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Audiobook from a Talking Head

David Byrne moves from music into meditations on life experienced while touring on two wheels in Bicycle Diaries. Byre’s book will be released September 28th as a downloadable audiobook exclusively through his website As each chapter focuses on Byrne’s world travels via bicycle, the episodic reflections create podcast-like chapters which can be purchased individually and listened to in any order. The introduction, focusing on New York City, is now available as a free download here, complete with Bryne’s narration, music and atmospheric sound. I’ve always called this type of audiobook production “soundscapes” – layering environmental sound effects and a musical bed with the narration taking center stage, such as in Live Oak Media’s Odyssey Award winning titles  Jazz and  Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken.  Boston DJ Oedipus quotes a letter recieved from Byrne on his website, with Byrne’s reflections on soundscape creation:

After Bicycle Diaries came out in hardback about a year ago, I wondered to myself, what if the audiobook for this project was more like a cross between a podcast and a radio show instead of the usual author or actor reading in silence? I was thinking about the kind of radio show that NPR stations do from time to time, with background music, street sounds and other ambiences that help put the listener in the picture. So, I did one chapter (“New York”) as a test, with me reading, and though it took a lot longer to assemble than I expected, I felt it did indeed do what I imagined it could; when you heard the tinkle of glasses and silverware during a restaurant “scene,” boom!-you immediately felt you were there. Your mind fills in the details and these little sound cues help paint a fuller picture. If only I could have added smell! When the text went off on one of many tangents, and I began ruminating about a subject off the beaten path, a little bit of music I happened to have available helped tell you, the listener, that, yes, we’ve left the “story” temporarily, but will return soon. It started as an experiment and then turned into a complete DIY project, with the Hendler Brothers keeping the ball rolling.

I also realized that this particular book could be consumed in any order, and it didn’t matter which chapter you started with. So one could download and listen to the chapters as individual podcasts, in any sequence. I could even make the chapters available to download separately-you wouldn’t need to buy the whole audiobook to see if you liked the experience. This all would have been impossible if these were made available only via CD (or cassette!)…or with many other types of books.

Technology had, it seemed, created an opportunity for a whole new format to come into being. I’m not sure anything exactly like this has ever been done before. Sure, there are NPR radio shows with sound effects (Joe Frank comes to mind) as well as ye olde radio dramas (The Shadow was one), but if there’s anything similar out there I’m unaware of it. And yes, there are loads of downloadable audiobooks-but you have to listen to the chapters in the prescribed order, unless you are into self created meta fiction.

So, the first taste-the Introduction-is free. It’s shorter than a regular chapter too.

Is Byrne’s audiobook a first? Well, as a 2009 Audies judge, I listened to Louis Vuitton Soundwalk: Shanghai read by Joan Chen, published by Soundwalk – part of a series that takes listeners on walking tours via a rich soundscape. And the producer of Jazz, Arnie Cardillo, describes his team’s creative process when I interviewed him for Booklist. Byrne has added some interesting twists with his podcast-like individual chapter downloads, a bit like Alexander McCall Smith’s release of The Corduroy Mansions. The result? A satisfying mix of audiobook production styles, with creative orginal touches from a master of all things media.



About the Author:

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus (OH). An enthusiastic audiophile, she has served on all four of ALA's audiobook award committees as well as the Audies. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @mburkey.

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