On Tolkien, Music as Language, and Microtonality: A Guest Post from Dave Tremblay
In early August, I published a premiere of Dave Tremblay’s Tolkien-themed, xenharmonic black metal project Melopœia. Realizing I was a bit limited in my ability to accurately convey the means by which Dave composed his paean to the lord of fantasy, I asked the mad musician if he wouldn’t mind sharing a few words with our readers about the alchemy at work on Tolkien’s Ainulindalë. So grab your copy of the Silmarillion and take a look under the hood with us. What better way to celebrate the release of that book on the day of its 39th anniversary!
What Is Melopœia?
We often talk of music as being a language. Music is, in fact, a form of communication, just like any verbal or written language. It has cadence, intonation, meaning, and is made from building blocks; instead of being letters and words, they are notes and chords. Therefore, music is not much different than English, or French, or Klingon.
Someday, I had a wild idea, of transcribing a text into music. I have been reading, from time to time, on microtonality, so it quickly came to mind that each of the letters of the English alphabet – 26 in total, if I remember correctly – could be assigned to a note in the octave. The resulting tuning system would be, in technical terms, a 26-EDO (equal divisions of the octave) system.
Thus began Melopœia, long before I named the project, or even knew it was a project on its own. After a few failed attempts at finding a collaborator on the project, I resigned to make it a solo project – yet again – and decided to borrow the voice of Brian Leong, from black metal band Apathy, for this first foray into what I later decided to call scriptophony: the creation of music from text.
On the English Mean Relative Consonant Tuning System
At first, the notes in the octave followed the same order as the letters in the alphabet: A, B, C, D, E… Until, someday, someone suggested that I shuffle this order – it’s already a pretty subjective order, isn’t it? And, thanks to that person, I began to rearrange the attribution of the letters in the octave. Any order I chose would basically be quasi-random, based on my preferences, perhaps, so I decided to base the order of the letters on facts, or, rather, statistics.
I spent a few days researching the most common two- and three-letter combinations in the English language and decided to place these letters at the most consonant distances within the octave. This means the intervals that are closer to perfect or major ones. The most common letter pairs being a perfect fifth or fourth apart, and the least common ones being put next to one another.
Thus, the translation from English will, on average, be more consonant and feel less random in its musical form. Future systems might instead make an emphasis on minor-sounding intervals, or more dissonant ones like the tritone or the minor second, or still the major third and minor seventh to make a procedural microtonal jazz album.
On Choosing Tolkien’s Ainulindalë
J.R.R. Tolkien is an author that I like to read. His texts are beautifully written and he’s at the source of much of today’s fantasy world – thanks to Germanic folklore and Richard Wagner as well. The Silmarillion was released much later than his most popular books, like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, posthumously. It’s pretty much the book of all the lore behind his world, religions, and species.
The Ainulindalë is interesting because it’s the beginning of the world, the Genesis. I found it particularly fitting because it will be the first procedurally generated microtonal scriptophonic piece – at least to my knowledge! Moreover, the Ainur are deities that play music in order to create the world, and I more or less assigned instruments to one or many of them, depending on their personality or attributes.
On Choosing Black Metal
The genre could’ve been anything, really. At the time, I guess I was just very inspired by Jute Gyte, which is another microtonal experimentalist, and they [Ed: He] mostly play black metal. I think the genre is a very fertile ground for experimentation and microtonality in general.
I unfortunately don’t have microtonal guitars (yet!), so I had to completely rely on VSTs to complete this project. This is a considerable flaw of the project, right now, but I wanted to put this out now, as a proof of concept if you will. The guitars you hear are actually distorted piano samples. I guess this makes the project a bit closer to Botanist as well.
I added a lot of orchestration, thanks to sforzando, and some pieces are entirely orchestral. There are also a few other genres that have been put there; especially striking are the chiptune moments. They do seem out of place in a landscape dominated by violins, wind instruments, blast beats, and harsh singing. This is, however, to demonstrate the power of the Ainur, especially Eru, but also serves as bits of fresh air in this rather long and exhausting musical experience.
Some Words on the Translation System
In order to make music, I decided to create a system that would give off three different tracks when reading text. The first one is the melody track: it only gives a string of short notes taken from the sequence of letters in the text.
The second one creates chords: words in text equal chords in music. I assigned each letter a musical value of an eighth note. Therefore, a word with two letters will be a chord – technically, an interval – lasting one quarter note, and a word with eight letters will last a full four times. The number of different letters in the word only impacts the complexity of the chord. For example, the chord “that” is less complex than “than” because it has three different letters instead of four.
The third one is the bass. I decided that the tonic of a chord is the first letter of its corresponding word. So, for example, the tonic of “that” is the note corresponding to t, while the tonic of “hath” is h. These two words’ chord is the same, save for its tonal centre.
And finally, punctuation is also taken into account. The spaces between the words are unaccounted for, but a comma will translate into a quaver rest (an eighth rest), a dot into a crotchet rest (a quarter rest), and a change in paragraph will result in a semibreve rest (a whole rest). That’s why it was impossible to transition seamlessly from one song to the next.
