For a totally different perspective from my last post, I wanted to go into a bit of detail on my fifteenth improvisation, Lovecraft’s Dream. At this point in time, I had done a great deal more research on many composers, 20th century works, and music theory, and had already begun to develop my own personal approach to atonality. Lovecraft’s Dream would serve as a foundation on which I composed my first work for large orchestra, Nyarlathotep (2017).
By this point in my musical career, I had begun to become far more vertical in my compositional style, and in time I came to appreciate certain particular chord “entities”—I almost look at them like characters in a story—and these entities interact with each other and the outer “harmonic environment” to tell stories. In the earliest days of my writing in this new world, I didn’t really have any specific name for them, but a friend of mine, composer Philip Daniel, semi-jokingly used the term “psychoharmonic entities” to refer to my dense chords that I often like to build. The idea of these chords being entities—characters with their own emotions and story arcs—appealed to me. This was early on for it, but I can now look at it as almost a form of “radical narrativism”, where the phraseology and intimacies of each expression create an almost literal account of some story, something that, given the right subconscious tools, could be translated into written word. I had this feeling of some sort of esoteric “great narrator” to my music which rested outside of my conscious mind, and especially at this point in my improvisational career I had learned to drop into a flow state and allow my subconscious to take over, and from these mental explorations came highly cerebral works.
To attempt a traditional analysis of these works I feel would not do them justice, as I generally reject traditional formal structures such as the sonata in favor of a more organic style which more naturally fits that of literature or even poetry. Perhaps a good place for me to begin doing more rigorous study would be in the monomyth and other archetypal literary structures.
As it so happens, right around this time I discovered the works of H. P. Lovecraft, and, as can be gleaned from the title, his compositional style and philosophy of Cosmicism really appealed to me and my ever-increasingly obscure tastes. I am pretty sure that I improvised this after listening to the audiobook of his The Haunter of the Dark, a tale about a troubled author who awakens an ancient evil within an abandoned cultic church. If you want to hear the story yourself there is a great version of it here.
The first “entity” we are introduced to is what could generally be considered a bichord: A Major/E♭minor. While some of my entities end up being bi- or trichordal, the specificity of voicing and range makes it so that if I were to alter it too much it would fundamentally change its character, and thus turn into a new entity.
One characteristic I have found about my harmonic system is that I consider the Major-seventh (M7) interval to be more or less “consonant”. That is, if a tone placed on the top of a chord is a M7 away from any tone relatively near it, it will sound more consonant. On the other hand, I consider the minor-ninth (m9) to be a rather dissonant internal (naturally) so placement of a m9 on top of a chord will seem to “darken” it in some way. So, in the first measure, if I wanted a “bright” tone in the lead voice, a C, D♯ or F would have worked.
The next entity I introduce is at [1:3]. It will be seen that these two entities, which I will label A and B, often are close in proximity to each other, almost as if they are communicating. There are slight changes to them over time, in intensity or environment, which hint at stresses in their dialogue—development in their grand story. I like to think of A and B as embodiments of Lovecraft’s omnipresent anxiety at the universe: two unsettling, unsettled, timid characters, sitting down gingerly in their chairs, ready to leap up and dash away at the fall of a feather.
From [1:1—2:23] the music paints the picture of the cautious little conversion. It never really comes to any resolution, and even at more openly stressed moments like at [1:8–9], it will interminably dissipate back to sullen ambience.
The demon of the story, Nyarlathotep itself, is outside (C Major), but the listener doesn’t get to see it yet. This “tonal center” change at [2:24] transports us to the outside of the house: it is nighttime, dark and cloudy, and an air of evil certainly hangs over all.
I feel like harmony that extends “past” Major—augmented octaves and fifths, “hyperlydianism”—will not sound “more happy” but in fact swiftly pushes the mind towards the obscene and sharply overexposed. One could compare “supermajor” harmonies (as I refer to them as a blanket term) to walking outside to a bright and sunny midday immediately after being submerged in near-perfect darkness for a few hours. Incidentally, I end up improvising a piece the following year titled “Sunbright” which explores that sharp, sterilizing feeling.
