Richard J. Birkin’s official soundtrack to Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 was written, performed, and recorded live with Haiku Salut, an instrumental trio from the English Midlands. The book was awarded the 2017 COSTA Novel of the Year, and its soundtrack wears the same shoes; its blue threads help in framing a photograph of sudden loneliness, its strings wrapped up in midwinter mystery.
Described by The Guardian as ‘a chilling meditation on loss and time’, Reservoir 13’s soundtrack is equally cool-blooded. The strings search for missing 13-year-old Rebecca, the sudden loss of light shrivelling the music into a sluggish state of shock. The unexplained and instantaneous earthquake, an event as cataclysmic as the one in Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, sends an endless ripple through tomorrow. Everyone’s looking for answers – crime or no crime – but life doesn’t work like that; the Universe isn’t required to offer a neat resolution or a form of closure. For the most part, things drift. People drift. Unexpected, and often terrible, events happen each and every day. Threads often just run out, with no explanation given, and no end to suffering in sight. No resolving. But, for Birkin, this is potent material. Strings swell slowly, and that gives the music more of an edge. Paradoxically, an unstoppable force, screaming at the top of its lungs, can be felt inside the quiet, caressing motion of the bow. A muted scream.
Whenever McGregor was at a book reading, Birkin’s technology allowed the writer access to the phones in the audience, creating a communal experience as the reciting of words, along with an unfolding section of the story, met with audience participation – and, of course, this produced a number of different outcomes. Not one reading was ever the same. The piano has always lent itself to deep pools of thought and sliding melancholia, but in this case it’s gut-wrenching, less a sole tear or an escaping trickle from the eye and more an inconsolable aching.
The music disappears, too.
Physically present but mentally gone, haunted by an ongoing and incredibly traumatic event, the music seems to be preoccupied with this all-consuming grief, hardly able to process pain as the crushing weight of the strings continue to bear down upon the creaking stave. The residents are trapped in a horrific situation, and the melody can’t find a way to break out of its minor key, either. The single piano motif is important, as it seems to represent isolation, a singular sorrow, a loneliness and an inability to do anything about anything. Later, strings join the search party, weeping along with the piano. Life has to go on, but a sick mood hangs over the land.
The soundtrack is heavy, but that only makes it all the more powerful. Soundtracks are often only reserved for film, although listeners have, in the past, been blessed with book-scores, like those in The Book Report series, so this somewhat novel (excuse me) approach is an area that can be further explored. Film will always offer strict representations and the forced digestion of its images, while the book is individual, creating its own imagery for every reader. The reader has to work in order to create the world. Likewise, music is subjective, too, but the book’s theme ensures sober music. The book’s meditation on loss requires a deep sensitivity, and Birkin ushers the strings to appropriate, and respectful, places, the piano gently bleeding from its emotional wounds.