I used the microtonal music notation software Mus2 to write the music and to create MIDI files to import into Reaper. This was a manual – and very laborious – process that would be easily automated, given the right knowledge of programming languages. It took me months just to create the Mus2 files for the paragraphs of the first chapter of the Silmarillion. I would never do that again. Thankfully, a friend and colleague of mine volunteered to create a small software in his spare time that would do just that.
Some Words on Artistic Input
Most of the artistic aspect of the music comes from the writer of the text it comes from, even if Mr. Tolkien is totally unaware of it. The notes cannot be changed, but I allowed myself to cherry-pick some notes in a chord and not play the others. The bass and melody lines and the chords can be distributed to any instrument without regard to its register. I was able to change the octave of some parts to make them higher- or lower-pitched.
I was also allowed to modify the tempo at will. This meant that I could make some parts evenly spaced, rhythmically, even if the words counted an uneven number of letters. I agree that this is a bit stretching the rules, but the whole things’ an experiment, so let’s try to bend them a little.
For percussions, I had to completely write them from scratch. I kept the default 4/4 time signature in Reaper but I followed the chords and melodies, most of the time. It’s the only thing that I really wrote for this project.
In the end, my artistic input was more as arranger of the raw music files. It’s like receiving a three-voice sheet music for piano and being told: “Make an album out of that.” Making the whole thing entirely on piano, at 120 BPM, would be clear and interesting on its own, but it would be far from an enjoyable musical experience.
In further experiments, I think it would be interesting to write a text specifically meant to be translated into music. Choosing words based on their length, sequence of letters and letter diversity would be a pretty steep challenge for an uneducated fool such as me, but I hope some literate person does that, some day. It could go as far as creating a custom-made arrangement of the notes in the octave to fit the aim of the text.
On the Album
Tolkien’s Ainulindalë wasn’t taken as a whole for composition – or, rather, arrangement. I instead took each paragraph as its own miniature world, and arranged the music so that it reflects what’s written or conveyed in the text. I think that’s one of the shortcomings of the album because the songs are rather short, and it would be more appealing to have them segue into each other. I think that, in order to fix this issue, I will have to take shorter texts and let go of the paragraph rest, or maybe the punctuation rests entirely.
It also ended up being much longer than expected. When it came out, as a default 120 BPM, 4/4-time MIDI file, it lasted around 60 minutes. I thought that, with the arrangement and everything, this number would shrink, but it expanded instead, and even surpassed the 80-minute limit of a regular compact disc, making the thing effectively a double album! That’s funny because it will probably never be pressed on disc. Such a length for microtonal black metal makes so it can be quite difficult to assimilate, even daunting to listen to. This will be something to think about, next time around.
I’m proud of the experiment, and I hope to see other people try to make music out of writings in the future. I don’t think it’s a technique that will ever catch on and become popular, but it can be a fun challenge for any musician. If anyone reading this has questions about the process or technique, feel free to reach out to me, and I’ll gladly give you everything I know.
Melopœia is a project in which I will try to experiment as much as possible with scriptophony: creating music from text. It’s not meant to be enjoyable to a wide audience: it’s irregular, it sounds very unlike anything else, it’s poorly produced, and procedural (remember No Man’s Sky?)
Future plans would be, first, creating a stretched-out ambient piece out of a Zen poem, or some short thing like that. That idea came from another friend and colleague, and I feel it’s worth a try! After that, it’ll be time to try and fix some of the issues that this iteration bears. I will try to get microtonal instruments in a reasonable time and a real-life drummer – synthetic drums are often a deal-breaker in music for me, and still I rely on them. I was thinking of something more in the vein of Gorguts, Ulcerate, Dysrhythmia, and Nero di Marte based on some classics of horror fiction, and then maybe something off of science-fiction works with a more electronic type of music, but this is pretty far ahead so it’s still quite unclear.
Putting together a band that plays microtonal music drawn from texts would be amazingly interesting so, if you’re interested, please contact me!
A big thanks to Dave for putting together this supremely interesting guest post. I’ve quite enjoyed my experience with Tolkien’s Ainulindalë, so it’s been fascinating to learn more about how such a bizarre and unique creation came to be. Dave is right about one thing: the album is not for everyone. However, if you’re an intrepid listener, you must check it out.
The album spans a diverse sonic territory loosely rooted in black metal. Some tracks, like “Harmony,” when taken alone, come across as chaotic tangles of snarling, electronic drums and concussive words smashing and scattering against a cracked, jagged window. It’s disorienting, yet oddly compelling. In view of the whole album, though, these tracks sit perfectly adjacent to more epic pieces like “The Voices of the Ainur” that recall dauntless journies through misty realms and forgotten realities. Fans of classic video game chiptunes, high fantasy, and adventure will find much to love. Despite its length, Tolkien’s Ainulindalë is utterly captivating, telling a fascinating tale from start to finish while exploring a sonic world as rich as the Middle Earth conjured by Tolkien himself.
Albums like this are a rare treasure bringing an unconventional, otherworldy light, not unlike the Silmarils themselves, into the dark realm of heavy metal, and this world is a richer place for Dave’s efforts.
You can check out Melopœia on Bandcamp. If you’re interested in Dave’s process, reach out to him on Facebook! You should also check out Dave’s other experimental project, Vod. Until next time, remember,
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king