Fantasy Music

After writing about The Roar of Love and The King of Elfland’s Daughter in the last couple of blog posts (which adapt C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter), I was going to finish off this trilogy of mewsings with a look at a piece based on The Lord of the Rings. There are certainly plenty to choose from — see the Tolkien Music List for a comprehensive, not to say mind-boggling, index — but I chose something different from my usual musical tastes, Johan de Meij’s “Lord of the Rings” symphony, a classical piece in five movements inspired by Tolkien’s trilogy. The trouble was, it didn’t quite do it for me. That may be down to the fact that I don’t listen to a lot of classical music (though I do have my favourites). I’ve been listening to it this week (particularly the fourth movement, “Journey in the Dark”, which I keep wanting to like, as it’s my favourite part of the trilogy), but although it works as music, and is pleasant enough to listen to (and has won awards — the Sudler International Wind Band Composition competition in 1989), it isn’t quite what I was looking for in a piece of fantasy-themed music. Which got me thinking about what I was looking for.

In short, something that evokes the fantastic through music. Something that creates that peculiar sense of both otherness and long-lost familiarity, of weirdness and never-never once-upon-a-time-ness, of what the Romantics used to call “the Sublime”, that you get from great fantasy in any form, whether it be fiction, art, games, or anything else.

So here’s a test. Rather like Ursula Le Guin’s “Poughkeepsie” test for fantasy fiction (where you replace all the fantastic names with mundane ones, and see if the result still has something of Elfland in it), the “Poughkeepsie” test for music would be to ignore the names given to the tracks and ask if they still evoke a feeling of fantasy.

This might be a bit unfair on de Meij’s symphony, as it’s the first wholly instrumental piece of music I’ve looked at for its fantasy content. After all, songs can evoke a feeling of fantasy through their lyrics. But it’s also true that instrumental music can create that fantasy feel. In classical music, the prelude to Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica is perfect fantasy music — in fact, I think it would make an excellent soundtrack to the opening chapters of Dracula, with its bleak wind effects and the weird, wordless singing of three female voices evoking the Count’s trio of undead brides. Similarly, Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” (which is used at the end of Kubrick’s 2001), uses wordless, microtonal singing to get a really unearthly effect. (Strange how the human voice can be the weirdest of all instruments.) Also, of the albums I’ve looked at so far, both in the previous two posts and in my top five fantasy concept albums a while back, it’s tended to be the music, rather than the lyrics, that really makes them work in evoking that fantasy feel.

I think it comes down to a bringing together of the strange and the familiar. In music, this can just mean the use of exotic instruments alongside more familiar ones, as in Jon Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow, using “World” percussion and electronic synths, or Queen using a harpsichord alongside piano, guitars and layered vocals in “The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke“. The Romantic idea of “the Sublime” was exactly this: a longing for a thing that is at once far removed and deeply familiar, a sense of the weird, even the frightening, alongside a recognition so deep it transcends mundanity, forging a connection with the deepest levels of your unconscious, to those most submerged parts that just don’t fit into the everyday world yet are still very much a part of you. That reconnection with the deeply familiar yet strange could well be the main function of fantasy. Certainly, it could be what I’m looking for in my quest to find fantasy in music; if so, it might seem a bit harsh to judge pieces that don’t quite attain it — it’s a tall order, after all — and which may, after all, not be trying to achieve it. (As I said, de Meij’s symphony works quite well as music, it just doesn’t quite seem to be fantasy music, to me.)

Anyway, I’m going to keep looking. Onward, to the inward!

