I’ll be honest. I can’t think of anything new to say in contribution to the debate on how our interaction with music, film and literature has changed due to advances in technology, and neither do I want to spend too much time re-iterating what others have said, and what many are no doubt already aware of.
But I will say this, and I apologise in advancing for potentially recycling the obvious. The portability of our books and music libraries have rendered them little more than a temporary occupier for many; not so much a source of delight in themselves as a means of keeping eyes, ears and minds distracted on flights, car journeys…even between stops on the underground. As touched on by Greg Anderson of Sunn 0))) in my recent interview, life is often too busy and too info-saturated to set aside a window to appreciate these arts as they should be: as the primary point of focus, in conditions in which concentration can be at its optimum.
Equally, these arts arguably now exist in time more than they do in space. A digital download of a book or album may receive, say, one hour of attention before the temptation to download another becomes too great – artistic “success” (in terms of audience reach and overall appreciation) is often achieved by saying as much as possible as quickly as possible, and pouncing forcefully upon the listener before they can be swept in the direction of their next temporary distraction. But as physical objects – as books and albums used to be exclusively – the audience is encouraged to appreciate these works in their entirety. They can be returned to at ease, and leave the audience more inclined to judge them thoroughly from start to finish over an indeterminate time scale. The ownership of such objects comes not just from financial sacrifice, but from the ability to earn the right to ownership by striking up a comprehensive acquaintance with the book or album across an unfixed duration.
And while memories may provide digital arts with their only chance to achieve a certain tangibility in the physical world (they do not exist in physical space in themselves, but certain places or times may be attributable to a book or an album if the two become entwined in a prominent memory), it’s a far cry from the way in which a book or album can provide all the memories itself; it becomes a companion through which a whole narrative can spawn, telling of an audience’s journey from the start of the book to the finish, and all of the reading/listening environments that this may encompass.
The debate can of course be taken much further, but providing an audience member takes a cautious approach to new technology and retains the ability to view these arts as worthy of patience, time and concentration, the current situation needn’t have any effect on our interaction with them whatsoever (for now at least). And therefore many will delight in the fact that the likes of Wist Rec have produced these fantastic amalgamations of book and soundtrack under “The Book Report Series”. They exist for those who wish to shut the senses off to all but the arts to which we divert our attention, and those who wish to continue to view arts as worthy of primary focus.
With this in mind, the soundtracks accompanying these 20th Century novellas work to slot snugly into the reading experience rather than act as a distraction. H.G. Wells’ The Door in the Wall is placed in parallel to Offthesky’s gorgeous ambience, which mirrors the story’s descent from fantastical utopia into dark, ever-haunting disarray. Stefan Zweig’s Chess (the story of a dramatic chess battle on a cruise ship) merges with pensive swoops of piano and strings, soft sloshes of waves and hideous twists of noise and feedback, courtesy of The Humble Bee. Meanwhile, Depatterning produces a deeply evocative mixture of mysterious feedback hums and rustling, crunching field recordings (footsteps across the blasted heath, perhaps?) provides an apt backdrop to H.P. Lovecraft’s eerie tale supernatural disturbance.
The packages themselves are neatly constructed, consisting of a simple translucent cover that wraps around each miniature Penguin Classic, with the artist’s name overlaying that of the author while leaving both perfectly legible. A 3” CDR is tucked into the back of each book, hidden casually inside like an extra page rather than a conjunctive entity. It’s a suitable setup to illustrate the way in which the music interacts with theses novellas: they are optional, non-intrusive accompaniments that aim to enhance the reading experience rather than battle with it. The context of the books and the stories themselves is retained; they simply aim to make the colours within these stories a little more vibrant.
And yet there’s something rather heart-breaking about the Book Report Series. They’re a pleasure to hold and to experience – credit is due to the artists for pieces that possess ample merit even without the literary accompaniment, and to Wist Rec for such a brilliantly executed product – but something about the concept feels retrospective. It’s not so much the novellas themselves that are being revived for a new audience, but the actual art of reading. The fact that these are mere short stories (the books are quick reads, while none of the soundtracks overstep 22 minutes) is almost like a submission to the inevitable deterioration of our relationship with books and physical albums; it’s not so much an attempt to reverse the flow as an adaption of an old practice to suit the disposable generation. The Book Report’s statement is not one of protest and revival; but of a quiet declaration: “even if you only ever have twenty-minute windows to spare in the 21st Century, please: dedicate one of them exclusively to me”.