Saturday, September 12, 2009

Literary Soundtracks

Lately I’ve been addicted to listening to a short album I bought called The Last Pale Light In the West. It’s a solo album by Ben Nichols, the lead singer of the excellent rock/country band Lucero. Stylistically, it’s not so different from the kind of songs Nichols makes with his usual band-- it’s full of tough, twangy southern music with a built in edge courtesy of Nichols’ trademark scratchy vocals-- but it is a bit more subdued than usual. The interesting thing about the album, though, is that it’s completely inspired by famed writer Cormac McCarthy’s devastatingly violent Western novel Blood Meridian. Every song is named after one of the characters, from “the Kid,” the novel’s young protagonist, to “the Judge,” the murderous figure at the book’s center, who is frequently described as “the devil himself.”

I’m sure it’s been done tons of times before (though I can’t think of any other examples off the top of my head), but this idea of writing a kind of unsanctioned soundtrack for a book strikes me as a boldly unique, if not inherently problematic, idea. At first blush, it seems that unlike writing music for a film or a play, there’s no way Nichols’ album will ever have more than a tenuous thematic relationship to McCarthy’s novel. The mediums are too at odds with one another. Books, as the philosopher Plato used to always say, are “dead.” The words on the page require a person to come to life, and even then they exist only in the nebulous reaches of the reader’s own head. Music is the same way to an extent, but it is temporal and fluid in a way that writing can never be, which allows it to be much a more free form and evocative medium. But if you’ve read McCarthy’s book, and then listen to Nichols’ album, an interesting thing happens. The lyrics and music start to call up images from the novel, and pretty soon it’s as though you can see the whole thing unfolding as if it were a movie. This is something that always happens when one reads a book, of course, but rarely does music evoke the same kind of mental imagery. What Nichols has essentially done is write the soundtrack for a movie based on a book that hasn’t been filmed. Or, rather, has yet to be filmed.

Movies have always struck me as a perfect meld of the so-called “temporal” (music) and “spatial” (painting, sculpture) arts, and this is nothing if not a perfect example of this idea at work. The music, along with any knowledge of the story it’s based around, conspire to create this imaginary play in the listener’s head, and the language of film seems to provide a bridge to make that experience possible. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it is an interesting idea, especially when you consider that Nichols’ album is no less than the second work of music to owe a debt to McCarthy. The band Calexico’s 1998 album The Black Light actually thanks the writer in the liner notes, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to picture their Western-themed instrumentals as the soundtrack to a film version of one of McCarthy’s books. I’m not really sure what all this adds up to, but it is an intriguing thread to follow. If anything, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out The Last Pale Light in the West. And if you haven’t read Blood Meridian, then by all means do so as soon as possible.


Will Quantrill's ride said...

You could say that Poe's album "Haunted" is a soundtrack to "House of Leaves," right?
Awesome premise though, young Seventh Art Soothsayer. It's always interesting when different artistic mediums intertwine like that. I mean, the art world shouldn't be viewed as separate entities in some sort of competition for our attention, but rather a community building towards a better understanding (or a least an allied-expression) of our crazy universe.

Evan said...

Ah, good point. I'd forgotten about "Haunted."I'm sure there's tons of other ones, too, I'm just not familiar with them. And I totally agree with you. I think that's one of the good things that's come from the internet and technology. People are now able to play around with the definitions of artistic mediums more than they've ever been able to before.