#writing #music: #EnnioMorricone

Composer Ennio Morricone–how to describe Il Maestro? He is an institution, an inspiration. He gave us THE showdown music, music so powerful the Sergio Leone would construct his films movie around Morricone’s music. You don’t edit Morricone. You follow Morricone. That’s how we have some of the most iconic moments in cinematic history, such as the climax from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:

Aren’t you just on the edge of your seats as the trumpets and drums build and build and build, the close-ups quickening and quickening until you can’t stand it anymore and SOMEONE HAS TO SHOOT and bam bam bam–just like that. Your heart remembers how to work, and you realize you’d stopped breathing for the last several seconds.

TalesRiverVine-Cover-COLLECTIONThat’s the power of Il Maestro.

I use Morricone often for writing my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus, both the short stories and the novels. No, not the western soundtracks–powerful as they are, one cannot think of anything but Clint Eastwood staring down the likes of Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef. When the narrative turns down the dark road and finds itself stranded in menace–that is when I turn up The Thing.

The score composed for John Carpenter’s The Thing is not what I would call complex, and that’s fine. An orchestra would feel strange for a Carpenter film, and Morricone knows how to draw out unsettling harmonies for maximum effect. Just listen to this theme (roughly the first four and a half minutes of the track). It’s so simple. So, so bloody simple. The synth rhythm, steady as a comatose heartbeat. The synth chords moving in their own quiet pattern in sync with the heartbeat. Nothing loud. Nothing heroic. Just this slow, slow add to the harmony: more synth around the 2:00 mark, and more around the 3:00 mark, this time off-rhythm, just slightly. Just…not quite right, just like The Thing that hides so damn perfectly at the Arctic research base. Morricone’s rhythms of sounds, of notes-not-quite-notes: he takes the synth and forms them into a bleak landscape. We see nothing with this music. We hope for nothing. We escape nothing.

Now let’s see how such a dire emptiness feels with an orchestra in Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant western The Hateful Eight.

Strictly strings at first. The endless bass with a steady rhythm of violins: The Thing‘s influence, perfect for this moment of travelers approaching a lonely outpost on a mountain with a blizzard at their heels. Around 0:50 the xylophone begins a simple harmony, its repetition reminiscent of the chime of Lee Van Cleef’s watch in For a Few Dollars More. The minor key of the string’s harmonies further presses the boreboding into our psyche. We can’t not think something bad is going to happen.

This has to be my favorite track from Hateful Eight. The drums a bit faster here compared to The Thing, which gives us the feel of impending…something. Something, we don’t know what, is coming. We also get the feel of characters not sitting around, waiting for that Something to come. They’re hunting Something as much as Something is creeping up on them. There’s a multi-layered mystery here of who’s hunting who, who is who, and the treachery you know lies in every heart of the Eight just bleeds through the music onto the story.

Now for the record, I should note that Morricone considers this composition to be a bit lighter compared to some of his other work. As Michael Ordoña of the LA Times quotes Morricone:

“What I wanted to do with the two bassoons at first — and later there is a tuba and later on the contrabassoon and then the trumpet, and in the end, the male voices — I wanted to de-traumatize the dramatic content of the music,” says Morricone. “To add something lighter, more curious, more interesting. The contents of the theme remain tragic and dramatic, but the way these instruments are played, to the extreme ranges of their timbre, makes them quite lighter and ironic.”
-Article: Ennio Morricone says a hands-off Quentin Tarantino let his ‘Hateful Eight’ music flow

When I first saw this quote, I couldn’t believe it. Lighter? Ironic?! What in the brewin’ blazes is he on about?

But then I realized that whenever I write with this track, I am writing a scene with my villains from my heroine’s perspective. We are sizing up the villains through her wise-ass frame of mind, so in a way, Morricone’s music fits even better than I expected. He creates the unbeatable menace, yet also defies it with a glint in the eyes and a smirk on the lips.

Il Maestro gives writers the music of dire emptiness, where a setting must not only be seen, but felt. Heard.

Feared.

Braved.

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#writing #music: Queen

My headphones are often absconded.

“I’m in the control tower. Roger roger!”

“Mommy, we have to join the pit crew so Lightning can race across the finish line. Oh no, Doc Hudson crashed!”

