Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A soundtrack to The House

How does one write a soundtrack for a book? A challenging proposition, especially when considering the book is Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. This is a book that not only presents an incredible challenge to its characters – exploring the larger-than-possible interior of the house – but a challenge to the readers, with twisting, labyrinth-like passages meant to give the readers a sense of foreboding, a feeling most certainly echoed by the characters of the book.
In an attempt to answer this question, along with exploring her own feelings towards her father, singer/songwriter Poe (Anne Decatur Danielewski, sister to Mark) produced the album Haunted. Born out of discovering their father’s cassette recordings – letters he recorded to them both – House of Leaves and Haunted can be seen as serving similar roles for each child, who expressed their feelings through mediums that they each familiar with. As she stated in several interviews, Haunted and House of Leaves play off of each other in several ways. In this sense, the album is not so much a soundtrack for the novel, but more of a different way of experiencing the same story (or maybe a better word would be emotional-arch).
In this piece, I am going to focus on the first single of the album ‘Hey Pretty’. When the album was released, no radio station would play the song because female-vocal bands were not selling well (also, the lyrics are relatively risqué, showing a girl either in pursuit of someone, though also possibly being pursued by someone [someone or something, there are numerous mentions of ‘the growl’ in the song]). In response to the lack of airplay, Poe had her brother read from pages of the novel over the music she produced. This went on to become relatively popular on the radio.
The song itself is a catchy pop song, with Poe’s vocals taking prominence over the produced sounds, including distorted guitar hooks and a simple drum beat. Her voice is reminiscent of jazz singers of old, with a certain sexuality present, but never overly obvious. Then, at exactly 2:30 into the song, the tone switches. The drums lay down a jazz-beat, complete with brush-strokes and an upright-bass and piano, along with muted horns, accompany Poe.  For as abruptly as the shift in tone occurs, it only lasts seventeen seconds, when a record-scratch is heard and the song picks back up into the opening sounds.
This switch, between ‘menacing’ distorted guitar (which is only ‘heavy’ sounding to those who are too used to top-40 music to not know that ‘distorted’ =/= heavy)[1] and soft jazz are reminiscent of the switches in tone throughout the two chapters dealing with Holloway’s exploration of the room – switching between the menace of the unknown and the subtle beauty in discovering new territories, ideas and realities.
More concretely, the song can also be seen to put Karen’s life into new perspective. The song is a pursuit song, and can be taken as Karen’s attempts to keep Navidson close to her, and away from the door. It is not surprising then that the section of book Mark reads from in the edited cut of the song is on page 88, where Johnny is seduced (not that it takes much) by Kyrie. Possibly Johnny tells this story now because of the parallels between his running off with Kyrie and Karen’s wish to run away from the house with Navidson and the kids.

[1] Perhaps showing that both the music and the book are not for those unwilling to put in effort into listening


Adam said...

The first paragraph doesn't do much. The 2nd is maybe the best compact orientation I've read to the relationship between the two works. Good! The 2nd paragraph is a good orientation to the particular song (although it's missing at least one citation!), although problematically we've now spent half of your essay on a basically a series of introductions to it.

Your analysis of the sound of the song is very good, although maybe *too* compact. While I'm not opposed to the speculations about it being about Karen at the end (although it seems to contradict your second paragraph to some extent), I would have been happier to see you do more with the sound of the song - in particular, with extracting meaning from the contrast between the whole and the 17 seconds embedded within the whole. It's a productive line of thought which I feel doesn't get the full attention that it deserves. The other material is fine, but this detailed analysis of the music was better.

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