“Lovecraft’s Dream” (3-15-17): color and narrative

20170327 lovecraft’s dream — PDF of score. Creative commons with attribution.
YouTube link — Creative commons with attribution.

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.
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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.

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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:

movement-i-1935.jpg!HD
Movement I (1935), Wassily Kandinsky

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.11It 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.

3 Comments

  1. The question of narrative in music is a perennial one, and it would seem to me that the answer really lies in the beholder. Do we see a descendant model or a sibling model of narrative at work here? Or, in Deleuzian terms, a hierarchical tree or the more egalitarian rhizome? In other words, is literature the master narrative, or would it be more profitable to think of a specifically musical version of narrative? I am of the latter camp. Your insistence on an elusive yet looming presence of a one-to-one mapping of music to (written) word strikes me as quaint. Why the need for referentiality? And, specifically, the referentiality that the written word avails itself to?

    Even on that playing field, however, I think that older music and film music have the upper hand. In the lens of topic theory, one might, in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music, identify elements that have some power to symbolize a world outside musical syntax and endless mirrors (e.g., the fundamental assumption of motivic analysis). A horn call signifies the hunt, the descending tetrachord brings to mind the lament, and so on and so forth. This rudimentary symbolic system is magnified manifold with the advent of Hollywood and television, given that we, as consumers of popular media, are constantly bombarded with videos synchronized to music. These associations lodge themselves in our subconscious, only to be reproduced with corruptions and mutations (I say this without jdugement). To name but one example, think of the sound of a young girl singing, subdued, in an otherwise silent environment. Immediately, our nerves tingles, the hairs on our skin stand on end. We know that something *bad* is about to happen.

    Let me move on to your remark on form. I think that, in your rejection of classical forms as formulaic, you dismiss what is narrative-like about them. One great weakness of the teaching of form is that there has been undue emphasis on the architectural: the notion that forms are made up of discrete blocks called sections, which are then divisible into themes and then into phrases and so on. But that is a problem of perception. If we disregard the need for referentiality, but recognize musical elements nonetheless, it will soon become evident that it *is* the dynamic processes that generate the narrative. This is true of literature, too: take away the biographical details of the hero of a monomyth, and we are still left with processes of tension and resolution. Conversely, an unordered assortment of facts a narrative does not make. (At least, it would be a defective narrative.) So, I suggest that we think of fleshed-out verbal narratives as a response from *us*, the appreciators of these sonic objects (written or aural), which capture some truth about *musical* narratives, the dynamic form that I mentioned. This is the point that Scott Burnham makes when he compared programmatic readings of Beethoven to “formalist” analyses (such as Schenker’s) in *Beethoven Hero*. But that’s not to say that this sort of listening is historical and well past our time. The tendency of listeners to narrativize music, even music with minimal contrasts, has been empirically observed in a study by Elizabeth Helmuth Margulis from 2017. She, too, proposes the ubiquitous use of music in video as one of the key drivers of this tendency.

    If you accept that lemma, it’s easy to see how much of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music is absolutely narrative. There are standard, typical narratives, just as there in literature. And just as we do with works of art in the written word, we read meaning off “deformations” of these archetypes–this argument is at the core of Hepokoski and Darcy’s *Elements of Sonata Theory*. But you would be right to point out that this sort of narrative is different from what you’d find in literature. So, what is the point that composing in “organic,” *sui generis* forms makes? I’m inclined to see it as an affect reminiscent of literary narratives, rather than a literary narrative itself. In other words, we might imagine a gold-leaf tracing the curves of a relief underneath it, but not the actual object itself. I think that Carolyn Abbate (e.g. *Unsung Voices*) and Jean-Jacques Nattiez are right in doubting that music could suggest extremely specific narratives at all without some verbal cue–unless, of course, we accept narratives that do not depend on referentiality. (Remember that I said that musical topics clear the clouds a little, but they alone are rarely enough.) So, I would not *hear* Nyarlathotep had you not explained your symbolic system to me in this post, although I might intuit some of the things you’ve said about color (a side-note on that to come), and I would certainly have picked up on the more traditional analytical observations of dynamic processes you make (e.g. the unveiling of C major in m. 39 and its enveloping the texture) if I had spent some time with the score. The fact that you paint chords (or “psychoharmonic entities”) as your characters in this narrative tickles me somewhat. Rousseau rejects music’s capacity to articulate meaning (which must include narratives) with this probing question: how could I be sure that this A major chord *here* would mean the same thing as that A major chord *there*? (Feel free to challenge him.)