Because of this, I have to watch what music I play while writing during the day. Sure, the kids know ACDC and The Who, but we’ve taken care to play only a few songs of each without certain, shall we say, bluntly crude language. I’ve already made the mistake of allowing the boys to listen to Weird Al Yankovic’s polka medley of Rolling Stones songs. Heaven help me if Biff belts out “Brown Sugar” around adults who know what he’s singing.

So of course, staring at Bo’s music collection, I grab the first kid-friendly band I see: Queen!

Yeah, yeah, I know. “Bicycle” is, um, mostly clean, and if I’m fast with the volume knob we can listen to “Don’t Stop Me Now.” But there’s always “We Are the Champions,” “We Will Rock You,” “You’re My Best Friend,” and their kickin’ theme to Flash Gordon!

One song, however, speared my memory good and deep. I love digging through music old and new for writing inspiration, but a few weeks ago Writer Me experienced a different sort of epiphany.

Just as the trauma of childhood influences how we write, so do the stories that engaged us as kids. I reveled in the adventures of discovery on Star Trek. I swung my play sword alongside She-Ra. I outwitted all the baddies from the Batman comics. Aaaand I begrudgingly liked the romance of Beauty and the Beast.

(Hey, every action junkie’s going to have that one romance that gets’em every time.)

Now I finally have the age and wit (half a wit, anyway) to see the connection between a cult movie’s theme song and my current project for Aionios Books, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. 

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“Princes of the Universe” was one of three songs written by Queen for the 1986 film Highlander, a story of immortals living among humanity and dueling each other with swords because “there can be only one.” The original film wasn’t intended for any sort of sequel or series, so (spoiler alert) we find out that The Prize all immortals must fight over is the gift of mortality.

When I started writing Fallen Princeborn the fall after Blondie’s birth, I had that title before I had a setting. I didn’t really ponder why I was using the term “princeborn.” It simply fit. My immortals are created with skills and abilities that by all accounts make them “superior” to humanity. As the song says, no man can be their equal. What else are they than “born to be kings”?

In Fallen Princeborn, the antagonists are keen to do just that, while the protagonists, each broken and discarded, must learn to rise up or die trying.

Highlander went on to spawn some sequels and a television show, all of which my dad loved. So, week to week, Kid Me would hear this song while immortal men, women, and yes, even the occasional kid whipped out massive claymores, slick katanas, wicked rapiers to duel in dark alleys and ancient forests. There is almost always a Quickening: the loser beheaded, lightning floods the scene as the victor absorbs the power of the defeated immortal.

When I listen to “Princes of the Universe” now, I realize it wasn’t just the lightning and rock that stuck with me. Freddie Mercury’s lyrics buried themselves just as deep.

Here we are, born to be kings
We’re the princes of the universe
Here we belong, fighting to survive
In a world with the darkest powers

Here we belong, fighting for survival
We’ve come to be the rulers of you all

I am immortal, I have inside me blood of kings, yeah, yeah
I have no rival, no man can be my equal
Take me to the future of you all

Born to be kings, princes of the universe
Fighting and free
Got your world in my hand
I’m here for your love and I’ll make my stand
We were born to be princes of the universe

9835e4dede16d58a385e85e9f2238856This beaten down defiance drums as hard as Roger Taylor. Even just reading these words, you can feel glares burning through you like Christopher Lambert’s eyes. Whoever’s spitting these words may be bloody and bruised at your feet, but their faces tell you they’re nowhere near defeated. No power upon this earth can break them.

Such are the  heroes I am proud to give readers.

Give your protagonists a battle-song to defy the odds, and their heroics will live on in the reader’s imagination long after the final page is read.

 

 

 

 

#writing #music: Mark Mothersbaugh

61lm7CkCpqL._SS500What makes music epic?

Brass. All those horns just blasting bombastic harmonies.

Strings going to blazes and back.

Percussion pounding the heartbeats of heroes.

And don’t forget the choirs: lots of celestial singing for the unnatural nature of these  more-than-mortals.

What makes music cosmic?

This is where the synthetic can weave something new in the orchestral tapestry.

In the soundtrack to Thor: Ragnarok, Mark Mothersbaugh takes the epic aesthetic one  associates with the Norse gods and braids it gleefully with the cosmic synth to give us an entirely unique aural perception of a displaced hero fighting his way out of an alien environment.

