books and music

When I teach Contemporary Civilization, I try to link music to the various texts we encounter—a task easier in the second semester of more modern authors than in the first, for sure. (The earliest tune I use is Aquinas’ Adoro te devote.) Sometimes we can make rough connections of time and place, adding an audio dimension to the ideas we glean from the page. When we read Kant’s 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, I send along Mozart’s 20th Piano Concerto; with Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, I give Gershwin’s 1929 An American in Paris. Some of the students really get into associating an auditory “feeling” with the tenor of the books themselves.

I’ve been listening to some music from my own days as an undergraduate, and some of it has held up well—that is, the music is both an artifact of some earlier era but also immediately engaging, a bit like those songs of the semester. A real stand-out is the 2003 album The Lemon of Pink by The Books, whose first track (up to 4:40 in the video here) begins with a mish-mash of vocal samples and banjo plucks but then culminates—almost crystallizes—into descending scales and rich cellos. The whole album is top-notch, and I don’t think I’ve heard much other music quite like it, either earlier or later.

The challenge in course design, however, would be to find a novel that pairs well with it: