Sunday, January 19, 2020

Soundtrack for a Novel: An Experiment.

Can novels have their own soundtracks?  It's not a question most people would bother to ask.  The most commonsense answer would be to point out that a novel is not something like a movie or a record.  All a book amounts to is just a series of words on a page.  There's no sound or music to go along with it.  Even if its possible to say you'd like you're copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Fellowship of the Rings to have its own soundtrack accompany the words as you read along, the fact remains you're not going to find it anywhere in the book itself.  You'll either have to find some music that could go well with the words, or else just use your imagination as best you can.

That's as far as everyday commonsense can go when faced with such an off-kilter question.  By and large, the majority of audiences, including even the readers in the crowd, do not tend to make an automatic connection between texts and songs.  The reason for this seems to be because there is no essential reason for the two forms of art to mix.  One can exist just as well without the other, unless of course you're a band like the Beatles and you're trying to make a concept album with something like an actual narrative attached to it.  Then the singer must learn how to be not just a songwriter, but also a kind of storyteller.  That's a task that can be harder than it sounds.  A lot of talented artists who make great musicians are also pretty lousy at trying to be straight-up writers.  When an concept album like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? is able to mix both music with a sense of narrative its usually an achievement that goes underappreciated by both music and book enthusiasts.

The irony is that the commonsense response itself has left the door open for certain creative opportunities.  Let's recall that the answer boils down to three statements.  (1) Books and music are separate artistic mediums. (2) If anyone wanted music to go along with their reading material, they would have find ways of incorporating it from vinyl, CDs, or clips off the Net.  Those are about the only options anyone has left in terms of where you can get music to listen to.  (3) The third and final option is to just use your imagination in order to fill in all the sonic gaps provided by the text, if any.

The good news is that it is possible to meet all three challenges, if you know how to do it.  Take Tolkien's aforementioned Fellowship, most Middle-Earth geeks already have a soundtrack all neatly laid out for them and waiting in the wings, thanks to, and courtesy of Howard Shore.  All anyone has to do is grab a headset, pop in the CD, open the book, press play, and begin to read.  All of that amounts to one way of proving that it is possible for books to have the potential for a soundtrack.

I'd like to see if it's possible to go a bit further than that.  I want to try something.  I don't know if it's new, or anything like that.  In fact all of the materials involved are all pretty darn old.  However there may be a lingering sense of novelty about the whole thing for those who've never tried or thought of it before.

What I'd like to do is take a random novel, a handful of old songs, and then see what happens when an imaginative attempt is made to combine the two.  I don't mean to create anything like a new hybrid medium where literature and music interchange with one another to the point of being indistinguishable.  Instead, I'm trying something that I might have got from Walt Disney.  Allow me to explain.  In his 1940 concert film, Fantasia, Disney took the concept of the animated film, and combined it with music in a variety of ways.  One of them was a mix of images and music, with the goal of setting up a mood or atmosphere.  This was done in the film with sequences like Toccata and Fugue.  Another was to use music in a way that told a story.  This goal was best on display in Night on Bald Mountain, The Rite of Spring, and The Sorcerer's Apprentice.  As it turns out, Fantasia was not the only time that Walt would find ways to utilize music in the service of a legit narrative.  One of my oldest childhood memories is seeing a Silly Symphonies adaptation of Peter and the Wolf.  It was an animated adaptation of the entire folktale, and it was free of any real dialogue from start to finish.  Instead, the symphonic score of the legend was used to punctuate and accentuate the action and story beats happening up on the screen.  The result was a film that used music to tell its story.

I think it's a technique that's been tried here and there, once or twice more, though it's never the sort of thing that has ever managed to really catch on with the public.  We seem to have reached a point where we tend to like our medias unmixed.  Part of the reason for this might be down to the ways we've allowed imaginations to shrink and atrophy with the passage of years.  It didn't use to be like this back in the days when everyone lived in forests, and no one could live anywhere else.  Back in the old, Medieval peasant cultures of Europe, most groups never minded if a fiddler decided to provide some violin accompaniment to retelling of an old folktale or legend such as that of Robin Hood.  In fact, such techniques were said to enhance the experience.  That's one of the reasons why storytelling minstrels flourished for such a long time in an age when books weren't really a thing like they are now (if they ever were).

I'd like to see if I can bring some of these old materials back in a minor way.  It's nothing major, just a brief moment's diversion.  What I'd like to do is take a text that lends itself easily to a musical soundtrack, and see what happens when we mentally use various Golden Oldies to provide something like a musical compliment or commentary for the text.  I think the best choice for now is to choose a book like Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis.  I think this is the best course of action because King is a writer who likes to sprinkle the artifacts of pop-culture here and there throughout his works.  He can erase 99% percent of the world's population, and then have one of Marvin Gaye's songs start to play in an abandoned, imaginary record shop.  This makes King's work an ideal test case for my experiment.  I want to take the narrative beats of a novel like Hearts and see if it's possible to make a soundtrack for an already established text.  From here on in, I think it's best if I actually show what I intend to do, rather than just talking about it.  With that in mind, let's take a bit of mental leap and see if there's anything to find.