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Music in Books

Let’s just say that our work experience, Lewis, has a thing for music. Not only has he written this blog, but he’s also done a brand new Friday playlist for our Music Press Spotify account, which you can check out here.

 

As only true music nerds know or care, Record Store Day has just been and gone. The advent of such a hallowed festivity, along with some compellingly written but slightly ponderous scenes of classical orchestras in Ian McEwan’s The Children Act, which I have been reading on my commute and lunch breaks, got me thinking about the relationship between music and books. Unlike in film and TV, music, particularly popular music, rarely turns up in books – despite it being a large part of most people’s lives and often a good insight into their character. Okay, you can’t hear a book, but it’s also because those pesky lawyers seem to have a problem with literature, since it doesn’t pay their clients much in the way of royalties. It’s a shame, really. Or is it? The following is a list of some of the most memorable (good, bad, both) moments of music in books:

 

Some classical music in A Clockwork Orange:

You think buying records makes you retro, or just a hipster? What if those records were… classical? A lot of aspects of A Clockwork Orange have become iconic, with Stanley Kubrick’s film to thank as much as Anthony Burgess’ work. But Alex, the archetypal bad boy, listens to classical music? There’s one vibrant scene where Alex dreams weird, violent dreams and perhaps does something unmentionable, all while listening to classical music – but it’s still a bit lame, isn’t it? I understand why Burgess did it – to try and show that Alex isn’t just an uncouth idiot – but it’s a particularly pretentious way of doing so.


Beethoven in EM Forster’s Howard’s End:

Talking of pretentious, Forster, who I suspect Burgess was trying to emulate, was also behind one of the more famous descriptions of music in literature. Forster imagines the experience of listening to Beethoven as akin to having a load of goblins cavort about the room, or even experiencing goblins ‘walking quietly over the universe from end to end’... Wha? Was he drunk? More than drunk? No idea. It’s totally bizarre – but also great fun in an otherwise rather formal book. Forster almost makes classical music cool. He certainly makes it weird.

All the songs in The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit:

I have a much higher tolerance for lameness when it’s in something poppy, where it often comes across as cute, as it does here. Tolkien wrote loads of songs for The Lord of The Rings – and you can understand why they didn’t want to turn the films into eight hour folky musicals – but I was very pleased when everyone burst into song in the first Hobbit movie. The songs are warming, atmospheric and draw you into the world and its history without making you read through a lecture on the finer points of elven culture – leave that for the appendices junkies. Yes, they exist; both the appendices and the obsessives.

Patti Smith’s Just Kids:

Patti Smith is a legend, and aside from being a great singer-songwriter, she is an amazing literary writer too. Her memoir won the National Book Award. A book about a female punk singer’s relationship with a photographer won the National Book Award. To me, that’s incredible. Her publishers are rushing her to get a new one out. If you’re interested in the life of the artist – musician or otherwise – I strongly recommend this book, and Smith’s music while I’m at it.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby:

Unlike the film, there’s no fantastically standout scenes with particular songs or lyrics involved, but Hornby certainly knows his 70’s and 80’s music. If you think you’d get on with someone with such an encyclopaedic knowledge, who isn’t afraid to demonstrate it, then you will most likely get on with this book.

American Psycho:

Bret Easton Ellis often takes a break from the horror to revel in the mundane side of psycho Bateman and occasionally offer up Ellis’ attempts at avant-garde music journalism, dissecting the hits of the 1980’s through Bateman’s warped perspective. Often to hilarious effect. Also to exhausting effect. There are entire chapters dedicated to Genesis, Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis and The News, in which Bateman waxes lyrical about the joys of every single one of their albums. Ellis says that Bateman tells the reader about pop music ‘in excruciating detail… because he wants to fit in’. Aw, how sweet.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Man Without a Country:

Maybe, unlike the world’s most popular psycho or Nick Hornby (not saying they’ve got anything in common), you’re not a fan of pop and feel no urge to fit in. Maybe the irrepressible chirpiness and odes to the primary importance of love in life only appeal to your cynical side. Then you might appreciate Vonnegut’s deft analysis of modern pop lyrics. Referring to a song by Barbra Streisand that was ostensibly about ‘People’, Vonnegut claimed the lyrics were actually about cannibals. The song goes ‘the people who need people are the luckiest people alive’ – yes, ‘lots to eat’, Vonnegut retorts.

Waywords and Meansigns:

A group of musicians are undertaking a massive, landmark project that no one expected or, to be honest, asked for – putting the entirety of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake to music. They even claim it will be ‘accessible and enjoyable to even the most casual of readers and listeners’! With Joyce and a whole load of experimental/alternative/indie musicians involved, I’m not sure how serious they are about that, but the end result is guaranteed to be interesting and will be premiering on the 4th of May here. There are some preview clips (of variable quality) already up – I think some of them are rather cool. Surely the final product will be worth checking out? The artwork they’ve had made is pretty snazzy too.

Posted in Blog by Lorna Mackinnon