In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
The Nature Book flows effortlessly and propulsively, the novel propelled by found text and the genius of Tom Comitta’s literary wizardry.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
“A magnum opus about the planet using only found text. . . . A dynamic and singular reading experience.”
In their own words, here is Tom Comitta’s Book Notes music playlist for their novel The Nature Book:
I sometimes wonder if my novel makes the most sense when read aloud. The tension between the human and the natural when spoken is so much more apparent than on the page. In this form, we encounter a highly affected voice struggling through the crests and troughs of a strange, oscillating natural and emotional terrain. You might call it a sound poem or spoken aria. In this way, The Nature Book needs no soundtrack—it’s its own soundtrack.
With this in mind, I thought to share some of the music that accompanied me while writing The Nature Book rather than music that refers to the narrative itself. And because I always love a constraint, I’ve only included songs that that refer to nature in their titles. Sometimes the lyrics of a song I’ve included are directly about nature. Sometimes the nature reference in the title is a footnote in the actual piece, as in “Mounting the Puppy” by Negativland, which parodies corporate team-building activities.
You’ll find in the below playlist more tracks—about sixty more—than I describe here. I’ve erred on the side of including too much not only because it represents the full range of music I listened to while writing The Nature Book, but also because it’s how I often like to listen to music: find a long playlist, hit the shuffle button, and let the algorithm take me where it will. I hope you’ll consider doing the same.
“Colors” by Pharaoh Sanders, “Spring Rounds from Rite of Spring” by Alice Coltrane, “The Plum Blossom” by Yusef Lateef, and more
Sitting in my office writing The Nature Book, I listened almost exclusively to jazz, particularly free and spiritual jazz, and even more particularly the work of Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Yusef Lateef, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor. It started this way initially because I just loved their music and the way so much of it enwrapped me in such engrossing and complex musical textures. Eventually listening to this work became something of a habit: after a day or two of not working on my book, the only way I could re-enter it was to turn on a free jazz album or playlist. I wouldn’t say this makes The Nature Book a “jazz novel” like how Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is sometimes described, but in retrospect, I do wonder if I was drawn to works like Yusef Lateef’s “The Plum Blossom” because of their phrasal repetitions and variations, a method that resonates with the cyclical nature of my book.
“The Seven Hills of Rome” by People Like Us feat. Ergo Phizmiz
This title and the song lyrics are not really about nature. The hills mentioned only appear at the beginning, and the rest of the song is a hilarious, picaresque romp around Europe. The funniest line shows up when the narrator reaches Barcelona: “The people there were shouting and all rowdy. I slipped on a tomato in fiesta and bumped my head upon a bloody Gaudi.” I include this song here because I just love it and everything by People Like Us/Vicki Bennett. Also, it’s one of the only tracks on my favorite album of hers, Welcome Abroad, that (kind of) refers to nature in its title.
“Floe” by Philip Glass
I first started listening to Glassworks, the album that features this song, while taking a book art class in grad school. Someone had left the CD behind in the school’s letterpress studio, and I quickly found it to be one of my favorite music-to-work-to albums. I later explored Glass’ other work and found him—particularly his early work (everything he did through Einstein on the Beach)—to be completely brilliant, much more interesting than the film compositions I’d known him for. I saw Einstein on the Beach twice when it toured to Berkeley in 2012, the first time after smoking a joint and the second time sober. Let’s just say that first time was …really good.
“Nachtstuck” by Hermann Nitsch
It means “nocturne” in English, and it’s a delightfully minimal composition. Only a Vienna Actionist provocateur could sustain single chords this long and get away with it. Although, it reminds me of “As Slow as Possible,” John Cage’s organ piece in which a single chord is held for as long as 500 days and the entire composition takes 639 years to complete (we are currently at year 22). Comparatively, Nitsch’s organ piece moves at lightning speed, but considered beside most music, it’s like a film in slow motion. If you read The Nature Book, you’ll find moments similarly interested in challenging the common ways that novels engage with time and a reader’s attention.
“Bird List Song” by Michael Nyman
A list of bird names? A screeching soprano? The same note played over and over again? What more could you want?
“Ponta de Areia” by Wayne Shorter feat. Milton Nascimento
This is one of my two “happy songs,” songs that helped keep me steady through difficult times. When I got sober in 2014—a year before I really got to work on The Nature Book—“This is How We Walk on the Moon” by Arthur Russell was my mantra. I listened to it every morning as I got ready for work. Eventually “Ponta de Areia” became my go-to happy song, although later when I translated the Portuguese, I realized that the song was a bittersweet remembrance of Nascimento’s childhood home in Brazil. I don’t know another piece of music that evokes such a complicated blend of joy and pain. Nascimento’s falsetto lifts you up while cutting to your core. “Ponta de Areia” made me realize that much of the avant garde literature I was reading was missing something: can’t art give you pleasure while also blowing your mind?
“Winter” by Peter Gordon and David Van Tieghem feat. Kathy Acker
Kathy Acker is one of the best novelists of the past fifty years. I fell in love with her work when I read Blood and Guts in High School in my 20s—there’s nothing else like it. As Jason McBride writes in his biography of Acker, “Kathy Acker was that rare and now almost inconceivable thing: a celebrity experimental writer.” She was also a sometimes musician, and here she collaborated with her second husband, Peter Gordon, whose Love of Life Orchestra should also not be missed.
