Soundtrack to Literature: A Marriage of Arts
Lou Reed is arguably one of the most innovative recording artists of the past three decades. Just to get an idea of how big his influence was, one need only consider U2’s Bono words about him: “every song we’ve written was a rip-off of a Lou Reed song.” One of the features that set him apart was his thirst for challenging both listener and himself- the comfort zone was a limbo he was not too fond of. Thus, it should come as to no surprise that one of his most ambitious projects was delivered in 2003 when he decided to explore the tortured art of what he called his “spiritual forefather”: the nineteenth century master of Gothic Horror himself, Edgar Allan Poe.
The child borne out of this act of love was an ambitious combination of Edgar Allan Poe's poems and stories and Reed’s torturous soundtracks that saw the light of day first as a musical, then as a music album and finally as a graphical novel. It tuned out that Reed’s own vision of the beauty of sorrow was a fit-for-purpose companion for the horror writer’s musings and that’s why the American singer managed to bridge the centuries to provide a unique vision of beauty and horror for the modern era.
Whether one is into this sort of Gothic delicacy, it is hard not to appreciate the forward-thinking prowess of Reed. Just browsing through the graphical novel, one cannot regard the illustrations of Lorenzo Mattotti with indifference- the impossible geometries of shadows and characters, the abstract use of colours that are almost a parody of colourfulness, the inhuman postures of tortured meditation, the mixture of artistic depth and almost childlike sketches- all serve to pour life into Poe’s twisted narrations that had to spring from a very personal hell of his. Now take these visions, listen to Reed’s music and read poe’s poems and stories infused with heartbreak, mist, war, creatures, desperation, the love of death and death of love and you can fully imbibe the artist’s contribution: It is a merger of words, colour and sonic beauty that almost seemed destined to come together, even though conceived centuries apart.
How far ahead of his time was Reed? Whereas in the art of movie making it is very common to see a combination of visual and musical art, this is still uncommon in literature. With audiobooks on the rise readers are now being treated with the deeper experience of having a haunting tale being narrated by professional actors who are adept in giving life to emotions described by words and characters designed on pages. But how would it be if we did it Lou Reed’s way and provide layers of music to enhance the experience? How many times have you seen readers on bus attempt that by listening to their Ipod whilst reading, perhaps choosing songs that correspond to the emotions being described on paper? The human experience is a marriage of five senses that create memorable moments of existence. We see this in musicals, movies, theatre, dances, so why can’t we see it happening in literature?
Mark and Paul Cameron, the CEO’s of a company called Booktrack, decided to do just that. Over the course of about three years, the Cameron brothers set up a service to provide movie-like soundtracks for digital books, five of which are available now for download onto an iPhone or iPad. Creative designers read each book and determine what music and sounds should be used, and where. It all comes together with a composer, an audio technician, and sometimes, a sound producer. Cameron said it was only natural to seek out sound experts from the film industry, and they try to work with writers when they can. "It's almost like having your own personal conductor directing you as you're reading," Cameron explained.
Of course, this is not for everyone. Critics might point out that reading is a very personal experience and each reader makes up her own movie, soundtrack and special effects in her own mind. By creating a soundtrack for a book one might be intruding on such an experience and lift off some of the illusion that comes with reading a book. And what about the pace? Each reader creates his own experience by altering the reading pace according the segments of the book that mean the most to him. How would a soundtrack affect this? Indeed, some argue that the whole nature of book reading changes. David Gutowski, better known as "Large Hearted Boy," blogs about books and music, writing and soundtracks. "Once you add music to a book and as one piece of art, I don't know if you can call that a book anymore. It's more of a multimedia experience," he says.
As always, the beauty of art is that it is subjective. To one such innovation might mean an enhancement of the overall experience, to another it might mean intrusion. What is important here is that those who, like Reed, have a merged vision of art, can start to eagerly anticipate a world in which their reading experience is elevated to a new level thanks to the transcendental effect of music. Whether it is fast, military style drumming during a chase scene or a melancholic violin during a romantic interlude, if this serves to draw more people back to reading then we should welcome it with open arms and let no one call the written word a dying art anymore.