Of all the tracks, I feel this to the best example of synth and orchestra duking it out for story’s sake:

We begin with a synth arpeggio that quickly swells into percussion, choir, brass, and strings. The hero is showing his mettle, but he is not in his element. At 1:00 there is just, oh, this brilliant fall felt in the battle drums and synth arpeggio. The synth occasionally overwhelms the orchestra: the villain is winning. Then right around 2:30 it feels like the strings are changing sides as they finger-slide amidst new arpeggios, challenging the brass to rise up, strike back. Choir and battle drums silence both in the final moment.

Who won?

Story-tellers, that’s who.

Music with this narrative power inspires the most uncertain writer to hand off their beers, roll up their sleeves, and tell their characters, “Now this is how you do it.”

I had this very moment with my hero and heroine not too long ago. Running from the villains they knew, I discovered new characters eager to snatch the heroes out of their environment and drag them into a location deep under water. The heroes are cornered in this alien place. Escape is surely impossible. The logical course of action is surrender.

Not gonna happen, Story-teller Me says. Hold my beer, and let me show you how it’s done.

Who the hell can surrender with this music on? Synth joins drums and calls the heroes to fight the undefeatable with the impossible and come out victorious even as the bars of imprisonment clang shut.

But I should be honest: these aren’t the songs that drove me to call Bo in the middle of his workday and tell him I needed him to hit a music store.

“Wait, you want me to buy music?”

(Bo’s CD collection is, admittedly, immense.)

Yes, I said, I need the score to Thor: Ragnarok.

“But you haven’t seen the movie.”

So?

“Then how do you know the music?”

YouTube. But the commercials suck and I need that music.

“What for?”

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

(I may have growled for good measure.)

“Okay, okay!” He comes home with the last copy (and a really nice Ennio Morricone collection for himself, but blah blah, that’s for another post).

One of the beautiful problems of imagination is that it’s not often a one-road traveler. It wants to go everywhere, meet everyone, see everything. Even in the most boring of places, our imagination sees more. My son taught me that. 

My sons have both been a source of heartache lately. The class bully has decided to target Bash with hurtful friendship. Biff’s teacher and principal have had to speak to me many times about his temper. One wanders friendless around the school yard, talking only to the teachers, while the other’s willing to hurt another child because if he doesn’t, the bully won’t be his friend any more.

I think on this often as I drive Blondie to her school one town over. Would  the boys be dealing with these same problems ten years from now? Good God, fifteen-year-olds, so wonderfully smart and creative, but also distant, violent, and too damn eager to please. Would they ever be friends in their own right? What would drive them to work together, as a team?

And a synth arpeggio flowed through my mind as I saw them on the run for their lives. What chases them? What’s waiting for them? Will they change for the better, or worse?

I dug through Tron Legacy, thinking the notes from Daft Punk, but they weren’t. They seemed to be of  their own creation, but I knew better. I had to have heard them from somewhere.

Providence: After a round of King Arthur, YouTube mixes things up with Thor: Ragnarok. 

There it is: the arpeggio.

And there they are: my sons, fighting, together. Brothers bound in blood, and in soul.

God-willing I’ll have time to write this story in the next few years. These brothers have already run so far through its many lands, met some bloodthirsty and bizarre characters. Like their little selves, they’re eager to sit me down and tell me all about it. I’m so sorry, little loves (for you’ll always be my little loves), that you have to show your patience, and wait for another story to be told first. But I have your fall into adventure. You share it with the heroes born alongside your sister. This music is for you all, and will keep your adventures burning bright inside me until your turn comes to race onto the page.

 

 

#Music & #ComicArt Help Fill The #Imagination Room for #Writers

Many students and writing comrades have told me of their need for silence when they write. I’ve never been one for silence; my ears quickly become distracted by any noise, be it a plane overhead, some neighbor’s car door, the heater. This could just be due to the fact I’ve got a squirrel’s attention span.

Or, it could be due to the fact I’m a parent with kids who are always, ALWAYS noisy: cars crash, transformers explode, trains go off cliffs, animals eat each other–they are all of them dramatic, violent little buggers. If they’re quiet, then that just means they’re using stealth to accomplish something even more devious, like treating the oven dials as spaceship controls.

So quiet’s not exactly a writing option round these parts. I need to isolate my imagination’s internal senses with visuals and sounds.

It begins with snapshots, like slides on a projector. Just pictures at first, distant and untouchable, until more slides come, a photogenic click click click of a paperless book. The cassette player ka-chunks and music sneaks into the space, quiet and wary until it meets the beat of the slides and then maybe, if I time it just right, I can jump into the images like double-dutch and land, smack. I’m there. I’m in. And I can feel it all.

