has put together a series of “long evolved soundscapes” to accompany horror novels, science fiction novels and thrillers, as well as specific books by Neal Asher, Allan Leverone and Peter F Hamilton. He started working on the project back in the 1990s when he wrote some music based on Arthur C Clarke novels. Buick says he went to Sri Lanka to visit the great man – who called him on Boxing Day 1997, said he liked the project and that he “wished he and Stanley Kubrick had heard it when they were making 2001”. That moment became “the touch paper” for the wider project, and most specifically the album Music for Reading Science Fiction.

Whatever I may think of its suitability as an accompaniment for fiction, the first thing to say is that this piece of music is rather lovely, not to mention evocative. It’s full of long low notes, and gentle twinkles, slow dark echoes and quick moments of light. It might well be to do with the power of suggestion and the title, but I did get a feeling of the vastness of space. I could easily imagine it spurring my sense of wonder as I read something like Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama or Larry Niven’s Ringworld.

The music also reminds me (and this is high praise) of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports and his famous suggestion that ambient music should be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” I’ve been zoning in and out of it nicely while writing this article – and this, Buick says, is crucial. He wanted to produce: “music that is heavily atmospheric, while avoiding sudden peaks and dramatic changes in volume. The music can ebb and flow throughout the journey of a story. Drama without distraction.”

This idea works pretty neatly on the Music for Reading Horror album too, which relies on gentle chills rather than the quiet-quiet-LOUD sequences and sudden bumps of most modern horror movies. It’s all cold hands moving up and down your back, glassy patterings, wind and low bass drones. Meanwhile, the thriller music, as you might expect, has a steady pulsing rhythm and more urgency. I’ve moved onto that as I approach my deadline for this article – and it’s certainly added a little something to my quest to get these words down as soon as I can.

It remains to be seen how much I’ll want to listen to these records while actually reading novels, and if they really will fit in with their emotional peaks and troughs, drama and quietness. I’ll also still be impressed if anyone manages to come up with an accompaniment for modernism. But for the time being I have to admit that I’m enjoying Buick’s productions. It certainly beats listening to sodcasts of Kanye West.


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