Soundtrack for a Book: Kallang Basin Adagio by Khor Kuan Liang

(photo: Malte Wingen/Unsplash)
Music plays a big part in Kallang Basin Adagio, the novel by debut author Khor Kuan Liang, which was longlisted for the 2017 Epigram Books Fiction Prize. The story is set in future Singapore, which has been ravaged by an environmental catastrophe.
In this harsh setting, a group of survivors rescue a boy and his robot, Doll, on their way to the safe haven at Kallang Basin. But Doll is no mere android. She has been programmed to play some of the most beautiful music the world has ever heard. 
Here, Kuan Liang shares his playlist – or soundtrack – for his novel and why he picked these tracks.  
 * * * * * * 

Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber

What would become Doll’s most special piece of music was actually composed in 1936 when Samuel Barber encountered a passage from Virgil’s Georgics:

"…curve of wave begins to whiten
And rise above the surface, then rolling on
Gathers and gathers until it reaches land
Huge as a mountain and crashes among the rocks
With a prodigious roar, and what was deep
Comes churning up from the bottom in mighty swirls"

Born in the chaos of a continent on the brink of apocalypse, the Adagio begins softly, with a single note. Two beats later the lower strings enter, creating an uneasy, shifting suspension as the melody begins a stepwise motion, like the hesitant climbing of stairs.
The piece is over in eight minutes, harmonically unresolved, never coming to rest. If any musical piece can come close to conveying the effect of a sigh, or courage in the face of tragedy, or hope, or abiding love, this is it.

The Greatest Love of All (by George Benson)

This song expresses a sincere hope for the future generation with the lines “I believe the children are our future…let them lead the way”, which coincides with the novel’s dedication to the children of tomorrow.
Despite its dystopian setting, the novel illustrates to the reader that the most beautiful things in life are often things we cannot physically touch, an awareness that the characters themselves experience as they become exposed to a lost age of music; similarly, this song urges one to “show them all the beauty they possess inside”, which is in line with the notion that even during the bleakest of times, beauty can be found internally rather than in external circumstances.

To Be Human (by Sia)

This song sends a strong message of not giving up even amidst overwhelming odds, resonating with the novel’s theme of human endurance in the face of bleakness and adversity. Furthermore, this song seems applicable to Doll’s evolving consciousness of what it is to be human, while underscoring the story of lost love that led to her creation. 

The Morning After (by Maureen McGovern)

The theme song from the 1972 disaster film, The Poseiden Adventure, echoes the novel’s theme of persisting in a disaster-stricken world. The characters’ persistent quest for the Kallang Basin and the tenacious spirit they exemplify seem to resonate with the poignant yet optimistic lyrics: “There's got to be a morning after / If we can hold on through the night / We have a chance to find the sunshine / Let's keep on looking for the light”. 

Adagio for Strings (by DJ Tiesto)

Based on Barber's piece, Tiesto’s version is made up of multiple tracks containing various synthesizers that are layered up, along with a drum machine that is extensively employed. This musical piece thus seems to parallel Doll’s musical development as her ability to interpret music progresses.

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