Sunday, October 30, 2016

Phantasma Chorale I

"Shadows Are in Hiding"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

I like creepy music.  Probably because I love horror novels and movies, because my favorite authors are people like Stephen King and Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman, because my favorite illustrators are people like HR Giger and Brian Froud and Edward Gorey ... and, yes, I quite like Tim Burton, and, while I wouldn’t name him my favorite filmmaker—that honor would probably go to Terry Gilliam, who has his own brand of creepy going on—Beetlejuice is definitely one of my favorite films.  So I’m a bit of a connoisseur of creepy music, and in fact I have about six different mixes that fall more or less into the general category of “creepy,” from one which features general goth music (which is not always creepy) to one which is more sound effects than music, for playing in the background while trick-or-treaters approach your porch.

But today, just in time for Hallowe’en, I want to share with you one of my favorite creepy mixes, Phantasma Chorale.  This mix is inspired by Bruno Coulais’ fantastic score for the quite excellent Coraline; when I first heard “End Credits,” which is our opener here on volume I, I was blown away by how awesome it was.  Creepy to the max, but also childlike and light.  It’s like a song sung by a chorus of ghost-children,1 hence the name.  I immediately started toying around with songs which either had creepy, wordless, choral vocals or a childlike quality, or preferably both.

With such a specific theme, I have to be flexible.  Not every song can have a theremin or a soprano that can be convinced to just howl without using any words.  In fact, Bruno Coulais uses neither of these techniques: he got the Children’s Choir of Nice to sing nonsense syllables—meaningless morphemes that sound just enough like real words, in English or French or Italian, to drive you crazy trying to figure out what they “mean.”  So I went scouring soundtracks, Internet music, and even a few “regular” albums for music that might fit this vibe.  Sometimes I settled for words in a language I had no chance of recognizing (like the Croatian of “U Plavu Zoru”) and sometimes I settled for no vocals at all, but a carnival-like atmosphere that provided childlike-but-creepy in spades.  The result is something which is not truly scary, but just enough unsettling to keep your mind from getting too comfortable.  Personally, I use it when I’m working on my novel: it keeps the creative juices flowing in just the right direction.

So, as I said, soundtracks were the first place to go looking.  There are three songs from Coraline here, including the mix starter, and I had to trim that down from how many I wanted to add originally.  On the one hand, they’re all very short—in fact, at 27 tracks, this is my second longest tracklist2but, on the other, I want to save something for volume II, eh?  Beyond that, Danny Elfman was an obvious choice, so there are two tracks off his soundtrack for Beetlejuice, both offering the creepy carnival vibe.  As does Angelo Badalamenti’s contribution, a track off the City of Lost Children soundtrack.  On the other hand, “The Citrine Cross,” from the soundtrack for The Da Vinci Code, and “In Noctem,” from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, feature a classical chorus singing in what is most likely Latin, though it’s difficult to be sure.  The woman (or women?) in “Arrival at Rookford” from Daniel Pemberton’s3 score for The Awakening is probably singing in English, but the vocals are so haunted and eerie that I can’t quite tell.  Contrariwise, in “Betrayed!”, off Iain Ballamy’s trippy score for Mirrormask,4 I’m pretty sure the “vocals” aren’t actually vocals at all, but just synth-generated noises meant to sound like different vocal ranges of people going “aahhhh!”  But it also maintains a strangely childlike musical motif, as does “Primeval Landscape” by John Corigliano (off the Altered States soundtrack).  Well, that last one is a bit of a stretch, if I’m honest.  But I can hear some childlike motifs in it at any rate.  To close out the soundtrack category, Four Rooms provides a couple of our bridges, although in a list of songs that are all this short, it’s tough to say what counts as a bridge and what doesn’t.  Still, these two tracks (both by Combustible Edison5) both count, in my book: one is under 30 seconds long, and the other is a minute and a half of building, which I pay off with “U Plavu Zoru.”

Which is itself quite a curious choice here.  You may remember my talking about Pink Martini before,6 and specifically about China Forbes’ amazing ability to sing in (but not speak) 15 different languages.  One of those 15 is, apparently, Croatian, whence cometh “U Plavu Zoru,” which, according to a couple of translations I found on the Internet,7 means “At Blue Dawn.”  The lyrics for this are quite beautiful—so much so that the English translation of one line became our volume title, which is handy because it’s hard as hell to find a volume title for a tracklist composed almost entirely of instrumentals.  The music somehow reminds me of the theremin-laden theme from the original Star Trek.  So, you see, it fits perfectly here, despite being found on an album of popular rather than cinematic music.

