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July 23, 2014

Book Notes - Phil Elverum "Dust"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

I have long been a fan of Phil Elverum's music, his bands the Microphones and Mount Eerie have been staples of my playlists for years. His new photobook Dust exposes his talent for storytelling through photography, each spread of photos is hauntingly balanced in this beautifully designed volume.

Exclaim wrote of the book:

"Like Mount Eerie, there's a certain otherworldly quality to Dust that's easy to get lost in, with each page flip bringing you deeper into Elverum's faraway and often ghostly world. No, there's no actual record hidden within the pages, but there doesn't need to be; Dust is a beautiful statement in its own right."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Phil Elverum's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Dust:

This is a wordless book of photographs that has no story and no point. Honestly, it is very difficult to come up with music that relates to the book because for the most part my aim in assembling these images was to convey some kind of statement about impermanence and void. I guess most people would try to relate these ideas with something more visually bleak, but I think it's very interesting to consider these ideas while walking around in beautiful places, in the midst of the realistic sensory overload that is everyday life. To me, a picture of a new red car parked in front of a dilapidated karate building says "emptiness" because I notice the bushes growing through the window and the many layers of history erasing and replacing each other. Many layers on every page, in every view, all the time every moment, physical matter churning around so constantly that nothing is really solid. Appropriate music for this book would really be non-music, just the sound of a breeze, a trickle of water, traffic, etc. But here are some of my favorite songs anyway and some ideas about how they might relate:

(NOTE: I designed the book as pairs of images meant to be viewed as spreads. That's why they are listed that way here.)

pages 5 & 6
"The Piano Drop" by Tim Hecker (from Ravedeath, 1972)
The whole album is amazing and deserves to be heard as one piece of music, but for the purposes here this song will do. The glimmer on empty water, the moon in an empty sky, sharp symmetry, a razor horizontal line, a circle. The real wild world occasionally makes straight lines and points, poking our minds open. This music is an excellent interweaving of the wild and the precise.

pages 9 & 10
"Open Field" by Maher Shalal Hash Baz (from "Blues du Jour")
The photo on page 9 is literally of the man who made this music, Tori Kudo. On tour in Matsuyama, Japan I had the good luck to spend a morning hanging out with him. I can't summarize his work here, but the way the figures seem to accidentally pass and miss each other (on both pages) and the disorienting skew of page 10, plus the piercing moon, pretty much capture the sensation of Maher Shalal Hash Baz. Moments of accidental brilliance, constantly.

pages 11 & 12
"Some Lightning" by Thanksgiving (from "Nothing")
Specifically the words "the shape of those rocks coming out of the ocean, that is my shape". These rocks seem to jut out so strikingly that they become charismatic personalities. Mirrored by the mid-summer toasted wild grass on a sloping hill, the atmosphere here is of a young poet hanging out under a tree by the water saying sayings to the inanimate surroundings. This early Thanksgiving song was made by a very young brilliant Adrian Orange, an actual real-life lounging grass-grove poet who went on to write the best songs in human history. I picture him in that grass.

pages 33 & 34
"Generous Palmstroke" by Björk (from Vespertine singles)
The house on page 34 is a couple blocks from my house. I walk past it daily, listening to music in my headphones. Frequently I listen to this specific Björk song, trying to figure out how she made that close humming texture, while I walk to the studio to work on my own music. Close and spooky and dynamic. I haven't been able to figure it out but I've been listening to it for many years. Many nights I walk past this house's roses lit like that, dramatically. Both of these images have a similar close and spooky feeling. Unusually intimate.

pages 41 & 42
"Hello Earth" by Kate Bush (from "Hounds of Love")
Even though Kate Bush doesn't always sound so detached from earth (usually persistent and prominent snare hits), this song is totally loosed and floating. These images are from a morning drive through Somerset in southern England. I don't know where in England Kate Bush is from, but it's close enough. Wandering through unearthly trees in a British fog, thinking of generations past, diverting frequently into spooky eastern European mens' choirs, voices from behind trunks. These trees almost look like a set from a movie, but it was really like that.