While Book 1 of Fallen Princeborn isn’t due for release until next year, I’m already hip-deep in Book 2. New world-building needs arose involving some minor characters, and for the first time in I don’t know how long, I couldn’t see their world. I’m just sitting in a blank room of silence, the projector shining this white rectangle of nuthin’.

And with the kids on spring break for two long, LONG weeks, the time to focus my search was not coming. I’d dust off one snapshot of just a character’s arm, or some sort of shadow-blob in the background. The next day I just get a bruise-ish color, but no shapes.

It was so infuriating I even vented to Bo about it. I need something that looks alive, I said.

“Living buildings.”

No, not alive, just looking alive.

“Looking…?”

And in the water. A dark place, but they gotta see where they’re going.

(Oh yes, he’s furrowing his brow through this entire exchange.) “Dark, but…there’s light?”

Yes.

“And that’s supposed to be here, like, on Earth?”

Yes.

“O-kay.”

Hopeless, I thought. I’m stuck forever.

An hour later, after the boys have read about outer space and trucks, and Blondie learned what Roald Dahl’s Mathilda will do to anyone who rips up a library book, Bo emails me a search result of images. Take a look here. Notice where they come from? Comic books.

Duh. Why didn’t I think of this? Marvel and DC both have lords of the sea in their lore: Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Aquaman.

But in studying the Aquaman archive, I find my own shoulders hunching into a “meh” position. I don’t want to make yet another version of Atlantis.

Then two things happen at once: a happy accident, you could say.

First, I open a different file from Bo:

new-atlantis

Click.

The blue. The cold darkness balanced with light. The living feel of the dome and rock…at last, a clear slide! In my mind’s projector I can finally sit on the bench, staring, waiting for the cassette player to come on, or another slide to click into place.

Nuthin’.

Oh, Imagination is shaking the box for the other slides. It’s crawling on hands and knees to search under benches and that sad excuse of a cart with rust on the bottom shelf and a cracked wheel.

Still not found. Not for three. Damn. Days.

On a borrowed computer, I find an album I haven’t listened to in ages:

Dune.

Yes, the David Lynch film, scored by Toto.

As a kid, I only paid attention to the film when Captain Picard and all the good guys with the weird blue eyes rode on giant worms and blasted baddies into smithereens. The music was super dramatic with its drums, choir, guitar, orchestra. The first minute here should give you a sense of that (Ignore the second minute with the creepy kid):

Way, way back, in the corner of the storage room, Imagination digs up an old cassette tape. Something eerie. Distinctly awed. Cautious.

It was from Dune.

I start skimming the tracks, and by God, I find it.

Ka-chunk.

Imagination turns up the volume. The slide deepens. I step forward, as cautious as the choir. The rhythm is slow, deceptive. Imagination nudges me into the minor harmonies and invisible currents. Will I tangle them, ruin their power? Will I fall, bloody the ground?

I might.

But it’s a risk worth taking, every time.

 

#Writing #Music: Lalo Schifrin

“Mommy, play Harry’s hot dog song again!”

“Yeah, Mommy. Play it!”

I may roll my eyes, but I concede. Every kid’s going to have their favorite song about hot dogs, right?

Not what you were expecting, I wager. But that sax will set Bash a’boppin’ every time. Even Biff’s  bear-friends Mel and Grand-Père will dance to this tune.

(For the record, Blondie is tolerant, but would prefer her sweet pop songs. Or AC/DC. 7 going on 17, I swear…)

If there must be a song about hot dogs in my house, then I’m glad it’s by one of the smoothest bad-ass composers of the twentieth century,  Lalo Schifrin.

This man is a living institution, a game-changer. He started composing in the 1950s and hasn’t stopped since. Seriously, this man is STILL writing music. He’s created for television shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  and Mission: Impossiblefilms like Cool Hand Luke and Kelley’s HeroesHis score tears down the road with Steve McQueen in Bullitt. When Bruce Lee kicks ass in Enter the Dragon, Schrifin’s kickin’ it right along with him. When Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan go after the mob, Schifrin is…hang on, he did ALL the Rush Hour movies?

thSo I’m not talking about those. I want to look at two quintessential themes from a quintessential action film: Dirty Harry.