“Dance in the Water” by Danny Brown
This track is plain fun. The rattlesnake percussion, the bouncy bass line. The ecstatic background chorus. Danny Brown’s staccato rap. It all makes me want to, well, dance in a large body of water. Thinking about Brown’s work in the context of literature, I’m reminded of his discussion of David Bowie’s Low on the 33 1/3 Podcast. At one point, the host and Brown discuss Bowie’s of the cut-up method to write some of his lyrics. Brown begins, “Remember they used to say he used to cut up magazines and piece words together to come up with lyrics?” To which the host asks, “You ever think about doing that?” Brown responds, full stop, “Fuck no” and chuckles.
“Clair de Lune” by Kamasi Washington
This song is good, but have you ever listened to Washington’s 2017 EP Harmony of Difference while driving down CA route 33 from Sespe Gorge toward Ojai? My partner and I did this over and over during the first summer of the pandemic—initially because the beaches were closed and then later because we liked it so much. After a few drives, I found the combination of this album and the mountain landscape of Los Padres National Forest to be an ideal music-meets-environment listening experience. I’ll never hear this album again without thinking of those ridges and valleys. The only reason this album does not appear in this playlist is that none of its tracks refer to nature in their titles. Although, the album cover for Harmony of Difference is set in the woods, so maybe that should have counted for something.
“Chang! Chang! Chang!” by Thai Elephant Orchestra
Before I was a novelist, I was a sound poet and, at one point, an intern at Other Minds, a New Music non-profit in San Francisco. While going through their archives, I discovered the interspecies music of Jim Nollman. Interspecies music is just as it sounds: humans and animals (or “more than humans” as some prefer to call them) jamming together. Orcas and electric guitars. Turkeys and flutes. This Thai Elephant Orchestra was conducted in part by neuroscientist and composer Dave Soldier, probably my favorite New Music composer and the creator of possibly the best conceptual album ever, The People’s Choice Music. Oh, and for all of you at home keeping track of my nature title constraint, “chang” is the Thai word for elephant.
“Pigs… (In There)” by Robert Wyatt, “Droppen Dripp & Droppen Drapp” by Titti Sjöblom, “One Bee at a Time” by Negativland, and more.
I love bad music. I love weird, awkward music that is impossible to ignore—music that you can’t play in the background because it’s so off, or even just slightly off enough, that it makes you stop in your tracks and give it your complete attention. Give me more music that hijacks my faculties by skewing my expectations and begs the question: Why would anyone in their right mind do this?
“song for the sleeping forest” and “blue sky and yellow sunflower” and by Susumu Yokota
Every song on Yokota’s album Symbol (2005) samples canonical classical music by Debussey, Ravel, and Tchaikovsky and does what only the best collage art can do: take a widely recognizable sound and completely transform it, revealing something new that was waiting in plain sight. Yokota’s collages make these romantic, orchestral tones feel fresh and even “original” when combined with his synths and programmed drums.
“Summon The Fire” by The Comet Is Coming
This song sounds like it was made for one of those Scooby Doo dance parties, if Scooby Doo was scary and actually good.
“Stupid Horse (Remix)” by 100 gecs feat. GFOTY and Count Baldor
This song is stupid fun. It sounds like the nihilistic strain of Gen Z culture distilled into hard liqueur that you take shots of while clicking between Tik Tok and WeChat. Fortunately, 100 gecs knows this, so they wear their “bad music” badge with honor. The lyrics to this song also resonate with the carelessness that many novelists give to the animals they describe, but 100 gecs takes this phenomenon and raises the ante, reducing animals to the dumb, throwaway language that makes up their song: “Stupid sheep, I just fell out of the Jeep, stole the money in your bank account (oh no). Stupid goat, I just fell out of the boat, stole the money in your bank account (oh no) … Stupid dog, I just fell out of my hog …” and so on. If I were to raise this song to the level of high art, which, why not: I’d say this throwaway relationship to animals raises a mirror to the culture instead of just replicating its failures. If 100 gecs read this description, though, they would laugh at me.
“Summer Kisses, Winter Tears” by Julee Cruise
Early in the pandemic, my partner and I spent a few nights watching Wim Wenders’s epic five-hour road trip movie, Until the End of the World. Part sci-fi, part mystery, part music movie (there’s an extended group jam with piano and didjeridoo toward the end), this is likely one of my top five favorite films. It also features an epic, if very 90’s soundtrack. This cover of Elvis is haunting and resonant with the general mood of the film. Talking Heads’s “Sax and Violins” was my anthem of summer 2020, but it alas, it doesn’t refer to nature in its title.
“Winter Astral” by Beverly Glenn Copeland
Is it an exaggeration to say that Glenn-Copeland’s voice sounds like the voice of God? The first time I heard his song “Ever New,” I felt like someone had literally grabbed hold of my heart. It felt tender and was unlike anything I’d experienced before. “Winter Astral” is one of the instrumental tracks from Glenn-Copeland’s Keyboard Fantasies (1986) album. You might call it ambient or new age, but really, it’s in a category of its own.
Tom Comitta (they/them) is the author of The Nature Book (Coffee House Press), Patchwork (Coffee House Press, forthcoming 2025), ◯ (Ugly Ducking Presse), Airport Novella (Troll Thread), SENT (Invisible Venue), First Thought Worst Thought: Collected Books 2011-2014 (Gauss PDF), a print and digital archive of the 40 books he produced in four years. Their fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in WIRED,Lit Hub, Electric Literature,The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, BOMB, Joyland, and Best American Experimental Writing 2020, with two poems in The New Concrete (Hayward Publishing, UK), an international anthology surveying the “rise of concrete poetry in the digital age.”