APRAP: May 2012
Reading the Booktrack
Booktrack is a Kiwi-led innovation that allows eBook users to read and listen to music simultaneously. What is unique in this idea is the ability to synchronise music and sound effects to the story, whilst keeping the audio at the speed in which you a reading. Having trouble fully imagining that “whistling wind” you are reading about? Cue the sound of whistling.
Val Hunting, VP Audio & Operations of Booktrack, helps describe the technology used. “Years of research and development have enabled us to develop a combination of methods to ensure that the soundtrack (which consists of hundreds of individual sound files) will synchronise with the reading speed of the user. The unique challenge is that each reader not only reads at a different speed, but also changes their reading speed as they read and they may change the font and layout of their eReaders. We have complex algorithms that constantly monitor the speed of the reader and cue each audio file accordingly.”
Behind the company is an impressive line-up of entrepreneurial names. Kiwi cofounders Paul and Mark Cameron lead the pack, with Derek Handley – CEO of media company The Hyperfactory – sitting as Chairman. The NZ names don’t just feature on the business side of things either. APRA Ambassador John Psathas and APRA Professional Development Award 2011-winner Stephen Gallagher are composing contributors, working with the NZ Symphony Orchestra and Wellington’s Park Road Post to bring the causative projects to life.
Having only launched in August 2011 the software is still in its inception, yet already has some strong literary names (Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie has just released a story) and downloading numbers (over 100,000 downloads for one title) behind it. But one of the most exciting elements of this venture is the prospective possibilities for composers.
APRAP talked with John Psathas and Stephen Gallagher on their different approaches to adapting words to music and the future of ‘book composing’, all within the realm of an evolving technology. What is the process you go through when writing a score for an eBook?
JP: I read the short story (Salman Rushdie’s In The South) about 50 times and got to know it inside out. I developed a concept for the score, which grew out of specific Indian ragas that matched things in the story like the time of day of the scene, or an attribute of an Indian God. I ran this by Salman and he agreed it was a good way to proceed. I then created music scores that combined tablas, sitars and a full symphony orchestra, along with a few synth textures. We recorded all of this, edited and mixed it, then gave it to Salman to approve, which he did. From then on it was a process of embedding the music into the Booktrack software and combining it with the sound design and atmospheres being created at Park Road Post.
SG: The Story Director plays a vital role in this process. The composer cannot always read through the book to get an overview so the way the Story Director describes the book is crucial to how the pieces come out. They go through and read the book, breaking it down into descriptions on the changing of scenes and what the music needs to sound like at each cue. How do you find the process of composing a soundtrack for a book to composing for film?
JP: The book score is very different from the film score. In a film the music is often revealing hidden information, for example what characters are really feeling. In a book all of this is unnecessary as it is described by the writer. So the music is there to enhance the overall feeling that a passage is evoking and that is everything combined – all of the characters, the setting, the plot, the historical era. In a book score it is not the aim to exactly match (in timing) a sequence of events – although this is often possible – but more to deepen the overall experience of the moment the reader is in, and the immediate past and future of the story.
SG: It’s a challenge. The first and most obvious difference is that there is no visual reference at all. Every medium that I have worked in with dramatic score prior to Booktrack is based on a fixed visual reference of some kind. Or, at least, a fixed linear timeframe in which action or dialogue takes place. To suddenly not have these absolutes is daunting. It is also a nice challenge. How long are the compositions?
SG: For a long book the total music time can run for hours, though this consists of cues being reused and looped throughout the book. The composer is given the brief based on an average reading time of 130 words per minute. The compositions need to fit with this speed but also fit for faster readers. Do you see this as an area that could open up more work for musicians and composers?
JP: It has huge potential. This is the biggest opportunity for composers since the emergence of film scores. A lot of Booktrack scores can be made without live musicians, which means they can be created with computers. This opens up the career to anyone with a good computer, the right software and good quality sounds. It’s also a very new concept – composers haven’t really been able to engage with authors in this way before. I’m looking forward to the next step. In which authors and composers create new hybrid works; making the book and the music together in collaboration, and feeding off each other’s creativity. That’ll be something extraordinary.