Music to Read By: 1. Godspeed You! Black Emperor

12/07/2011 by Ed Wood
We take for granted the relationship between music and film, but what about books?
 
I've often listened to music while I read, partly because I listen to an awful lot of music generally, and partly because I often read on public transport, so the music blocks out the tinny headphone chk-chk-chks, kids bursting with life (and volume) and the general clatter of travel. But music can be more than something to shut out the world – just occasionally, something you're listening to will chime with the passage you are reading and the two will form a lovely symbiotic relationship akin to a film soundtrack. So, for the following several weeks, or as long as it takes me to run out of ideas, I'll be suggesting some music to read by; or, more correctly, some artists to read by.
 
Godspeed You! Black Emperor are – or rather were, since they have mostly wound up playing in splinter groups these days, a recent reunion aside – are a pretentiously named but gloriously bombastic orchestral ‘post-rock' Canadian band who make music that sounds like the end of the world. It's not abrasive, simply propulsive and (handily for reading) largely lacking in vocals, just dropping in snatched, sinister lines of dialogue here and there. Their music often begins slowly and works its way up to a full gallop – perfect for passages of a book that gain pace with action. East Hastings, at 17 minutes 58 seconds, takes its time but achieves a peak to backdrop the climax of any thriller or horror novel – as attested by Danny Boyle using it on the soundtrack to 28 Days Later.
 
But Godspeed (as they are commonly shortened to) don't simply have to be a backdrop to macho or violent action, far from it. I once listened to their album Yanqui U.X.O. while reading Maggie O'Farrell's The Hand That First Held Mine; its more tender moments and bursts of power perfectly fitting with the horror of a tragedy late in the book.  
 
They can be euphoric too. Gathering Storm, from the album Life Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, is an ever-rising stomp of angelic horns and strings. This mixture of fear, beauty and upwards trajectory in their music makes them ideal reading material – just try listening to them and reading about soldiers lost at war, whether in James Meek's The People's Act of Love of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 – and it was Patrick Ness' recent A Monster Calls that brought this home to me. Its final passages, picked out to the chords of the band's "Welcome to Barco AM/PM…" (which follows Gathering Storm), as a guitar is accompanied only by strings that promise release, for good or ill, take the book from tear-jerking to sob inducing. Unfortunately, I was on a train at the time.
 
 
music

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