Track Premiere & Interview: Melopœia – “Of the Valar, Part I: Seven and Seven”
Metal has more than its fair share of Tolkien-inspired band names. There’s Amon Amarth, Cirith Ungol, Falls of Rauros, etc. etc. However, despite this obvious admiration for the late Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, few bands go deep into the actual lore Tolkien created beyond using the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a source of epic battle narratives.
Melopœia is different. This microtonal black metal project rests on a firm foundation of Tolkien’s lore and uses microtonal guitar on their latest release, Valaquenta, to narrate The Silmarillion. The band is painstakingly recording the album track by track using the text as source material, so one imagines it will be some time before the double album is finished.
Dave Tremblay, Melopœia’s principle songwriter, describes his technique as a kind of translation of the text into music using a self-devised system. This method of songwriting is as literal as it sounds—J.R.R. Tolkien is credited as composer here, with Melopœia using close reading of The Silmarillion to go word by word through Tolkien’s densest book. The songwriting is less granular than it was on the band’s last release, Ainulindalë, which was crafted electronically going letter by letter—the band notes that while Ainulindalë could be listened to alongside the text, Valaquenta is much more of a palimpsest, with words translating as tone rows over the top of the original writing. This gives Valaquenta a grander aspect than its predecessor and makes for a more immediate listen (arguably, this is a more exciting way to experience The Silmarillion and Tolkien’s creation mythology than just the book itself). [That was Nazgûl of you, Theo! ~Roldy]
We’ve got the premiere of the 4th track on Valaquenta here for you today. While this is hardly easy listening, it’s a fascinating look into a textual system for generating brutal black metal.
I was intrigued by this extremely literal text-to-music approach. It’s almost the opposite of experimental notation, with the music carefully circumscribed by whatever Tolkien and his son Christopher devised. Conceptually, it’s an almost Yanomamian approach to language, where spoken, written or sung words have equal validity for conveying meaning.
Curious to learn more, I got in touch with Tremblay (arrangement, guitar and bass) and Brian Leong (vocals). Our interview below has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
Valaquenta is an exploration of Tolkien’s mythology that draws on The Silmarillion to move chronologically through this world. What specific ground does this track cover? Could listeners sort of follow along in the book?
Dave Tremblay: Since the start of the Melopœia project, the goal is to translate text into music. With Ainulindalë, that was very procedural, and I took very few artistic liberties with the source material. On Valaquenta, the goal is the same, but the means are slightly different. Instead of going through the text letter-by-letter, I’m taking a word-by-word approach, where each word serves as a sort of tone row, in that it tells me what notes I can play, but not the order in which I have to play them. I think that so far it leads to a more natural sound and progression, which is also helped by the presence of Jon [Lervold] on drums and the use of an actual guitar and bass instead of relying solely on virtual instruments.
So, Valaquenta might be harder to listen to in parallel to the text than Ainulindalë. “Seven and Seven” is the fourth track off of Valaquenta, and since the first one is a title sequence and each song for this project represents a paragraph, it is the third paragraph of the chapter that we’re looking at. So, yes, listeners could pick up their old copy of the Silmarillion (or a new one) and follow along. It would prove a more challenging task than with our previous album, since there are more musical liberties that are taken.
Brian Leong: Regarding the last part of the question, I have a fairly unique perspective as the vocalist when it comes to understanding the relationship between the music and the text that will be different from Dave’s as the composer. The short answer is yes, although as Dave mentioned, it is probably easier to do so on Ainulindalë than Valaquenta due to the differences in procedural generation methods. Having worked as vocalist on both projects, I’ve developed a natural feel for interpreting Dave’s transcriptions and it’s immensely useful in the process of creating the vocal lines, which listeners can use as a guide with a few disclaimers that I’ll explain as I briefly go over my basic methodology.