    Let me come full circle to what I said in the first paragraph of this response, which is that this whole idea of there being the one master narrative for a piece of music sits uncomfortably with me. The idea that this sort of improvisation, where you are the physical conduit in which your total dampening of the conscious, of the symbolic order, allows you to commune with the Real–that I find idealistic. (Forgive my Lacanian.) But how is this psychic narrative to reach *me*? Well, maybe I just haven’t evolved enough. All the same, I think the more sensible model would go as follows. *You* can believe that that sort of channeling is whats happening–maybe that really is it, since I can’t verify through personal, lived experience what goes on in your mind. But I’m free to read this text as it strikes me, and I may not even perceive narrativity (though that would be unmusical of me), and so forth with the next person, *ad infinitum*–whence Derrida’s *différance* and Barthes’ death of the author. This emphasis on a singular, objective truth to interpretation must stop, especially when it comes to something so listener-oriented as narrative. We should all be less squeamish when it comes to discussing what someone I know has described as “experiential solipsisms.”

    I bring up all this to say that the project of narrative in music is not as much of a lone struggle as you portray it in this post. (To be fair, this *is* a self-centered blog: and I say this in the most neutral and indulgent way. In the same way, I am perhaps being self-centered too in speaking too much to myself and too little to you. If I may quote Lacan, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “the subject receives the message from the other in inverted form.”) Reinvent the wheel all you want when it comes to the music and your style, but it would be remiss to not be in conversation with the thinkers and scholars who have given considerable thought to the same questions that intrigue you.

    Feel free to respond, but I don’t want anything as long as I have written, please.

    On color:
    A unidimensional conception of musical color is a bit disappointing to me–or, rather, I observed that you could have replaced every mention of “bright” and “dark” with “sharp” and “flat”. (I note that color goes hand-in-hand with motion.) I wouldn’t have expected something that’s so often treated as full of mystique in common discourse to be reduced to something so familiar. It may even be redundant. I would like to see how this line of thought develops.

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    1. Hello! I appreciate your lengthy comment, and I will try to answer it in a brief manner, as you requested. In regards to your first question about the way that I model narrative, I would say that I am not strictly on one side or another of literature or music itself being the master narrative. A great influence on me has been the compositional style of Carlo Gesualdo, and in his last two books of madrigals especially you can see the works push heavily towards the text being the master of the narrative, with the meaning and phrasing of the words seeping into the music and heavily affecting the tempo and mood. It’s not to say that other composers haven’t done this, but perhaps Gesualdo has just had the most prominence in my mind with this regard.

      It is funny that you talk about my rejection of classical form, as shortly after publishing this I got into a lengthy discussion with a couple of friends about this very topic. My view on the sonata, for instance, was dogmatic and short-sighted, to say the least, and by being introduced to more information regarding sonata theory, I had come to realize that some of my own improvisations in fact were in some variation of the sonata form.

      “I think that Carolyn Abbate (e.g. Unsung Voices) and Jean-Jacques Nattiez are right in doubting that music could suggest extremely specific narratives at all without some verbal cue–unless, of course, we accept narratives that do not depend on referentiality … So, I would not hear Nyarlathotep had you not explained your symbolic system to me in this post.” This is where I would like to remind you that later in my post I stated that the short story I was spinning around the text was more of a demonstration of my idea of there being an internal story rather than trying to say that the story I was telling was literally what was being expressed through the music. I certainly don’t think that the entity, as I call it, which represented Nyarlathotep was quite literally an aural projection of the monster itself, but rather I was trying to metaphorize the entity through a character like Nyarlathotep. Certainly, every person who would listen to my work would get a different impression of the piece.

      But at the same time, I am also interested in how much information of a specific narrative can be portrayed in a more literal sense than just the simple tension-resolution meta-narrative to which you refer. If given no outer context, is it possible to create a piece of music which, though differing in some of the finer details, can portray a more-or-less universal narrative to a varied group of listeners? This is a question which interests me quite a bit. I agree with you that ultimately the stories and abstract concepts which I try to convey in my music is ultimately subjective, but at the same time I cannot entirely drop the idea that perhaps there is some nugget of objective narration within the tale.

      “You could have replaced every mention of ‘bright’ and ‘dark’ with ‘sharp’ and ‘flat’.” Well, maybe to a certain extent. I feel that part of the miscommunication that you and I would be having about my definitions of color are in fact my lack of sufficiently defining them, and certainly I should go into more detail about how “color” works in my head and how it ties into my texture in the future.

      Color is not just sharp and flat: color has to do with relative sharpness and flatness, sure, but also density and texture as well as range. A simple C Major chord in a very low voicing will be “darker” than the same chord in a higher one, but my perception of color is not tied to that one facet. I hope that you will look at my future posts, where I will continue talking about my use of coloration and you will be able to develop a more nuanced understanding of it. To wrap up this response—I see that I failed in keeping it concise—I started this blog because I have a lot of admittedly incomplete ideas bouncing around in my head, and I frankly do not have very many people in my peer groups who would be interested in or competent in the subject enough to engage with these ideas. So, I really appreciate comments such as yours which point me to ideas or areas to study which are new to me and can help me improve my craft. I do hope that you comment on my work in the future, thank you.

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