Jon Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow

This month, Atomhenge release a newly remastered and expanded version of Hawkwind’s Elric-inspired progstravaganza, The Chronicle of the Black Sword, (which was, alongside Hawkwind’s Astounding Songs, Amazing Music, the first LP I ever bought), so I thought I’d celebrate by listing my top 10 fantasy-themed concept albums. Then I realised I couldn’t think of 10 fantasy-themed concept albums, let alone list only good ones, so here, over the next few mewsings, (and with a little bit of cheating) are my top 5-or-so, starting with Jon Anderson’s 1976 album, Olias of Sunhillow.
When the various members of Yes decided to take a break from the band and produce solo albums, Jon Anderson holed himself up in a studio with nothing but an engineer and four groups of instruments: drums (of various ethnicities), stringed instruments (including kotos, sitars, harps and guitars), a collection of “international bells”, and a stack of electronic keyboards. These four groups represented the Nagrunium, Asatranius, Oractaniom, and Nordranious — the four tribes of Sunhillow, a crumbling world on the verge of destruction. Three heroes unite to save Sunhillow. Olias builds a music-powered flying ship Moorglade Mover, with which the trio are to find their people a new home. (The other two heroes have slightly more ill-defined roles. Qoquaq is “a leader, fashioner of peoples”, which is vague but at least important-sounding. Ranyart, however, is “to guide the moments begotten light”. I wonder what he actually put on his c.v.?)
But the key instrument, binding together those four disparate groups, is Anderson’s ethereal voice, often layered many times, singing wordlessly or intoning the peculiar poetry of his lyrics.
The initial spark of inspiration was Roger Dean’s cover to Yes’s 1972 album Fragile (depicting a flying ship leaving a crumbling world), but to this Anderson added an enthusiasm for Tolkien, and the writings of proto-New Age prophet Vera Stanley Alder. In fact, there’s a dangerously strong tint of the New Age about Anderson’s first solo album, both in the optimistic whimsy of its fantasy, and the musical palette of soft, sparkling synths and “World” instruments. Thankfully, it easily escapes that particular doldrum of musical Hell through sheer energy. This isn’t music to attune your chakras to, it’s adventurous music, full of drama, uplifting melodies, evocative soundscapes, and a fresh unearthliness that makes it the only fantasy album I can think of which genuinely sounds like it could have come from another culture.

This month, Atomhenge release a newly remastered and expanded version of Hawkwind’s Elric-inspired progstravaganza, The Chronicle of the Black Sword, (which was, alongside Hawkwind’s Astounding Songs, Amazing Music, the first LP I ever bought), so I thought I’d celebrate by listing my top 10 fantasy-themed concept albums. Then I realised I couldn’t think of 10 fantasy-themed concept albums, let alone good ones, so here, over the next few Mewsings, (and with a little bit of cheating here and there) are my top 5-or-so, starting with Jon Anderson’s 1976 album, Olias of Sunhillow.

oliasofsunhillow

When the various members of Yes decided to take a break from the band and produce solo albums in 1975, Anderson holed himself up in a studio with nothing but an engineer and four groups of instruments: drums of various ethnicities, stringed instruments (including kotos, sitars, harps and guitars), a collection of “international bells”, and a stack of electronic keyboards. These groups represented the Nagrunium, Asatranius, Oractaniom, and Nordranious — the four tribes of Sunhillow, a crumbling world on the verge of destruction. Three heroes unite to save Sunhillow. Olias builds a music-powered flying ship, Moorglade Mover, with which the trio are to find their people a new home. (The other two heroes have slightly more ill-defined roles. Qoquaq is “a leader, fashioner of peoples”, which is vague but at least important-sounding. Ranyart, however, is “to guide the moments begotten light”. I wonder what he actually put on his c.v.?) But the key instrument, and perhaps the most weirdly fantastic, is Anderson’s ethereal voice, often multi-layered, singing wordlessly or intoning the peculiar poetry of his lyrics, which when read are pretty much nonsense, but suddenly make sense when sung.

The initial spark of inspiration was Roger Dean’s cover to Yes’s 1971 album Fragile (depicting a flying ship leaving a crumbling world). To this Anderson added an enthusiasm for Tolkien, and the writings of proto-New Age prophet Vera Stanley Alder. In fact, there’s a dangerous swerve towards the New Age in Anderson’s first solo album, both in the optimistic whimsy of its fantasy world, and the musical palette of soft, sparkling synths and World instruments. Thankfully, it easily escapes that particular doldrum of musical Hell through sheer energy (on the musical front) and sheer weirdness (on the fantasy front). This isn’t music to attune your chakras to, it’s adventurous, full of drama, uplifting melodies, evocative soundscapes, and a fresh unearthliness that makes it the only fantasy album I can think of which genuinely sounds like it could have come from another world.