Themon the Bard once wrote to me. He wanted to know if he could use (and work and play with) the words of some of the OBOD rituals in his musical compositions. I said ‘of course!’ and months later he sent me the link to his website that offers his music for listening. It is beautiful and uplifting. He has set the eight seasonal rituals of the Order to music!
I decided to try to find out who this guy is. I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat, lit my pipe and roamed the streets, searching for clues. Weeks later I returned with this bio, from his Reality Sandwich blog:
Bardic grade Druid within OBOD, violinist, pianist, composer, fledgling writer, physicist, mathematician, computer scientist, owner of several failed businesses. The day job that pays is freelance software development, usually the gnarly stuff inside the box. Can barely make a wind instrument sound, and if someone gave me 10,000 free hotdogs, I could not sell them at a ball game and show a profit. Married/remarried, with four grown children and two new grandchildren.
I asked Themon to tell me how he came to compose his music, and he sent me this thoughtful and touching explanation:
I have always been a classical musician. One of my first loves was Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and recorded on a set of transparent red 45-RPM phonographs that my father owned. When I was a teen-ager huddling in bed at night, depressed and convinced (as only a teen can be) that my clueless human parents had adopted me after my real parents had died in a flying saucer crash, it was the second movement of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto that carried me into peaceful sleep. I read Lord of the Rings for the first time to Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. In high school, I played the final movement of Brahms’ first symphony while sitting in the middle of a 200-piece orchestra, a powerful ocean of pure harmony utterly beyond my ability to describe. I toured Europe as a young man with a fiddle on my back — well, in the truck — and I remember standing underground in the Paris Metro with a group of fellow students who began to quietly hum a movement from the Mozart Coronation Mass, in full four-part harmony, to the delight and amusement of the Parisians — a flash mob of sorts long before there were flash mobs. I had my first (and chaste) romance at a summer music camp where we played Mahler and sang Bernstein under world-class professional conductors. I remember taking my baby daughter to the film Amadeus, surrounded by the heart-rending music of the Lachrymosa from the Requiem Mass at the end of the film. After she passed away suddenly of SIDS only a few weeks later, I found myself at my piano with a score to the Mass, picking out the opening fugue with numb fingers. Years later, I wept when I first heard the Rutter Requiem Mass. I still weep when I hear it with fresh ears.
This kind of music lives inside me at an unspeakably deep level. It is in my blood as nothing else.
When the idea of setting the Druidic sun and fire rites to music came to me, in the style and tradition of the classical Masses, it seemed a very natural idea.
Music always seems to me to come from outside myself. Not entirely — there is a co-creative aspect to it — but I sometimes dream new music, and in the dream I am always simply listening to it as it plays. These concerts are always astonishingly beautiful. When I wake, I bring back only fragments. The music that I do compose comes, I think, from that same source of inspiration, but there is less of the sublime and more of me in it. When I write about composing, I usually start with “this theme came to me,” and I’m referring to this experience.
The first piece to come to me was the Peace, the single solo soprano voice with her heart-rending plea for peace in a minor key. I like simple melodies, because the harmonies cluster so richly around them, as they did in this case. Once the first phrase had fully formed, the rest of the piece wrote itself.
The opening came next, with the strong A-D-A in the basses — “By power of star, and standing stone!” I could hear the drums, pounding, driving, full of energy, and the basses declaring to the world the unquestionable authority of their power. Power of star. Power of stone. I knew immediately there would be a drum solo in the middle. The harp surprised me, but once it appeared, it was a permanent feature throughout the work.
Here in Peace came next. I wanted a simple melody that could be sung by any small seed group or grove, but with a rich treatment. If this simple melody has not been used a thousand times over since the days of A. Nony Mous, I would be utterly shocked. It’s similar to a number of traditional Christmas carols (such as “Good Christian Men Rejoice”), but I haven’t been able to identify an actual match with anything. Like the rest of this work, it simply arose from the ocean of melody that we all sit atop. I can only hope that my treatment of it is pleasant enough.
Bless and Purify I struggled with for a time. Fugues are tricky. Based on my own experience, I’m reasonably certain Bach never wrote a fugue the way musicologists describe them. A fugue is lot like telling a joke, or playing a game of chess. The openings are all set: “Two men walk into a bar,” or “Queen’s pawn to Queen’s pawn four.” State the melody, shift to the dominant and restate it with a contrapuntal melody. Fine. What comes next?
What comes next consists as much of breaking the rules as following them, just as a perfectly-told joke follows a set pattern right up to the point where the punch-line catches you by surprise, even if you were expecting to be caught by surprise. I suspect that can’t be reduced to a formula — it’s something you do by feel. A fugue must do exactly the same thing or it devolves into a theme with variations, a round, a chant, or even just a repetitive trance-beat.
If you listen to the Bach Chaconne, you’ll hear a full quarter-hour of theme and variations, but somehow it never quite repeats itself. It keeps tantalizing with similarity while startling with differences. Bach was simply astonishingly good at telling fugue-jokes.
I heard in my head the opening line to Bless and Purify in the basses, and the tenors following on the third, and the counterpoint in the altos and sopranos. I liked the idea of a fugue, because this piece weaves the actual sacred circle. When the circle is cast, it is delimited, but it is a fragile thing, an intellectual construct, an idea. We purify it, consecrate it, and call the elemental forces to anchor it and make it real within our psyches. Repetition and weaving. I felt this piece was the center of the whole work, and a fugue seemed the perfect form.
I also knew that I wanted the whole process folded into the fugue — both consecration and calling the quarters — which meant a LONG fugue. In my original conception, this piece would build energy and end suddenly, as though time itself had stopped. When I tried that, it was hideous. I can’t imagine any group actually working in such an overcharged space, without needing group sex or at least a good sprint around the pasture first. Perhaps not a terrible idea in itself, but that was not what I was looking for. So instead, I built the weave, then brought it down into a gentle major key — a space of higher energy, but calm.
The final piece, releasing the quarters, was a delight to write. I wrote the ending first — from the moment I finished the Peace, I knew I had to end the music with a reprise in a major key. I wanted the release of the quarters to be a joyous thing (and thus, in a major key). But I also wanted this piece to connect back to the creation of the circle, and I was not about to try to extend the Bless and Purify fugue for another four minutes and then leap into the Peace. I played for a while with setting the melody in a five-beat, or a seven-beat. Then the words and the fugue theme suddenly came together in a six-beat, and it was finished.
The entire work was rendered using Cuebase 6 Digital Audio Workstation software on an iMac, with Garritan Personal Orchestra and East/West Symphonic Choirs sound samples. No sopranos or violists were injured in the creation of this work.
Joseph C. Nemeth, aka Themon the Bard
Listen to his compositions here. (The website is: http://www.treehenge.org/Themon/Themons_Musings/Podcast/Podcast.html) The sound files take a while to load. Nothing seems to be happening for a while and then hey presto! – a full choir is singing to you!