The NAB Blog

Music and Word

By Nicolas Soames

16 June 2008

Music can have such an effect on an audiobook. If you listen to our new Othello from the Donmar Warehouse, it must be said that Adam Cork’s incidental music plays a subtle but key role in supporting the drama. Much of the time we are so wrapped up in the tempestuous story that we may not notice the way the music is providing colour and edge. It was powerful in the theatre and is even more powerful in our audiobook recording.

And this is why music has been an integral part of Naxos AudioBooks since the very first release in 1994.

Beethoven Piano Trios and Hummel set the scene perfectly for Jane Austen’s novels (If I remember correctly, Hummel was to be found in her music book), drawing the picture of the Regency salon. And music of various kinds has given David Timson an exciting backdrop for the complete Sherlock Holmes. Sarah Butcher, who programmed most of the music, revelled in the challenge of matching another quartet or quintet from the nineteenth century repertoire to the next case of the master sleuth.

Some people don’t like music and words. I remember ringing one bookshop to ask if they had any Naxos AudioBooks on the shelves only to be greeted by the terse comment, ‘Are those the people who put music on books – certainly not!’

I understand the reservation. We don’t attempt to do it with unabridged novels on the whole, partly because I think people who want the complete text want only the complete text, and not additional production values; also, frankly, it would be a heady artistic challenge to put music effectively to a 28 CD Dickens novel such as Bleak House. We rarely put music to anything over 4 CDs, because sustaining it with taste becomes almost impossible!

And yet programming music for audiobooks is good fun! With something like The History of the Olympics we are directed by the context, of course: there is the national anthem, and then, if necessary, a defining piece of music. If it is Rome for the world cup (soccer), it must be Nessun Dorma (I know! I had the great fortune to be at the Three Tenors concert during the world cup, and I can tell you… in the balmy Roman night at Caracalla with the three singing their hearts out, it was an evening no one could forget!); And if it is Germany, it must be the Ride of the Valkyries or Beethoven. Subtlety is not the order of the day here.

For James Joyce, once again the text dictates the choice – Joyce was a fine musician himself, and music flows through a novel such as Ulysses or the short stories Dubliners: there is endless choice, from Mozart’s Don Giovanni to I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls.

Sometimes, the unexpected happens. Only the other day Caroline Waight (who has worked in our production office after finishing her music degree) was putting music to some Oscar Wilde (for next year…). And she carefully selected some Rossini. Rossini, you may ask? Surely not!

Yet actually it works… as you will find next year (we are working quite far ahead). And as Sue Arnold of the Guardian wrote in a recent review, the opening of Mahler’s massive Resurrection Symphony works surprisingly well as a curtain raiser for Tales from the Norse Legends, introducing The Creation of the World!

When I look back over nearly fifteen years of matching music and words, I do have some favourites. For me, the viol music of John Jenkins always means, Paradise Lost – next month we release The Essential John Milton to mark his 400th anniversary, and you will see what I mean. On a completely different note, the Japanese classic Hojoki, opens with the koto – particularly appropriate as the monk Chomei talks about playing the instrument (also released next month).

This peroration was prompted by Sue Arnold’s kind words, but also over a lunch with Keith Clarke, editor of Classical Music, who spoke approvingly of the choice of music in the recording of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. The sensuous, impressionistic sound world of Debussy and Ravel with a touch of Piazzola expressed the cultural melange of pre-War Alexandria.

But what do YOU think? Do you like the music on our audiobooks? Classic literature with classical music was our strapline for many years, and I still feel a fondness for it, though our increasing involvement in complete texts means more releases without music. Let us know what you think.

Nicolas Soames

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