Though Schifrin supposedly scored four of the five films (I have a very stubborn conspiracy theory about Dead Pool, but I shan’t bore you with it here), the groundwork themes are to be found here, in the first film. Not only does Schifrin capture both environment and hero in Dirty Harry’s theme, but also madness and villain in Scorpio’s.

Let’s look at Dirty Harry first.

“Mommy, is this Charlie Brown music?” Biff asks every time this is on. I was stumped at first, but then realized Biff’s actually making a pretty decent genre connection: Vince Guaraldi’s compositions for the Peanuts specials are jazz in nature. Schifrin uses what Nick Redman defines as “urban jazz-funk.” Percussion is the star here, with the bass guitar a close second. The snare and bongos weave a layered energy throughout the theme–feet walking, cars honking, countless rhythms confined to this one hard space. The strings change the mood beautifully too, from the uneasiness of the violins to the steady groove of the basses and cellos. My favorite moment, though, is just around the 3:00 minute mark, when all falls away but the bongo and keyboard while Dirty Harry takes in the crime scene. For all the raw energies moving through the city, this halt to stop and think under a soft harmony makes me wonder if there’s more to this gritty cop than meets the eye.

With Scorpio, it’s aaaaall about what’s going on inside him.

Just listen to that first minute: deliciously unnerving. The whining effect that makes your ears twitch, the off-beat percussion–THIS, the percussion, is one of my favorite elements. Scorpio has no definable rhythm. He moves, he waits, he watches victims, he waits. The percussion only grows when he’s chosen a victim.

And the voice–oh, that voice! My daughter hates this song because the singer freaks her out. The singer’s sweet dissonance calls out like a siren for Scorpio to make his next kill; hell, you see that gleeful pleasure on his face when he chooses his next victim for a sniper shot.

But then comes the fuzz petal and bass, and a steady percussion announces a new rhythm: there’s law on the scene. The voices multiply and swell as Scorpio runs. The track climaxes with, of all things, a shaker. Lalo Schifrin makes a shaker sound totally bad-ass. Who else can do that? No one, I say!

Even actor Andrew Robinson, who played Scorpio, understood the power of Schifrin’s music. In one documentary (watched by Bo, who watches any and every documentary about favorite films), Robinson described meeting Schrifin by chance and thanking him for “making that character memorable,” and thereby giving Robinson a career. Robinson’s portrayal is powerful, yes, but the sirens, the drums, the guitar–they bear witness to the Scorpio’s outsides AND insides without any extra visuals. We feel this villain’s psychotic nature thanks to Schifrin.

We feel the city’s neon grit thanks to Schifrin.

We feel the hero’s inner calm amidst blood splatter and shell casings thanks to Schifrin.

Some stories require fun whimsy, or epic sweeping beauty, or the quiet dance of curious love. But for the streets of rundown hot dog stands, pawn shops, and ma-and-pa groceries, for the tattered scroungers and their shopping carts of cans, for the hunter flicking his cigarette into the gutter outside the alley where they, the notorious they are known to hang out….for the streets stained with the fluids of human and machine…

Look no further for inspiration than Lalo Schifrin.

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#Writing #Music: Alexandre Desplat

1200x630bb.jpgI know you’re staring at that album image. Hear me out.

I read the Twilight series upon the recommendations of a few friends and countless students, and yes, I saw the movies, too. For all the…debates about this series, I’ll say, I do want to touch on something done right and well by an artist entangled in the franchise: Alexandre Desplat.

I did not know his name before New Moon‘s release, but one look at his IMDB page and you can see this composer’s built an amazing resume of work over the past thirty years. And honestly, if not for Desplat’s score, much of this movie would fall flat.

Like Steve Jablonsky’s scores for the Transformer films, Desplat brings gravitas and power to a story that…well, it wasn’t written for me.

Just take a listen to his theme for the second film. It’s got a hint of melodrama, yes, but that befits the ages of these characters. Desplat uses the simple elegance of the piano a good deal throughout the score, creating a sense of gentle frailty. The strings follow the piano’s lead, heightening the tension. Whenever the oboe plays a faint bitterness comes into the song, befitting New Moon’s premise.

A quick recap: in the first story, a girl falls in love with a sparkly vampire.

In New Moon, the vampire breaks up with the girl in order to protect her from his kind.

Break ups: every romantic arc seems to have one, doesn’t it? Not to mention we’re dealing with a teenage girl. Love is here, now, not twenty years from now. The world is in this moment. To lose what makes this moment bright is to lose the world.

