Soundscapes For Books

“No one medium is fully capable of representing that which we are trying to express.” Loscil (Scott Morgan)

Suggested Listening: Jonny Greenwood, “Phantom Thread I”

Then it was time to die. The guards came to get Sasha [seventeen-year-old Vladimir Lenin’s big brother] early in the morning on May 8, 1887. He was taken into the courtyard of his island prison, walking to the gallows just as the sun rose on a beautiful spring morning, dawn offering one last pleasure. The priest put a cross before Sasha. He kissed it. Co-conspirator Petr shoved it away. Up the stairs and across the scaffold went the men. Brusque brevity marked the executions’ execution.

Bodies swung.

[Lenin’s mom] Maria was on her way to visit [his sister] Anna when she bought a newspaper. The printed word, blunt as ever, reported Sasha’s death.


That’s from Before Evil: Young Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, and Kim. My new book. A work of narrative history about horrific dictators as young people—about their families, childhood experiences, first loves and losses. About the feelings we’re not supposed to feel for the very worst among us.

The experience of reading about the hanging of Lenin’s older brother is enriched by listening to the Phantom Thread soundtrack. I wrote the above passage while listening to it (and—full disclosure—I listened to the whole soundtrack 21 times in 2021 while finishing Before Evil.) I also listened to albums by Steve Hauschildt, Loscil, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Disasterpeace, Jonas Reinhardt, Laraaji, Oneohtrix Point Never, Deaf Center, and Adam Wiltzie (Stars of the Lid, The Dead Texan, A Winged Victory for the Sullen), among others. 

I suggest listening to a playlist of these artists when reading. The suggested music encourages a deeper connection with the subject as well as the work of the musicians in question. It reflects the sensation of creation driving creation across diverse artistic mediums.

Readers can listen to the playlist from beginning to end, or use shuffle. As they read at their own pace, it won’t always correlate with any one chapter; connections between music and text will more often occur fortuitously, giving each listener a unique experience. (If one finds listening to music distracting while reading, I suggest they listen to the recommended albums before or after engaging with the book.) 

Writing history is not only about facts and ideas. It’s about evoking emotions that heighten one’s ability to grapple with profound concepts. To try and conjure a slice of reality that makes your mind throb as your heart pounds—that’s the goal.  (Wollstonecraft: “We reason deeply, when we forcibly feel.”)

Soundscapes for books—non-fiction and fiction alike—make that more possible. 

“Writing lyrically on a subject can be considered musical just as ambient music can evoke impressionist art which can directly inspire the look of a film…” Jonas Reinhardt (Jesse Reiner)

Suggested Listening: Mr. Elevator, “Brobdingag”

Kato’s inexorable demise was a consequence of his own egotism, his obsession with putting the revolution first. The fucking revolution. The inevitable ideological triumph he believed in more than ever. Soso [twenty-something Joseph Stalin] finally saw the irreversible consequences of his own decision-making, the reality of his actions, the beginning of a heavy, irreparable loss—a dark chasm opening within him in which his soul would free-fall endlessly. He knew (of course!) it was all his fault. The magnitude of culpability weighed on him with awe-striking, sublime terror.

From then on, Soso knew that Dostoevsky got it wrong.  “The most terrible agony,” states The Idiot, “may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within ten minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant–your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that is certain; the worst thing is that it is certain.”

 But Soso realized it’s not our own death that strikes the deepest terror, not the end of our own individuality and ambitions—it’s the realization that our loved ones inevitably perish.

It’s not only a matter of course that music makes people feel and shapes their reality.  It’s a scientific fact. “Music listening, performance, and composition,” writes neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, “engage nearly every area of the brain…and involve nearly every neural subsystem.” How music evokes emotions in particular was the topic of a 2020 paper on neuroimaging studies that confirmed that “music can activate the entire brain circuitry involved in the affective processing of primary and secondary rewards.” Music particularly affects the anterior hippocampus, which shapes “attachment-related emotions associated with the promotion of social bonding…” 

Perhaps this is why music and storytelling have remained constant companions throughout history.  Chaplin’s silent movies, by the way, were never actually silent. And Prokofiev knew what he was doing with Peter and the Wolf

What has emerged in recent years, though, is greater focus on how music can enrich one’s reading experience. For instance, a San Francisco based company called Booktrack emerged in 2011 with much media fanfare, announcing a new series of ebooks with accompanying music and sound effects. (The fire crackles as a fireplace is mentioned in a Sherlock Holmes novel, etc.) Though the company’s open platform apparently attracted interest from users (who could create custom soundtracks), Booktrack never caught on—and prompted some searing criticism.  (“Booktrack: Just A Horrible Idea. Really Horrible….a laughably stupid idea.”) By July 2019, its CEO announced the end of their ebooks, though you can still find 52 of their audiobooks (with embedded soundtracks) on Audible.

On a far cooler level, David Gutowski’s largehearted boy has offered author-curated playlists since 2005. The site’s “Book Notes series” allows authors to create a playlist based on their book and explain how that music influenced their work. (An early playlist by Bret Easton Ellis for Lunar Park included soundtracks from “Casino” and “Gattica.”) There are now some 2,000 author-curated playlists on the site, including a 2009 entry from AD founder, Justin Gage.

On a grassroots level, readers continue to find unique ways of combining books and music. You can, for instance, find playlists for Jane Austen novels on Spotify. Or you can check out over 57,000 ambient mixes for reading (or “chilling”) at (like this mixable soundtrack for Tolkien novels). There is even an indie press in Chicago—Gibson Books—that specializes in publishing novels by musicians, who offer recommended playlists for their books. Let’s also not forget the time Mastodon released Leviathan—a 2004 concept album about Moby Dick, which the truly hardcore can pair with that Melville tome. (“Seabeast”!)

Kindred striving towards manifesting a certain type of reality…” Disasterpeace (Rich Vreeland)

Suggested Listening: The Dead Texan, “Taco DE Macque”

…the school finally expelled [young] Benito [Mussolini] when he got into a fistfight with another student and stabbed him in the hand with a pocketknife. The wounded student screamed, prompting a teacher to lock Benito in a room and fetch help.

The boy had done something terrible.

He wept in fear, begging forgiveness, knowing he was in for it.

A key turned in the lock—in walked Bezzi, bellowing “Your conscience is as black as coal.” (Benito never forgot those words.)

“You will sleep with the guard dogs tonight!” fumed Bezzi.

….the terrified ten-year-old clambered up the gate as hounds jumped from below,

Listening to music while reading can intensify a person’s flow state during an activity—“flow” referring to a high level of concentration in a meditative-like moment. The “currents” of a given activity—writing; creating music; gardening; running; or even just doing the dishes—can pull one into a larger flow of reality that transcends oneself. Time becomes irrelevant. Fatigue fades way.

Metaphysically speaking, the power of music for books might relate to what Laraaji recently described to AD on Transmissions as the power of sound to help us tune our mind into “a different frequency” to “attract a different universe.” Readers grappling with ideas, big and small, can find themselves in a different place, one much larger than themselves—something they can feel but not touch. And perhaps they become more aware of what writer Tao Lin (whatever his faults) has eloquently described as “The Mystery”—the intersection of “nature and the imagination,” things that we cannot fully experience or explain.

I felt it when writing Before Evil and listening to Steve Hauschildt’s “S/H.” A world beyond me. Moments of awe at the meaning of consciousness giving rise to artistic and intellectual translations of consciousness. The sublimity of the human experience reverberated. 

Brian Eno deserves his due. | b gauthier

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