Reading & Listening

Reading & Listening

Reading & Listening – A pairing of words and music

My two great loves are music and books, though they don’t always go well together. They can be like those two different circles of friends you have; the ones that only really get on well in carefully curated surroundings. They’re too different (or too similar) to just get along naturally. For me it’s the competing words. I generally like my music lyrical and with melodies and choruses that demand attention. When you’re trying to concentrate on the written word, that isn’t the ideal soundtrack. 

Over time I’ve developed an appreciation for instrumental music. Good instrumental music. The kind that is interesting enough to listen to on its own but won’t pull you out of the zone if you’re head-down in a book. The key, I’ve found, is to match the mood. Pair the right book and the right album or genre, and the two play off each other like a good pairing of wine and food. Both bring something to the party that means the combination can be better than the sum of its parts. 

Here, for your listening and reading pleasure, is a paired playlist/reading list. Like wine and cheese, subjective tastes will play a huge part in whether this is for you, but think of this as a good place to start and a fresh way of thinking about matching what goes in your ears and eyes...


Music: Haiku Salut – Becauselessness

Book: Amy Arnold - Lori & Joe (Prototype)

Haiku Salut describe themselves as a “dream-pop-post-folk-neo-everything trio from the Derbyshire Dales.” What that means to my ears is that they make interesting electronic-tinged music that’s largely made up of acoustic, organic sounding instruments. Becauslessness is a prime example of their sound (piano, harmonium, and a little bit of dream-like electronic bells and beats) and matches perfectly with Lori & Joe by Amy Arnold (Prototype). It’s a melancholic read that follow’s Lori’s first few hours following the death of her husband, and the journey she makes on foot across the hills around her home. Both of these feel focused on nature but with something else secret and hidden that goes along with a gradual sense of movement and change. 


Music: Darren Hayman – London Fields

Book: Jeremy Cooper – Brian (Fitzcarraldo)

Darren Hayman made his name as the lead singer-songwriter in London’s literate indie pop band, Hefner. In Hefner his lyrics were personal, confessional, often a little mucky, but he’s since gone on to make his name with an array of musical projects. One of my favourites is his 2012 album Lido which is made up of instrumental tracks, all inspired by, and containing recorded sounds from, London’s numerous outdoor swimming pools. London Fields is representative of an album which is intended to sound like the oases of calm that can be found in pockets of cities. It's inoffensive, comforting, interesting, and pulls you in, just like London-centred Brian by Jeremy Cooper. Brian’s personal oasis of calm is the BFI Cinema on the Southbank and Cooper’s novel looks at cinema with the same inoffensive, comforting, interesting and intriguing tone found all throughout Hayman’s Lido. 


Music: Saint Etienne – I Remember It Well

Book: Michael Cragg - Reach for the Stars: 1996-2006 Fame, Fallout and Pop’s Final Party (Nine Eight Books)

Saint Etienne have been indie pop stalwarts for years and the band’s Bob Stanley has become the absolute boss of good music writing (Yeah Yeah Yeah should be on every music fan’s shelf). 2021’s I’ve Been Trying To Tell You is a largely instrumental tribute to the very specific optimistic time between Blair’s 1997 victory and 9/11. The album takes samples from the pop of the day (Lighthouse Family, Samantha Mumba, Honeyz and more) and uses the aural pallete of late 90s pop to create a hypnotic dreamlike nostalgic sound. What could be better to soundtrack reading Michael Cragg’s excellent Reach for the Stars – an oral history of all things pop in the slightly expanded period of 1996-2006. It is gossipy and fun, but matches the nostalgic backwards glance at a different time in pop perfectly. 


Music: Fergus McCreadie – The Unfurrowed Field

Book: Philippa Forrester – Wild Woman (Bloomsbury)

Fergus McCreadie was 2022’s token jazz finalist for the Mercury Music Prize. Personally, I normally find the word ‘jazz’ to be shorthand for ‘THIS IS NOT FOR YOU!’ but something about the way McCreadie mixes piano jazz and the outdoor influence of his native Scotland make this a perfectly modern, yet timeless, sound of the great outdoors. The Unfurrowed Field is a personal highlight and is the aural equivalent of watching a stream from its source as it grows in strength. What could go better with this than non-fiction nature writing? Try Philippa Forrester’s Wild Woman or Gathering: Women of Colour on Nature edited by Durre Shahwar and Nasia Sarwar-Skuse.


Music: Warrington Runcorn New Town Development Plan – The Town of Tomorrow

Book: Joel Lane – The Witnesses are Gone (Influx)

Yes, I know, a bit of a ridiculous name, but Warrington Runcorn New Town Development Plan is the work of one man, Gordon Chapman-Fox. This is ambient synth that sits somewhere in the liminal space between dream and nightmare. Self-described as ‘music for a broken concrete utopia’, this is ideal listening for those books that sit a little uncomfortably and challenge you with a sense of the uncanny. The Witnesses Are Gone by Joel Lane would be a great match. Or you might want to try Universal Harvester by John Darnielle – the second novel by the musician best known as The Mountain Goats (a personal favourite, though not for reading to). Both of these books take visuals and VHS culture as a jumping off point into something other-worldly and match the mood of Warrington... seamlessly. 


Music: Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Storm

Book: Andrew McMillan – Pity (Granta)

Post-rock is the fairly contrived term for the grandiose sort of rock that merges classical music with modern rock, and creates epic soundscapes and aural journeys that perfectly suit story telling. It’s no surprise, for example, that post-rock bands like Mogwai and 65 Days of Static end up doing a lot of film soundtrack work. Godspeed You! Black Emperor are old hands in the world of post-rock and Storm is, I believe, a great pairing for Andrew McMillan’s latest novel, Pity. Though Godspeed... are Canadian, in the context of reading Pity their use of horns in Storm can be heard to echo the colliery bands that once formed the musical hearts of British mining communities, like the town at the heart of McMillan’s story. Both music and book are human, sad, and epic in their own ways. 


Music: Axes – The One

Book: Jen Calleja – Vehicle (Prototype)

Not all instrumental music has to be calm and full of strings and pianos. Axes are/were an instrumental math-rock band. With a melodic sensibility, Axes take riffs very seriously and offer something unique. This is fun, chaotic, and experimental, just like Vehicle by Jen Calleja. Vehicle is also a strange, futuristic, oddball of a novel, but is grounded in the DIY aesthetic of low-level-but-influential touring bands and explores the wider social impact they can have. For me the energy of Axes is mirrored somewhat in Calleja’s story. 


Honourable mentions…

Penguin Café Orchestra, like Haiku Salut, use natural sounding chamber instruments (violins, piano, harmoniums, horns…) to make interesting music. Always melodic, always interesting, the Penguin Café Orchestra were the brainchild of composer Simon Jeffes after a food-poisoning induced fever dream in which he came across the Penguin Café and imagined the music he would hear there. They make ideal reading music as they are great instrumental pieces, but they’re always interesting and atmospheric.

If piano music floats your boat, jazz improvisor Keith Jarrett is worth exploring. His discography is huge and – like much of the above – I profess to be no expert, but his 1975 Koln Concert is fantastic. One man. One piano. All improvised on the spot that night. I find reading to the consistent sound of one instrument to be a welcome sound, but his playing is varied and emotive enough to add to any setting. 

Finally, Brian Eno is the King of Ambient music. His 1978 album Ambient 1: Music for Airports is as inoffensive and wallpaper as it gets. If all of the above is still too distracting for you, Ambient 1 will fade into the background easily.  


You can find these songs and more in a single playlist here. 

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