Lord knows such a moment can collapse into a syrupy mess in book and film alike. But of all places, this is where Desplat truly shines in his score. The piano begins with a gentle meeting with the strings; there is a sweetness to the melody, but a sadness, too. When the basses and cellos get involved, the atmosphere itself grows weighted and difficult. You know something’s coming.

And just before the 3:00 minute mark, it comes: heightened strings and trilling winds. A lone trumpet in a minor key with the strings to emphasize the shattering of harmony.

Nothing is as sweet as before. The harmonies are harsh, the rare percussion pounding the finality.

The characters are broken.

And thanks to the music, you know the sound and weight of that heartbreak.

Just because the romantic break-up is a common device doesn’t mean your story has to be common about it. These characters matter to you. Their feelings matter to you. If the plot breaks them apart, your readers must see and know that shattering inside and out. Let Desplat’s music be the device that gently pushes the moment over the edge to fall, to break, and to start again.

 

#Writing #Music: (Occasionally) Patrick Doyle

I love my husband.

I really do.

He knows me so well: his Christmas gifts to me consist of books, music, and a good mystery series. Even the candle is scented “Oxford Library.”

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But I hold up the CD, and scowl.

“Hey, it was on your wish list.”

“That was before I saw the movie.”

“And now you have something to remember the movie by.”

“The book doesn’t count?”

“No.” And off he goes to read his new compilation of Dick Tracy comic strips.

Honestly, I didn’t expect to write about music that is uninspired, but after seeing the latest film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express with dear writer-friend Ben Daniel ParmanI just can’t understand what Scottish composer Patrick Doyle was going for here. If one didn’t know the film, one would think I’d been given the score to a Hallmark made-for-television movie about railroad workers struggling with love or grief or blizzards or grief-loving in blizzards or blizzards in love or…you get it. It’s music that does not speak to its icon of a detective, Hercule Poirot. It is music that does not speak to its historic period of the 1930s. It is music that does not speak to the claustrophobic tension a snow-bound train car creates. It’s just…there. White noise to the mystery. And while some mysteries revel with distraction, a mystery–or any story, for that matter–cannot afford to annoy its audience. Which this music does. Exceedingly.

In his defense, Patrick Doyle isn’t all bad. Take his score for Brave: it has some lovely moments of both epic scope and intimate character reveal.

From what I see on Doyle’s IMDB page, the man’s collaborated with Kenneth Branagh for, goodness gracious, over twenty years. And I’m sure many of those scores are lovely. But as any author will have her clunkers, so will a composer occasionally make bland music.

One of my biggest struggles as a writer is creating the right ambience around me so I can, well, create. When the boys are trying to shove each other into the wall, when Blondie’s whining she doesn’t know what to do with herself, when the laundry and dishes and course work and cooking and….you know. It all heaps upon you, not just visually, but audibly, too. Take this very moment: I’m trying to finish this blog in the kitchen while the boys fight over a toy and the girl’s yelling at them to be quiet while The Lego Ninjago Movie plays at an obnoxious volume. I’ve got my headphones on. I put on Orient Express, and feel absolute bupkiss. I put on Brave, and feel the hint of Elsewhere swirl about my mind’s eye. I put on The Hobbitand feel the adventure promised in misty mountains cold…

Seek on, writers. Find the music that transports you from daily life’s craziness and unfetters story-telling’s power.

 

 

A Little #Memoir #Music for a #Writer’s #Christmas

Christmas divides Bo and me in a few quirky ways. He’s all about the magic of Santa Claus, Spritz cookies in a rainbow of colors and sprinkles and chips made with his mother’s cookie press, Frank Sinatra crooning as he crumbles ginger snaps over a ham, bordered by mountains of peeled potatoes and veg and butter as he cooks the blazin’ jingle bells out of our kitchen.

For me, it’s all about the music, and that music has always started with a blast of Mannheim Steamroller at sunrise the day after Thanksgiving.

Amidst the groans and pillows thrown at the door to shut it, I could never stop smiling, because that music announced the Christmas decorations had been pulled down from the attic. It also warned us to keep out of the living room, for it was now littered with strings of lights Dad was determined to save, and branches for our ancient fake tree we so often managed to fill with action figures and plush animals before Dad gave up on those blasted replacement bulbs and got new sets.

