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What does a novel sound like?

Sheffield outfit In The Nursery have created a ‘soundtrack to a novel’ – bringing together technology, music and literature in an intriguing new way. Co-founder of Overlap and digital narrative consultant, Rob Barker met the band for a chat.

In The Nursery‘s ‘thematic soundtrack’ of forensic thriller writer Simon Beckett’s work The Calling is a deliberately difficult experience to map. Somewhere between audio book, soundtrack and concept album, it’s an unfamiliar mix. Beckett’s readings, including several of his most necrophagious passages, lay down a kind of narrative tracking for the experience, while the music is a seismic suite of obdocturse, martial beats, atmospherically treated pianos and other more difficult to identify foley. It is as carefully arranged as a pathologist’s tools, but the giallo-like jump cuts between readings have the effect of making it feel like being blindfold on a ghost train. You’re constantly listening out for sounds that could locate you – an effect that is paid off in spectacular style at the soundtrack’s thudding climax.

But while it’s set somewhere between the Hebrides of Beckett’s Written in Bone and the Dartmoor of The Calling of The Grave, In The Nursery’s soundtrack was actually recorded in the more welcoming locale of Sheffield. And the band’s hometown already counts literary musicians such as current Faber Editor-at-Large Jarvis Cocker, the Kerouac-referencing New Pop of The Crookes, and The Payroll Union‘s nineteenth century Americana (by way of Northern England) among its number.

In The Nursery’s brothers Nigel and Klive Humberstone have an understated manner symptomatic of the city’s characteristic refusal to blow its own trumpet. So how did the project come about?

“We just liked the idea of writing a soundtrack to a book,” Klive explains when I visit the brothers at their studio. “As soon as I started reading Simon’s first book [The Chemistry of Death], I just realised it would be a perfect medium to be inspired by. We write a lot of soundtracks to films, but with The Calling you don’t have the images there in front of you. So they’re your personal interpretation of that book.”

The result is a listen that’s less prosaic than its process. “You’re after evocative sections that aren’t too descriptive of narrative,” Klive explains. And while the band’s soundtrack for multimedia game project Engel provides something of a precedent, that project accompanied a story world rather than a specific narrative. “With Engel we were inspired by the pictures in the book in particular,” Suggests Nigel. “For The Calling we didn’t try and create music to match The Moors or The Black Tor from the books. We developed sounds, then started matching them to certain scenes.”

The Calling isn’t based on a single story, instead taking inspiration from several titles in Beckett’s David Hunter series. Finding your way through means piecing together the passages of narrative that Beckett reads alongside In The Nursery’s audio, and while this is initially disconcerting, the result is a unique journey. Musicians often talk about how they make music for themselves ‘…and if anyone else likes it that’s a bonus’ – but the ride-like nature of ITN’s thematic soundtrack suggests that getting inside the audience’s head was central to designing the work.

Every twist and turn of rollercoaster designer John Wardley’s creations – including the pitch-black monster that is Nemesis – considers the experience for audiences. “Like a good writer, a good designer won’t let people know what’s coming; it should be a succession of steadily building surprises,” Wardley has said. And The Calling follows similar lifts and lurches.

“You read a crime thriller and you know what’s going to happen based on the genre,” says Klive. “You know you’re going to be scared and that’s enticing. But it doesn’t always happen the way you think it’s going to happen. Hopefully we can do that with the music as well. You’re always guessing who’s gonna die next or who the killer is. And you can do that musically with different sounds.”

It’s exciting and strange to hear a band talk about translating literary tropes into music in this way. There’s even character development here. There’s a piano line that comes back several times over the course of The Calling; when it’s first heard in the unsettling entropic lecture of ‘Tenure’, it’s distorted.

“We effected the original recording, wrote in all this automation so the EQ would shelve off so you’d get the full bottom end of the piano,” Explains Nigel. “We recorded it on a Bösendorfer Imperial piano, which features an extra six to eight keys on the lower range which are subharmonic.”

But by the time we hear it in the final track it’s clear and untreated and somewhat victorious.

The Calling attempts a sort of replication of reality. Twins Nigel and Klive utilise binaural recordings – a form of stereo recording designed to copy the way in which human ears perceive sound – in their attempts to evoke the feelings of Beckett’s work.

“Recording binaurally certainly allowed us to capture the essence of a time,” Klive says. “They give you that sensation of being somewhere else. So with the atmospheric sound designs we were creating, we were able to create this idea of wandering around and being somewhere else.” Just like Phlip K Dick’s replicants, these man-made creations grow beyond their original purpose however. As Nigel explains, “If Simon’s reading was referring to gates shutting we didn’t want it to just do that as a sound effect. We wanted it to be more abstract than that.”

The Calling is available to buy on CD on the In The Nursery website. An instrumental version of the soundtrack is also available on iTunes.

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