Bibliotapes: the Scottish label that brings classic novels to life with soundtracks

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A a decade ago, audio storytelling was in the doldrums. Radio stations were cutting drama from their budgets, while audiobooks, involving little more than a single narrator in compressed MIDI format, were losing popularity. The children could have fallen asleep with the soft tones of Stephen Fry reading Harry Potterbut that’s where it started and ended.

Now Penguin Random House is releasing an audiobook of George Saunders’ Booker Prize-winning novel Lincoln at Bardo with a Hollywood cast of 166 different narrators, while Audible just released a version of Sleeping Beauty with Stephen Fry and a full cast, with music from the London Symphony Orchestra. Podcasters are tasked with writing memoirs and novels en masse, with publishing in audiobook format favored over e-book and hardcover equivalents. Many of these releases offer bonus audio content and, in the case of a successful podcaster Adam Buxton, exclusive music and jingles. The advent of big budget audio dramas and the growing interest in true crime and storytelling podcasts means our standards have been raised. We now expect the stories to be much more immersive.

For a small record label in rural Scotland, the intersection between music and storytelling provided an opportunity. “Soundtracks for books on tape – that’s what we do. That’s really it. There is no grand plan or marketing ploy. It does what it says on the box. It’s Stuart McLean, the founder of Bibliotapes, a project that commissions composers to write new scores for classic novels. Each soundtrack is released on cassette, packaged in the style of a 1960s Pelican paperback. the label is now cult, with each limited run of cassettes selling out in just days.

This is not surprising, considering that we have enjoyed film scores for the better part of a century. You’d be hard pressed to find a child who couldn’t sing you the theme of Harry Potter or hadn’t dreamed of fighting with lightsabers to the sound of John Williams Imperial March. After all, many of the most famous scores were written for film adaptations of novels. The success of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation Steven King novel the brilliant matched only by the popularity of his music. Wendy Carlos’ haunting score was reissued on vinyl this year for the first time in over 40 years, reaching a new generation of fans.

McLean’s investment in Bibliotapes is on a slightly smaller scale. “I used to sell them in lots of 50 strips, but it started to get a bit popular, so I pushed it up to 75,” he says. “I do everything myself from home. I buy the blank strips and boxes from Merseyside, then send them to the printers at Newton Stewart. They had never printed a tape before I arrived.

Since launching in 2019, the label has produced soundtracks for books including by Kurt Vonnegut The cat’s cradle, by Frank Herbert Dunes, CS Lewis The Magician’s Nephew and by Anthony Burgess A clockwork orange. Many of these novels also have very successful film scores to their name, but these played no role in the composers’ processes. “I was very aware of the One thousand nine hundred and eighty four film and the fact that artists like David Bowie had also been influenced by the novel,” says Neil Stringfellow, composer of the Bibliotapes soundtrack to George Orwell’s novel. “I didn’t want to hear any other sounds associated with it. I had to move away from these other representations to create my own.

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For Eoin Mac Ionmhain, composer of Bibliotapes’s I’m a legend, there was not one but three movie soundtracks in existence to rival. “I didn’t watch them on purpose,” he says. “Instead, I watched key episodes from the book and offered different approaches to each part of the story.” He admits to having turned to other musical styles and practices for inspiration. ‘I love The Vangelis score for blade runnerbut I wanted to have elements of folk horror, like the soundtrack to The wicker man. I was also influenced by the weirder side of bands like Led Zeppelin and more experimental 20th century styles like concrete music.’

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Dystopian fantasy worlds seem to be popular with Bibliotape composers, but Stringfellow admits there are problems with that. “It’s hard to create a dystopian score because you already have an idea of ​​what it looks like in the culture, thanks to films like blade runner and madmax.’

Actor Harrison Ford holding a gun, in a scene from the film

Harrison Ford in blade runner

Rather than creating a literal interpretation of a dystopian world, his creative process began with a page-by-page analysis of the text. “It’s amazing how many references to sound and music you’ll find in a book once you start looking,” he says. In his score, he brought together conventional instruments and household objects, with strings playing against the sounds of doors slamming or the clock striking thirteen. Some novels are easier to put to music than others. Stringfellow first attempted to write a score to accompany WG Sebald’s novel Saturn’s rings, which follows an anonymous narrator on a walking tour of Suffolk. “The narrator takes so many tangents in the novel that it was difficult to create a clear line in the music,” he says.

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Regardless of a novel’s perceived popularity, many Bibliotapes customers come to texts for the first time. “People often listen to tapes without ever having fall on the book and will continue thereafter to read it, joining the dots based on what they heard,” says McLean.

Others will listen as they read to create an immersive atmosphere. This way of consuming book soundtracks might be a more natural step for audiobook lovers, a form that has transformed in recent years and now also emphasizes music and sound effects. Booktrack is one company that has tapped into this growing trend. Having started life as a mastering and mixing service, the production company has added a soundtrack element to its offerings, providing full musical accompaniment for audiobooks of novels by James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks and even a 28 Hour Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. “The narration and the soundtrack have a long history together,” says Mark Cameron, co-founder of Booktrack. “Think of the success of Prokofiev Pierre and the Wolf.’

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His company takes a very different approach to Bibliotapes, with the score serving as the backdrop to the narrative rather than acting as a stand-alone product. Also, the work is done by engineers rather than composers. “Initially we commissioned new sheet music and even worked with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, but it just wasn’t practical or economical,” he says. “We have now paid for a license for approximately 10,000 audio signals, which include sound effects and ambient sounds.”

With a complex tagging system, engineers work on the novel, syncing relevant bits of audio, which are matched according to mood, context and era. Ambient sounds and stock music are introduced and phased out behind the narration. It may seem less romantic than the Bibliotapes model, but it’s an affordable and viable option if you’re looking for something longer.

With Amazon’s introduction of 3D spatial audio to its podcast and audiobook offerings, listeners are expecting more from their stories. “Young listeners almost expect a soundtrack,” Cameron says. “They have multidimensional media habits.” Whether offered to the listener as an ambient backdrop for an audiobook or as a standalone soundtrack delivered to your doorstep on a limited-edition cassette, music transforms the experience of reading novels. Just as we all know John Williams’ two-note pattern for Jawsmaybe one day we’ll sing all the theme tunes for The Wuthering Heights and Kill a mockingbird.

Dolly Parton combines books and music

“I combined my love of storytelling and books,” Dolly Parton recently tweeted to the delight of her fans. The country legend’s debut novel, Run, Rose, Run, slated for release in March, alongside a companion album of new music. After writing the book in collaboration with author James Patterson, Parton then set to work on a set of 12 songs based on characters and situations from the novel. This may be Parton’s first foray into fiction, but it doesn’t stray too far from familiar territory. Run, Rose, Run follows a young woman who moves to Nashville to fulfill her dream of becoming a star.

Pre-order Run, Rose, Run now from Amazon
Pre-order Run, Rose, Run now from Waterstones

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