Mom always helped with the ornaments as a precious vinyl played: Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. One song in particular could make her laugh no matter what had happened that day, and drew out the silly side we so rarely saw during a stressful school year. She even pulled this song out while my kids helped her decorate this year, and the four of them giggled and danced enough to shake the snowmen watching from her hutch.

For me, music ripples through memory and carries back the echoes of laughter past.

The insanity of Advent and Christmas preparations tossed baking aside as an impossibility. Did my brothers and I miss out? Oh heavens, no. What better gift for a pastor’s family than a plate of cookies/gingerbread house/cookie bars/brownies/anything sugary? Our screen porch would quickly fill with gifted treats from our congregations. We could have made whole meals off of cookies until Lent. 

For me, stepping onto the cold wood into a sugary kingdom of plastic wrap and frosting always carried a hope for a glimpse of snow. See, snow’s not a common visitor in Wisconsin during December. Lord knows why: we get it at Halloween, often at Thanksgiving, sometimes as late as Easter, but in my three and a half decades on this planet I can only remember a handful of white Christmases. So when snow falls, thickly and heavily, it is a true Christmas miracle.

Christmas Eve Night has always carried the most magic.

For me, we had no Santa–not because my parents were against Santa, but because it just wasn’t practical in our house: we always opened our gifts Christmas Eve night after all the services were over. When I was small, though, and living in a small hunter’s town in the North Woods, we’d visit Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to tell him what we wanted for Christmas.

No, I’m not making that up. No, I don’t know why renting a Santa suit and setting up a neat little booth was more difficult than constructing a giant puppet theater/stable with a great black sheet behind this giant, car-hood sized head of Rudolph with a red nose the size of a fist and a mouth that barely moved. (I sifted through all the photos in my house for an image, but alas.) I can’t remember much of those visits, but to this day my mother gives us a little something from Rudolph.

The magic of Christmas Eve night has always come with music.

After a day in itchy stockings and awkward dresses, sitting in church pews chanting “In those days Ceasar Augustus issued a decree,” running laps around the classroom while teachers stuffed us with Kool-Aid, cheese, and Hershey kisses only to go back into the church for another round of “that a census should be taken of the enTIRE ROMAN world,” fighting off the other kids for your coat and those aren’t my mittens Mommy someone’s got my right boot…after getting a ride home with Grandma and Grandpa and stepping into the house because Mom and Dad have one more candlelight service at church:

The door opens to the Christmas tree, glowing with thousands of lights. The whole house smells of chili and spiced apples from the kitchen, simmering all afternoon. The Advent wreath candles glow upon the table laden with Great-Grandma’s china and crystal.

And music: Dad always has music, often choirs, singing softly all day long.

To enter twinkling lights, savory scents, and sweet harmonies brought Christmas’ magic to life in me and around me. Add Grandma’s laughter, Grandpa’s turns on the piano, the long-awaited sound of the garage that meant Mom and Dad are home and at last, long last, it’s time for presents and sweets late into the night…

Music always flows around us, but its power heightens with Christmas. May the sounds of the season enchant your Christmas, wherever you may be.

 

 

 

 

#Writing #Music: Vangelis

 

Blade_Runner_posterAccording to Bo, one of the queer bits of my sci-fi/fantasy upbringing was its lack of Blade Runner. “You watched Dr. Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Highlander, Dune, but NOT Blade Runner?

I admit, it seems strange Dad wouldn’t have watched it at some point. Maybe the cut available at the time really stunk–last I checked, there’ve been five different versions released. But this isn’t about all the various tellings of one story. A brief Internet search reveals that topic’s been talked to death and beyond. My focus turns to that which begins and ends the story, that which has not been altered: the music.

Vangelis (Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou) is a figurehead in the world of electronic music. Sure, everyone loves his song from Chariots of Firebut truly, it’s his work on Blade Runner that proves to the world just how beautiful, captivating, and overwhelmingly powerful synthetic music can be.

So often synthesizers are used as a cheap alternative to an orchestra, but when it comes to Vangelis’ score, I think the massive variety of sounds and sound-textures would dilute the power of his music. There is unity in the synthetic, how all stems from the same source, yet branches out into so many different pitches, rhythms, and tones, that one still experiences an orchestra without the orchestra. And really, what other approach could better fit a movie about replicants hiding as real, living creatures?

