Short

The story behind Volumes – the series of soundtracks inspired by novels

Meet the musicians turning their favourite books into original sounds

“This might sound weird, but the main reason I started Volumes stems from the fact that I hadn’t actually read a book in ages,” laughs Natalia Maus. Her project may be a series of soundtracks inspired by novels, but as a music video commissioner she’ll be the first to admit that her experience has always tended more towards film than literature. “If I hadn’t been given a book called Elmet by a friend last year then I don’t think that this would have happened. I just found myself sitting there thinking, ‘wow! What would this book sound like?’ I found a whole world in there that I could respond to, from the wilds of Yorkshire to the strangeness of the English countryside.”

Volumes has one rolling brief to its contributors, which is deceptively simple: create a mixtape or an original composition that is a response to a book or a short story. However, if you really sit down to think about it, the idea of creating a musical response to a novel is actually a fairly daunting challenge. I can’t think of many other art forms that can mess with your perception of reality like a great book. Written fiction can be both emotionally and narratively gripping without giving you any visual cues to go on whatsoever, and the result is that Volumes’ soundtracks feel more freeform than the typical film scores most people are used to. Unencumbered by thoughts of story-structures, moods and narratives, book soundtracks can instead explore themes, thoughts and emotions.

“The idea is that if you haven’t read the book then maybe the mix will interest you enough to read the book – and vice versa,” explains Maus. “So far, I’ve found that the best ideas come from people who have a good angle on the source material over people who can play an instrument or create ambient drone. Each and every book throws up a barrage of landscapes, thoughts and ideas that you can build on. I mean, for the first mix, I worked with the film collective Deeper Into Movies to create a soundtrack for Brett Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms. It’s a story that deals mostly in paranoia and betrayal set in the dayglow weirdness of Los Angeles and the concept was to create a collage of sounds inspired by the novel and the city it’s set in. I think, with its nocturnal drone and half-heard spoken word portions, the soundtrack really manages to immerse the listener into the world of the book.”

Standing at only three mixes so far, it’s safe to say that Volumes is still in its early days. But if there is one thing that is already poking through, it’s how much people can have a profoundly personal connection to a book. Like a perfect song, a good book can stick with you – sometimes they can even shape someone’s entire outlook on life. It’s something that Maus has also picked up on. “It’s struck me just how personal each book is to the contributor. It means that each playlist has been entirely shaped by their own perception of the book.”

Volume 3, an original score from former Maccabees keyboardist Will White, is remarkably personal. Responding to Max Porter’s award-winning novel Grief is a Thing with Feathers, the ambient noise and gentle folk echo the book’s themes of grief, memory and healing, set in a sparse London flat where two boys and their father struggle with the death of their mother until a crow decides to enter their lives. The score presents us with a stormy visage of the British landscape, where hope somehow still glitters from among the hedgerows. It taps into deeply personal topics for White, who lost his mother at a young age.

“The Will White mix is exciting,” says Maus. “Not only is it all original stuff, but it also comes from a place that is extremely personal for him. I’m just grateful he put that book on my radar as it’s brilliant and so, so unique. But then for him to put this heartfelt spin on it is just amazing. I’m really happy with how this one has turned out.”

It’s this ability to catch a glimpse of the world through someone’s else eyes that elevates Volumes from a collection of mixes into something more profound. Just as no two books are the same, no two people’s interpretations are the same, and it’s how these playlists represent windows into how other people see the world that is, for me at least, the most intriguing aspect about the series. “I mean, concepts like grief are usually lonely and extremely personal endeavours,” agrees Maus. “Being able to see how a work of art is reflected through the prism of someone else’s mind has been one of the most incredible things about doing this project.”

You can find all of Volumes’ book-inspired soundtracks on their website

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