Looking more closely at this chord at [2:24(3)], it is a bit humorous that, due to the juxtaposition of the brighter G♯ and D♯ in the middle of the chord (within the context of the bass’ C), the higher C Major chord ends up darkening the chord slightly. This is why, in the subsequent measure, there appears to be a lightening feeling with the upper voices now spelling an EM7 chord. Indeed, the next several bars careen wildly between several peaks and troughs of brightness and darkness.
If it hasn’t been made clear by now, you may begin noticing that one thing of supreme importance to my work is the concept of color. I do not have synesthesia, but with the depth of impact that color has on my musical art practice, I might as well have it. I feel that the visual arts’ periods of painting do well to metaphorize my works, with the work of my last post almost being Romantic: there is color and motion, but their intensity is muted, and their structural changes are regular and pragmatic. As time wears on, my art grows increasingly more chromatic—tonally as well as “visually”—and the radicality of the brightness and darkness stretches a great deal, as well.
In recent months I have come to greatly appreciate the visual arts, and I feel that at this point it would be good to use a painting to exemplify the previous musical example:
Returning to the Lovecraftian pseudo-narrative that I have been constructing, the general tonal area of C can be likened to the outdoors. In this tale, however, the outdoors is not a beautiful place of nature and serenity, but rather one of exposure to attack. The monster is not yet awake, but it slumbers nearby.
It isn’t until [3:39–40] that we finally see the great Nyarlathotep rise and make its presence known. Dancing bichords juxtaposed over a C Major root, the three chords once joined together start relatively neutral (A Major/G minor) and swiftly sail into depths of intense dissonance and darkness, with the fabric of the chords seemingly ripping apart and spiraling over the heavy root Cs. Nyarlathotep is stretching out, opening its disgusting maw, preparing to speak evil and terrorize the characters introduced in the first few measures.
At [3:45] we are returned to the characters, but the harmony has changed: they are now out of their chairs, pacing the house, they sense its awakening. How could they ever hope to survive if it discovers them?
It should be reminded that this story I’m building is simply for demonstrative purposes, and the real story that was playing through my mind as I improvised the piece was something that to this day I have never been able to notate in words. There is a real tale there, with a plot and development and conflict, but it is something that resides deep within my subconscious and only reveals itself through music. For these reasons, the sort of “visionary” or “revelatory” nature of my works, I tend identify with the mystics, although my brand of mysticism is different than theirs.
The next major phrase to appear is at [4:59], which is a region that begins by jumping back and forth between a C minor-derived chord and an E Major-derived one. There is an anxious, almost Stravinskian melody overtop, dancing around the stagnating harmonies. This melody was actually recycled from an earlier piece I was working on for orchestra but never ended up writing, and it somehow found its way into this piece, instead. We see the return of A and B, now accompanied by this jumpy melody, seemingly snaking its way around the harmonies and exploiting upper extensions of the entities which haven’t been expressed before.
[5:75–77] is the beginning of the end: the terrible Nyarlathotep is finally coming around, seeing the helpless characters and preparing its plan to destroy them both. The cat-and-mouse game continues until the end of the work, with Nyarlathotep’s theme growing more sinister and heavy with each recapitulation.
The harmony used from [5:82–86] is borrowed from the first three chords of Olivier Messiaen’s Éclairs sur l’au-delà, I. “Apparition du Christ Glorieux”, which has been a near-endless influence on my style and exploration of color.It should be clear at this point that early on in my improvisation/meditation experiments with the piano, the concept of bending and exposing color with varying intensity was already beginning to show itself quite clearly. There tends to be a strong element of narrativism within my work, which I feel is not aligned with the traditional view of narrative as “development of a theme”, etc., but instead as a cerebral story-telling that through pitch and texture I attempt to recreate as literally as possible.
The great, inhuman narrator that resides in my mind, a being whose story-telling powers vastly exceed that of my puny conscious mind, is a narrator whose characteristics and intimacies of humor I have been slowly becoming aware. I sometimes refer to this subconscious narrator as EVAN, in caps, as indeed this narrator must be a part of me (or perhaps even the highest form of me) but he is something that I don’t typically have any direct contact with, and only through meditation and later study can I come to understand the conversations that he and I have.
This is why I often try to avoid saying that “I” did these improvisations, that “Evan” is the creator of this music, but instead that EVAN is, that subconscious, inhuman entity of creative potentiality and splendor that the conscious “Me” can only hope to someday directly recognize.