You don’t know any of this in the beginning of the film, of course. In the beginning you have but a world: a city-scape that spills over the horizon, rusted and littered with fire-flares and lights more numerous than the stars. The opening zither-like run pulls us over the threshold. Rhythm isn’t as important here; we’re not rushed through the world, but rather allowed to float in awe. Harmonies move slowly as another synthesizer dances about like windchimes. The music does not intimidate, but it does not necessarily welcome, either. Reverence is the unspoken price to pay.

But for all the wonder in the beginning, the ending is where I set the repeat button. There’s no sense of wonder, no eye-opening as we experience with the opening track. No, here we are running, forever running with the rhythms slowly building, a new sound added every time. A timpani-like sound pounds, and the snare drum, a rare bit of “real” instrument in all the synthetic, has a peculiar tap at the end of each arc, almost like it’s clicking in reset to start anew. It’s not a melody of hope, nor of despair. There’s no certainty here. This is survival’s song.

Don’t let your characters gawk at their setting for long, for all is not well beneath the glittering surface. Press them onward, through the grime and fire, to that which all creations desire more than anything: the chance to live.

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Extra versions, in case my chosen links don’t work outside the U.S.:

 

#Writing #Music: Bruno Coulais

51DgTPES9yL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I recently finished Katy Towell’s Charlie and the Grandmothers, a spooky story about a boy and his sister sent to visit a grandmother they never knew they had. It’s a tale of children forced to become heroes in the face of losing family to an evil no grown-up ever seems to notice.

Not exactly an original plot line, but for the record, it was the perfect touch of creepy while driving to visit Bo’s grandmother.

 

The story actually put me in the mood for the soundtrack to Coralinea lusciously eerie stop-motion animated film based on Neil Gaiman’s award-winning book. Scored by French composer Bruno Coulais, the music embodies innocence, adventure, malice, terror–all of which comes together to create what I’d like to call “dangerous whimsy.”

The opening music is brilliant for this. I could certainly say the visuals add to the eerie factor, but let’s just focus on the music for now.

Strings play a major role throughout Coulais’ score. They are often light, be it the pluck of the harp strings are the airy-melodies of the violins. There’s an assured delicacy to their movements, like spiders upon their webs. Brass is rarely applied.  Children sing harmonies in major and minor keys using French gibberish, which has got to be one of the most gibbery gibberishes there can be.

Two particular stars shine more in this music than anything else, I think: the harp, and…and that sound…darnit, I wish I knew what it is! It’s like the sound of one’s wet finger moving round and round a glass’ rim: a note, but not quite.

The harp follow Coraline as she explores her new home, moving as her child feet through all the boring rooms of the house and eventually discovering the little door behind the wallpaper.

Coulais made a brilliant choice in keeping the harp and singer separate from the rest of the orchestra: the audience is seeing just how alone Coraline is as she struggles to find what could make this new home worthwhile. There’s also the loving touch of whimsy here as she explores the house, what with the harp’s off-beat touches and major-key melody.

But then we are taken through the door, and we meet the Other-Mother.

Here Coulais uses chimes, piano, and of course, those children singers. This time, though, their key is minor, turning all the harmonies into something…off-putting. That sound of the fingertip on glass hums ever in the background, making the music itself feel just slightly unreal. A xylophone and finger-cymbals keep the feel of the music light and playful, but all the harmonies are now in a minor key. The playfulness is gone, replaced with a sense of wonder, but wonder that one wants to step away from instead of toward.

Such is the joy of dangerous whimsy. Of course whimsy is a bit of the fantastic, a bit of fun. A bit of youth, and a bit of innocence. Dangerous whimsy is the whimsy that hunts the youth and innocence, luring with the fantastic and the fun to…well. The Pied Piper of Hamlin lured children into a mountain. Grandmothers lured Charlie into imagination mines. The Other Mother lured Coraline into her web of wonders to take her eyes. And because this is all whimsy, adults are either blind to it or duped into compliance with it.

Our stories’ heroes deserve a world of wonders in which to both thrive as well as struggle. Whether your hero’s 38, 18, or 8, the villain–or even the setting–must engage the hero. Distract the hero, entice the hero, scare the pants off the hero. Whatever you do, the hero can’t know for sure what’s going on until she’s in too deep to stop. Give your hero a show of whimsical wonders, and she’ll never know the malice that creeps beneath.

Can’t open the music files? Special thanks to @ZoolonHub for finding a link to the soundtrack that will open outside the US.

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