I was lucky enough recently to attend an event at the Southbank in which two giants of the literary world – Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell (the author, not the comedian, to paraphrase the latter’s former Twitter bio expressing the opposite) – sat down to have a chinwag. With no moderator and with just a few audience questions at the end, the evening largely took the form of two old friends – known to each other as “Ish” and “Dave” – settling in for a chat, and it was an absolute treat. Topics covered included ghosts, the nature of memory, and how much better Eastern sword fights are in the movies compared to their Western counterparts (copious amounts of gore seemed to be the key). At the book signing afterwards, queues snaked around the building, yet both were hugely generous with their time – and could be heard to say several times words to the effect of “I hope that wasn’t too boring for everyone”.
At one point during their discussion the pair went into great depth about their respective writing processes – Mitchell asked Ishiguro what music he listens to as he writes, and Ishiguro looked at him, aghast. How could he possibly write with music in the background? What a distraction that must be. Mitchell argued that the constant beat of a good album helps him get into a steady rhythm of typing, and that sometimes this gets him into such a trance of tapping out his hugely imaginative stories that he’ll fail to notice for several hours that the album he’s put on has long since finished. Mitchell suggested to his friend that he should give it a try sometime, even offering some pretty discerning recommendations of his own, consisting mostly of some particularly gorgeous unobtrusive or instrumental music, such as the ambient works of such visionaries as Brian Eno or Aphex Twin. Lyrical music worked fine as well – provided it was in a language not understood by the writer, so as not to have others’ words interfering with their thought processes and writing rhythm.
This area offers a fascinating debate in and of itself, but what of reading whilst listening to music? Like Ishiguro, many readers would find the idea immensely off-putting and would struggle to fully immerse themselves in either the book or the album, what with the other vying for their attention, and would therefore not fully enjoy either. But for some (myself included) a book and an album, if paired up wisely, can have the effect of elevating each other as the two art-forms combine to become greater than the sum of their parts when absorbed simultaneously. It can become something like a symbiotic relationship. Like the first person to make a cocktail, it’s difficult to tell exactly which ingredients will complement each other – you don’t want the literary/aural equivalent of a dirty pint after all – but you feel it’s something that comes down to the tone, mood and tempo of both book and album that must be similar in order for them to be comfortable bedfellows.
In terms of picking the right music, there are some general rules of thumb, of course, as kindly provided by Mitchell – anything too abrasive, uptempo, or lyrical may just be too distracting (believe me, I’ve tried it) so sadly that may discount a lot of genres like glitchy electronica, punk, a lot of metal and rap, or any sort of catchy pop. So we’re left with music more on the mellow, or more atmospheric (not dreary and navel-gazing, we swear) end of the musical spectrum – for example folk, chillwave (it still exists, people), various house-y material and a lot of instrumental music.
With this in mind, below are a few suggestions that I’ve found work very well together indeed. Done well, the process of testing and discovery can feel somewhat alchemic. Remember it’s all down to personal taste and experimentation – this is something you can really have fun with, and the suggestions that follow are merely that. For all we know, there’s someone out there who thinks that William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Carly Rae Jepsen are a match made in heaven. Hold on, I’m just off to try that now…
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (1985) & Push the Sky Away by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (2013)
We’ll get the one with two very long-titled works out of the way early. The drifting and dream-like prose of Murakami lends itself particularly well to music regardless of the individual work, but there’s something about Hard-Boiled that feels particularly enlightening when paired with the similarly delicate and woozily-produced Nick Cave album. Push the Sky Away is all gentle drum loops, disjointed and illogical lyrics and otherworldly compositions of various strings, which aurally and thematically complement the great Japanese author’s masterpiece to perfection. Hard-Boiled’s narrative is split between the real world and one inside the protagonist’s’ head, and similar dualities of the real and the supernatural are also present in Push the Sky Away.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (2013) & Kveikur by Sigur Rós (2013)
Dropping within weeks of each other, these two works of different media are so well matched in every regard that when experienced together, you’d swear they were conceived with the other in mind. For Kveikur, Icelandic post-rock outfit Sigur Rós took a break from their often euphoric and beautiful soundscapes depicting the wonder of their homeland and replaced it with some gargantuan and apocalyptic visions of bleak lands and unending winters. Burial Rites, a stripped-back and harrowing 19th Century tale of a woman sentenced to death, evokes the same landscape simply but effectively, and its stark mood is further enhanced by the doom-laden Kveikur. With the novel’s film rights optioned by Lionsgate, it’s clear who they should call to soundtrack any adaptation.
The Beach by Alex Garland (1996) & Within and Without by Washed Out (2011)
Within and Without is a slice of pure summer bliss – not exactly the most immediately engaging of albums, it was clearly made with a long, hot, lazy summer’s day spent with good friends in mind. Perfect for such an occasion, its frankly washed out (what an apt name for the artist) synths will gently and soothingly roll over you as the sun warms your closed eyelids. You’ll want to open them to experience the album alongside Alex Garland’s The Beach – a paradoxically languid yet laser-focused tale about backpackers in Thailand joining an idyllic utopian community on an impossibly paradisiacal desert island. The album’s subtle but always present darker layers underscore similar themes in the book.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992) & Devotion by Beach House (2008)
What most connects these works is a general mood of aching melancholy throughout and a certain feeling of the autumnal – when enjoyed together the two simply click. Beach House’s waltzing, swooning and almost drunken tones and their lyrical tales of loss and dreams make the album feel almost like a ghost story (albeit not a particularly scary one) – which in a sense, The Secret History is too. Opening with a murder – during which we see the perpetrator(s) – a guiding force of the novel is not to find out who killed someone, but why. This more sorrowful take on the make-up of a murder shows us the emotional gulf left by the loss of a friend, and this missing presence can be felt throughout on Devotion.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847) & Ruins by Grouper (2014)
Ambient electronic musician Grouper’s terribly sad, ethereal and barely-there compositions are a wonderful accompaniment to this classic novel of bleak winters and first loves gone awry. When the stark northern landscapes of the novel are experienced with Ruins, the music’s oft near-silence allows the reader’s imagination to bring the howling winds and freezing rains to the story. As Philip Sherburne of Pitchfork’s excellent review of Ruins describes it, the album is just as much about what happens in the margins of its music as the music itself – and such is the sparseness of Brontë’s prose and her setting you feel the same applies to Wuthering Heights – the book is as much about what could have been as it’s about that which is.
Stoner by John Williams (1965) & Five Leaves Left by Nick Drake (1969)
The rediscovered classic Stoner, despite its humble setting of a Midwestern university campus and its intentionally unremarkable lead character, has an epic emotional and philosophical scope, and can legitimately stake a claim to being a Great American Novel. Yet another melancholic work (apparently that’s just my taste), Stoner’s low-key rural pleasures go hand-in-hand with English folk genius Nick Drake’s first album – or indeed, any of his albums. Simplistic to begin with, both book and album work their way inexorably under the skin with their deep-rooted sadness and existential questioning. Drake’s silken yet quavering voice is matched by the equally unsure William Stoner as they both ruminate on a life both lived and unlived.