My involvement in each song begins when the musical composition is completely finished. I enter 100% blind with zero notes or annotations whatsoever from Dave and Jon. Essentially I’m the first person going through this exercise of matching the music to text. It’s fairly easy for me because of my experience, and it takes a couple of passes for me to conceptualize the framework of the track before I begin segmenting the paragraph we’re working on with respect to the musical transitions. I typically do so sentence by sentence and further subdivide each sentence by punctuation. It’s not dissimilar to Dave’s compositional process, but I am doing it completely independently and in a way that can be thought of as reverse engineering the music back to text, filtered through my own imagination.
While I’m given total freedom to operate with no constraints on when and where I can sing, in many instances it makes the most sense to perform critical moments within the music perfectly aligned with the text. On this track, “Seven and Seven,” for example, the names of all the Valar are sung over the chords that represent them, building to the ultimate climax with the introduction of Melkor as we enter the final movement.
In these instances, the vocals will certainly help guide the listener to get back on track if they lose their place. Elsewhere, not so much. Obviously, I am not going to sing each word on top of the notes from which they are extracted—that would sound horrible! Our aim is to produce something that is foremost musically coherent. Some parts work better left as instrumentals. Sometimes, the drum cues and repetitions create opportunities for me to merge the inherent rhythms in Tolkien’s prose with Dave and Jon’s creative decisions. It’s like weaving the threads between solving a math problem and producing an artistic endeavor.
Do you anticipate a chapter-by-chapter exploration of the entire book over several records, or will future albums take excursions into other parts of Tolkien’s oeuvre?
DT: I initially didn’t want to go back to Tolkien after the Ainulindalë. I wanted to explore different authors and formats, but the Valaquenta proved a natural continuation of the first chapter, and so I went with it. I find Tolkien’s writings to be very evocative, and to fit perfectly with the music I envision for this project. However, I don’t intend to continue with Tolkien [after Valaquenta]. I am too curious to see how different authors or formats will translate into music.
Take us back to how the whole project started. What was the genesis of Ainulindalë?
DT: I have seen different methods of translating text into music. In some cases, you start from a basis frequency, say C1, and that’s your letter A, and you move up, chromatically or following a certain scale or mode, each successive step being the next letter in the alphabet. However, I thought I could do so and make it octave-repeatable, but that would mean having 26 steps in your octave, which requires microtonal instruments or software. I didn’t have a microtonal guitar at first, so I found software that enabled me to write microtonal music and I made the Ainulindalë. It was an incredible experience to make this, but since it relies so heavily on virtual instruments, the final product feels unfinished, or at least very artificial. I wanted to change that for the next project, and so I ordered a 26-ed2 7-string guitar from Metatonal Music and started translating!
What gear are you using now that you’ve shifted away from electronic production? Can you explain for less musicologically interested listeners what microtonal music is all about?
DT: I now use an Ibanez RG7 that’s been refretted by Ron Sword at Metatonal Music. For bass, I’ve temporarily refretted my fretless bass using plastic zip-ties. In short, microtonal music is anything that’s different from your typical 12 equidistant notes per octave. Technically, if your steps are smaller than a semitone, you’re going to call it microtonal, and macrotonal if your steps are wider than a semitone. Also, you can have equal or unequal steps, and your steps can derive from subdivisions of the octave (or any other ratio) or be chosen among ratios, as in just intonation. For this project, I’ve started with the octave, and subdivided it into 26 equal parts. Simple as that!
What’s next for Melopœia after this new track?
DT: Brian, Jon, and I keep working on new tracks until we reach the end of the chapter or the world ends. At this point, I don’t know which is more likely. We’ll keep uploading our tracks when they’re finished on Bandcamp, so that the album gets released almost live, as we’re progressing through the chapter!
BL: I’m excited to continue delving into the depths of the project as we progress forward through Valaquenta. For these introductory songs, you may notice some consistent trends on how I choose different vocal techniques to correspond with both musical transitions and also events in the narrative. This will most certainly evolve as we develop further and explore new concepts as the story unfolds.
Valaquenta will continue to expand on Melopœia’s Bandcamp page as the band works their way through the text.