Ears to Hear: The Books
This is the first article in a series of articles on music with artistic or spiritual significance.
A few months ago, I received a $50 iTunes gift card. Choosing a track or album to purchase on the iTunes store is always a daunting experience. With millions of options available, selecting what to buy can be overwhelming. As a musician, I tire of listening to more and more of the same. With this in mind, I clicked around for a bit, trying to find an artist that was unusual or different from the mainstream. Eventually I landed on The Books, a musical duo I had heard casually a few years before but never listened to with any seriousness. In his review for their second album The Lemon of Pink, music critic Mark Richardson describes The Books as music that “sounds like nobody else” and labels them “more or less a genre of one.”1 If originality is the measuring stick, The Books are worth a listen for those who have ears to hear their unusual sound.
Describing The Books to someone who has never heard them is no simple task. The duo consists of guitarist Nick Zammuto and celloist Paul de Jong. However, neither guitar nor cello is the primary soundscape to their music. The Book’s musical compositions are based on a massive library of samples and found sounds.2 In each track, the listener is bombarded with a collage of sounds that often feel entirely random but ultimately fit together into an organic whole. The opening track to their debut album, Thought for Food, begins with gently plucked guitar chords. Then the listener encounters a bizarre series of samples– crowd noise, random words, a grab bag of percussion instruments, and crow calls– over top of the chords. This all takes place within the first minute of the song.
The second track on the same album, “Read, Eat, Sleep,” opens with a man spelling the title out loud, letter by letter, over a backdrop of chimes. Later in the song, the chord progression stops and the song consists entirely of ambient sounds. After the listener hears an elevator bell, the chimes and melody return with voices saying the word “aleatoric” repeatedly with different pronunciations. In the context of music, aleatoric refers to chance music, a style where the form of the music is dictated by randomness. By all accounts, The Books appear to create chance music. However, carefully listening reveals elements of structure and order, particularly in the musical accompaniment. The combination of order and disorder, harmony and chaos, mathematical precision and randomness creates a profound effect for the listener. Is there purpose in this music or is it pure chance? Is there a message to glean from the words or are they just random noise?
Giving the Music a Chance
When I first heard The Books several years ago, I was equal parts fascinated and disturbed. I borrowed the album, The Way Out, from my local library. My fascination came from the combinations of sounds I had never heard before in music. Like John Cage’s infamous composition, 4’33”, the music of The Books challenges the very nature of what music should be or could be. Listening to them, you hear the potentiality of truly new and novel forms of musical composition. In spite of my fascination, I quickly returned the CD to the library and did not revisit The Books until a few months ago.
The Books create a disturbing experience because the perception of randomness and chaos– whether or not their music actually is aleatoric– makes the listener uncomfortable. For me, their music was the auditory equivalent of a sink of dirty dishes or laundry scattered across the floor. The dishes eat at my mind until they are clean; the laundry puts me on edge until everything is in its right place. Human beings are intent on bringing order and meaning to the world around them. The collage of found sounds in the music of The Books pushes against this innate human desire, forcing the listener to either accept disorder or seek some sense of order in the chaos. The second time I listened to The Books, I was willing to accept this challenge. If a listener can push through the initial disorientation, there are moments of sublime beauty to be found in the music of The Books.
Spirituality in The Books
Since The Books utilize a wide range of found sounds, there are elements of spirituality in the music. Whether or not these sounds reflect the personal spirituality of the members of the duo and whether or not they are meant to convey any particular message about religion is beyond the ability of the listener to discern. To a certain degree, The Books simply document the human experience– snippets of daily life are sprinkled throughout each track. Since human beings are inherently spiritual creatures, the sounds of spirituality creep into the music of The Books. The Islamic call to prayer makes an appearance in “The Lemon of Pink I,” a song apparently based on a sample from a lipstick ad.3 The song, “S Is For Evrysing,” concludes with a sample that seems to be someone reciting the Lord’s Prayer with either a strange vocal inflection, alternate words, or jumbles of other samples mixed in.
Possibly the most notable and profound use of spiritual source material occurs in the song “Take Time” from The Lemon of Pink. This particular composition is one of the most straightforward “pop” songs in their entire catalog. The song is built around an acoustic guitar riff and the repeated singing of the phrase, “Take time.” Interspersed are clips of voices, laughing, cheering, and the like. Many of the samples are indiscernible noise. One particular sample stands out in the mix– a man’s voice loosely reading from Ecclesiastes 1:9-11. In their biblical context, these verses soberly depict the vanity of life. People live, work, struggle, and die, but the earth remains forever. Humans, in their pride and arrogance, believe that they will be remembered for all eternity. Yet, as time marches on, both great and lowly are forgotten. During our lives, we chase after the new and novel, not releasing that “there is nothing new under the sun.” This vocal sample leaves the listener to imagine what The Books might be saying about the meaning of life. Or, maybe it is possible that the sample is a bit of ironic and self-deprecating humor on the part of the musicians. For a group often hailed as being entirely new and novel, the sample reminds the listener that The Books are simply using sounds that came well before their time. There is, after all, nothing truly new under the sun, and The Books revel in making music from sounds that other people created first.
For listeners new to The Books, I recommend starting with their first two albums– Thought for Food (2002) and The Lemon of Pink (2003). Digital downloads can be purchased from the artist’s bandcamp website.
(2) Ganz, Jacob. “The Books: Making Music Through Found Sound,” NPR: All Things Considered, last modified 9/3/2010 https://www.npr.org/2010/09/03/129607098/the-books-making-music-through-found-sound