Through a musical lens: Reservoir 13 (Music for the Novel by Jon McGregor) by Richard J. Birkin


Richard J. Birkin divides his time between making music as a recording artist, composing for TV & film, and being the lead creative technologist for Time Travel Opps where his artistic and technical acumen come together to produce digital projects for the arts as well as consultation in the commercial sector. The common thread in all these aspects of his work is a focus on creating emotionally compelling interactive experiences that people can connect to in a meaningful way. This makes him perhaps the ideal person to have collaborated with author Jon McGregor in the promotion of his award-winning novel Reservoir 13, which examines life in a village in England’s Peak District in the days, months, & years following the mysterious disappearance of a teenage girl.

McGregor was looking for a way to promote the book on tour that would be more engaging than the de rigueur format of simply reading passages and answering questions for an audience. Enter Birkin, who keyed off the novel’s atmospheric nature and repetitive themes to create a soundtrack that would help bring it uniquely to life in live, interactive, and recorded performances. The music was based on a local Derbyshire folk song called “Tip O’Derwent” which, serendipitously echoing the novel itself, is also about someone who goes missing in the wilds in that part of the country.

“I found a recording of it, and it had this really eerie melody that instantly made me think of the missing girl from Jon’s novel. I adapted this as her theme, and wrote all the other pieces around it. It’s in every piece of music, but muted…missing, like the girl. You can’t hear it, but it’s influencing and inspiring everything else that happens.”

Thus rooted in the setting of the book, Birkin cultivates the compositions into something genuinely evocative and achingly beautiful while retaining the brooding undercurrents of tragedy and mystery that haunt the story.  In addition to his own piano, eBow guitars, synths, and vibraphone he is joined by a string trio and fellow Derbyshire instrumentalists Haiku Salut (Sophie Barkerwood, Gemma Barkerwood, and Louise Croft) to support the narrative threads that run through the performances.

“I wanted the instruments to be quite ambient…not recorded to a click…and inhabiting their own little universe. I gave each member a short melody to play, and we played through the pieces in our own little worlds…sometime influencing each other, sometimes not. It was a beautiful experience hearing the music come alive in such a gentle and natural way.”\

Links:  Bandcamp (digital)  |  Richard J. Birkin  |  Haiku Salut

The soundtrack is now available as a digital EP and it is something modern classical music fans can easily appreciate solely on the merits of the music or in conjunction with the novel as in this video in which Jon McGregor reads an excerpt along with the soundtrack and footage actually shot in the Upper Derwent Valley by videographer Aaron Bradbury.