pages 49 & 50
"Over Dark Water" by Mount Eerie (from "Clear Moon")
OK, yeah, I know, it's taboo for me to put my own song on this list, but it is very appropriate. This image on page 50 is exactly of what the song is about. This photo was taken on Deception Pass bridge late into a sunset, looking west. You can see the strip of orange sky through a slit in the clouds, out past beyond the dark water and the blinking green light of a lighthouse. Geneviève, the singer in the song, appears at an unnatural elevation, lit from the side by distant headlights. The song is about mentally riding on those high winds, like valkyries or witches, westward over these exact waters towards the ocean, illuminated orange and wild. The murk on page 49 is the tumult of the water below, the distorted bass.

pages 83 & 84, plus 91 & 92
"Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog" by Wolves In The Throne Room (from "Black Cascade")
Pages 83 & 84 are meant to basically scream "Pacific Northwest". The image of Snoqualmie Falls is hopefully immediately recognizable from the opening credits of Twin Peaks, appearing here as a lazy visual shortcut, but foggier. The shredded massive cedar trunk feels like a scream to me. I don't know what could do this to a tree. Epic forces exist here. Wolves In The Throne Room is definitely the music for these images. Their whole project is to give voice to this epic force, specifically Pacific Northwestern, in an exaggerated and sacred way. This song in particular starts with a pretty amazing primal scream, something definitely coming up from beneath. The title is a reference to a painting I love by Caspar David Friedrich of a lone wanderer looking out over an "other world" type of landscape, back to the viewer, weird and alien and symmetrical. The image on page 92 is a nod to that painting: 3 figures watching an indistinguishable orb in a copper night fog. The vivid sharpness of the stars on page 91 is also found in the music, chiming in the overtones (if you listen to it loud enough).

pages 107 & 108
"Renihiliation" by Liturgy (from "Renihiliation")
Two thick black metal songs in a row, sorry. I think it is necessary to do it all the way if you're going to do it at all. Liturgy makes music like a very sharp blade. It is precise and enveloping. It brings me immediately to another place, cold and clear. These 2 images, blasting through piercing snow in a car and arriving in the thickest of white walls of snow, so thick that everything goes dark, this is the feeling of Liturgy's music. They call it "transcendental black metal" and I agree. It is a movement to a brighter place, not darker, but somehow so blindingly brighter that it feels like a wall of white noise. It might as well be black. That wall of trees might as well be solid.

pages 131 & 132
"Tirili Tovann" by Kirsten Bråten Berg (from "Nordisk Sang" compilation)
Page 131 was taken in western Norway, traveling up the fjord, up the river, into the mountains. This is a traditional Norwegian song. I'm not sure what it's about exactly but I made out the word "skogen" (forest). It is easy to picture Kirsten Bråten Berg on that ridge in the background, singing out to a neighbor 2 fjords over, like Swiss yodeling but much more beautiful, like a bird that can fly super high and loves getting whipped around on the high atmospheres, or like a wild river that gracefully consumes tree groves. The placid river scene on page 132 is at home in the Skagit Valley and is also a component of that music, the omnipresent low drone note on the fiddle.

pages 57, 58, 59 & 60
"Aavehuminaa (Katjalle)" by Es (from "Kaikkeuden kauneus ja käsittämättömyys")
This is the sound of my imagined version of Finland, made by actual Finnish people. These first 3 images are in Helsinki. There is no picture of a sauna here, but the feeling is there. Inside those ordered buildings on 57 & 58 (taken a year apart incidentally) there is clearly some coziness happening, behind an iconic birch trunk and a grid of walls and window coverings. On 59, a power plant and the setting sun's glow stand in for the transforming otherworldly sauna feeling. Out of nowhere a stack of trucks blasts across west Texas, into a new thing, like the ice plunge wakeup. This song by Es is one of my favorites ever and brings me immediately to a snowy tundra in my mind, high winds whistling and squealing, opening the door to a tiny hot room where everything transforms.

Phil Elverum and Dust links:

the author's website
excerpts from the book

Exclaim review

Exclaim profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
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guest book reviews
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musician/author interviews
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weekly music release lists