August 6, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Erin Morgenstern's novel The Starless Seais ambitious, complex, and totally enthralling.
The Guardian wrote of the book:
"Assuredly beautiful... The novel reads like panel after panel of mythic illustrations... It demands that its readers interpret it in an older way; the way we read The Faerie Queene... Well-written... The novel’s scope and ambition are undeniable."
I keep ongoing playlists for everything I write and I worked on The Starless Sea for a long time so its playlist morphed quite a bit over the years. There were songs that came and went (including Mumford & Sons’ “Believe,” Bon Iver’s “33 “GOD”” & the entirety of Thelma Plum’s Monsters EP) but this is the final version.
1 - Dragon Age Inquisition Theme - Trevor Morris
The short version of this playlist is please put on headphones and close your eyes and listen to the Dragon Age Inquisition theme because that’s it, that’s the book. I figured out this book by playing Dragon Age, having the sudden realization of how much games and gaming and choice-based role-playing worked with what I was already doing with stories and myths and retellings and of course it all needs to sound like a slow burn epic quest.
2 - Cosmic Explorer - Perfume
I was looking for music that evoked a video game feel without being game music and I stumbled upon Cosmic Explorer by accident and it was everything I wanted. I wrote to this album a lot, particularly this track and Story, because sometimes I claw onto music that feels like it will help get me where I want to go. Break new ground. Seek new field.
3 - Vivaldi - The Four Seasons: Winter 1 - Max Richter
The Starless Sea is very much a snow-covered, winter book and when I was putting together music for it I didn’t know which of the four seasons this track was, I had just heard it a million times and thought it sounded appropriate and looked it up only to discover that it’s Winter because of course it is. I particularly love Max Richter’s recomposed versions and they’re just the right tone for this book: old and new at the same time. (Vivaldi is mentioned as background music in a particular scene and it is totally this album.)
4 - Ævintýr - Sóley
Ævintýr is an Icelandic word meaning “adventure” or “fairytale” and I tried very hard to fit it in the book somewhere but never managed it. Sóley’s entire Ask The Deep album feels like this book, almost uncannily so considering I’d written a lot before I’d heard it to the point where I had to sit down on the floor listening to it for the first time because so much of it sings to The Starless Sea, so much. All alone you are going down/Do you wonder is there anyone to look for you? (Also if this book had a tagline “you must face your fairytale” would be appropriate.)
5 - Dorian - Agnes Obel
Dorian’s chosen name was always an Oscar Wilde reference, of course, but then Dragon Age Inquisition came out and with it came perfect mage Dorian Pavus and I want to say I ran into another fictional Dorian somewhere in that tail end of 2014 so I was literally just about to change his name due to perceived oversaturation and then I heard this song and I knew I had to let him keep it. It’s his name.
6 - Hypolight - Mt. Wolf
I was constantly looking for music for this book that felt like it bridged the gap between dreaming and waking, sounds that drifted into ethereal. This is a light in the darkness song, down in the depths where reality starts to bend and time is less reliable. It’s probably snowing.
7 - Nights in White Satin - The Moody Blues
When I was little I used to think this song was about knights with a k. I did not know why the knights were wearing white satin but it sounded fancy and chivalrous. I realized as I got older that the white satin nights were k-less but I still think it, every time. This is a guardian song, a Dorian song, epic and orchestral and a little bit mournful and confused but I love you, yes I love you, oh how I love you.
8 - The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness - The National
I didn’t go out of my way to pull out music that I thought my characters would be listening to (though Perfume is probably on high rotation in Kat’s sky-blue car) but Zachary has definitely had his moments of getting drunk and lying on the floor and listening to The National, as one does. I used this particular track on repeat to propel myself off the floor and through the tricksy latter half of the book.
9 - Familiar - Agnes Obel
The second voice in this song is also Agnes Obel digitally distorted into magic so it sounds like a duet. Always a song for the pre-existing romances dancing around the edges. For fate and for time and for the moon, for story sculptors and mice. Our love is a ghost that the others can't see.
10 - Follow Me Down - Sóley
I wasn’t kidding when I said Sóley’s entire Ask The Deep album feels like this book. Look up the lyrics to this song and please try to believe me when I say I had most of the book conceived before I ever heard it, even with the find me a heart and the moon and all the follow me down, and deeper.
11 - Meridian - ODESZA
The gold-dipped, lost-in-time party sounds like this, rhythmic and shimmering, with voices that you can’t quite discern, buzzing like bees.
12 - Identikit - Radiohead
A pause here to mention that I grew up on carefully curated mix tapes on actual cassette tape and sonic transitions remain extremely important to me so the order of this playlist has been considered and revised and I am particularly fond of the transition from “Meridian” to “Identikit.” Everything I ever write I’m trying to make it feel even remotely like Radiohead at the end of the day. Broken hearts make it rain.
13 - Heart-Shaped Box (Orchestral Version) - Ramin Djawadi
Again with the transitions only this one is thematic. And I had to. It’s appropriate on several levels and I frequently used the Westworld soundtracks as background music for writing. (If I could have an imaginary perfect piece of music to add to this playlist it would be a Ramin Djawadi Westworld-style cover of the theme from The Legend of Zelda.)
14 - Mountain At My Gates - Foals
This is the song I finished the book to, left on repeat during final changes and adjustments and edits when I needed a drumbeat and some insistence about fate to get me there. This is what it sounds like as the tides rise at the end of it all because endings are also beginnings, just ask the owls.
15 - Breathe Me - Sia
I have been working various iterations of this book for a very long time and this was the first song that was ever on this playlist, probably back when it came out circa 2004. I would sit and listen to it over and over and over because somewhere in between the lyrics and the notes I could hear this story, buzzing, and if I listened closely enough I could find it. Someone in a long dress is running down a hallway filled with books and candles. Something in the space beyond is on fire. All of this has happened before. A cat is watching everything unfold and once it does that cat will tell this story to the bees and fold it all back up again.
Erin Morgenstern is the author of The Night Circus, a number-one national best seller that has been sold around the world and translated into thirty-seven languages. She has a degree in theater from Smith College and lives in Massachusetts.