But, still, cinematic music is the best place to find these sorts of tracks, and, once I ran out of soundtracks, I had to look for other sources of it.  My first thought was to turn from the people who had actually written soundtracks to those who just wish they were writing them.  The Internet is full of what I call “pseudo-soundtracks,” which I imagine8 are composed by people who want to write music for movies one day, so right now they’re putting out the soundtrack equivalent of a portfolio.  The end result seems to be soundtracks for movies that never existed, often really weird, genre-blending movies, to show off the composer’s range.  If you too are interested in this sort of thing, there are many places on the Internet you can look, but my personal favorite is Jamendo.  All music on Jamendo is free for personal use; what they really want to do is attract people who wish to license the music for use in video games, or YouTube videos, or—of course—movies.  So this is the perfect place for wannabe soundtrack artists to show off their stuff.  My absolute favorite such artist is Xcyril, a French composer who seems to specialize in fantasy and sci-fi music, which is of course perfect for this mix.  The two tracks of his that I use here both feature some wordless “vocals” (again, likely electronically generated); “Séraphine” has a bit of a Danny Elfman feel to it, and “Discovery,” from his album StarGate Odyssea is a little more sci-fi focussed (as its name suggests).

So where else can you go for cinematic music?  Well, there’s videogames, of course.  Next volume, we’ll hear a track from an actual videogame, but here I want to share with you something I discovered way back in 1997—before my kids were born, before I moved to California, back when I had my own company and my own fat Internet pipe and not a whole lot to do with my spare time but surf the dingier corners of the proto-web.9  And I stumbled across this page in the back rooms of CSU Long Beach’s website which talked about lucid dreaming, and music, and 3D rendering, and an “upcoming” videogame which was to be titled Chthon.  It’s now almost 20 years later, and, like ever-so-many pages on the Internet, it’s still there, untouched in over 15 years, talking about a game that will never be made, produced by people who probably don’t even know each other any more.  The music files they offer are just samples, snippets of full songs.  But they’re all so surreal that the fact that they fade in and out at odd times almost seems by design, so I’ve happily been using them in various mixes for years.  Mostly in my Dreamtime mix,10 but occasionally something will work elsewhere as well.  Like this one.

There is one more great source for cinematic music: gaming music.  At least that’s what I call it ... it’s cinematic music that seems to exist only to provide a backdrop for playing D&D to (or, more likely, LARPing for Vampire: The Masquerade).  To be fair, it can also be used as mood music for Hallowe’en haunted house attractions.  After that, though, I’m mostly drawing a blank.  The trouble is, outside of listening to it while you’re actually gaming, most gaming music is too monochromatic to listen to an entire album straight through, but also too good to ignore entirely.  So it lends itself very nicely to mixes, but it has to be a particular kind of mix, and luckily this is one of those kinds.  The two primary purveyors of what I call gaming music are Midnight Syndicate and Nox Arcana.  I’m not sure that either of those groups would appreciate being pigeonholed so narrowly, but then again I doubt either one would deny that background for gaming sessions is an excellent use for their music.  I have several albums by both artists, but we’ve never seen them on in any of my mixes ... until now.  Here we have two from Midnight Syndicate (one from Gates of Delirium and one from Vampyre: Symphonies from the Crypt) and one from Nox Arcana (from Winter’s Majesty); all three tunes have the wordless vocals we’re looking for (“Adelaide” in particular has some über creepy wailing in the background).  And I can’t neglect the album that was my actual introduction to the wonderful world of gaming music: Shards of Eberron, by David P. Davidson, which was included for free when I bought my copy of Sharn: City of Towers.11  “Dreams of the Inspired” is quite possibly the best track on this album (which is saying something), and the one which best stands alone.  It’s perfect here.

And, when you run out of cinematic music, where can you go then?  Well, what I call “cinematic” is more often referred to as “neoclassical,” so perhaps there’s something to be found in the realm of classical music.  It turns out this this is a tough genre to find in the classical métier, but I did stumble across one good example ... completely accidentally, as it was being used in someone’s Kickstarter project video that I looked at.  It’s “Aquarium” by Camille Saint-Saëns, a short piece from Le carnaval des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals) that has a spooky underwater sound which stems primarily from its use of the glass harmonica, a bizarre instrument created by Benjamin Franklin as a more efficient version of rubbing wet fingers around the rims of wineglasses filled to different heights with water.12  Once I heard it, I knew I had to slot it in here.

Phantasma Chorale I
[ Shadows Are in Hiding ]

“End Credits” by Bruno Coulais, off Coraline [Soundtrack]
“Dreams of the Inspired” by David P. Davidson, off Shards of Eberron [Game Soundtrack]13
“Arrival at Rookford” by Daniel Pemberton, off The Awakening [Soundtrack]
“Aquarium” by Camille Saint-Saëns, off Le Carnaval des Animaux
“Séraphine” by Xcyril, off Séraphine [EP]
“Enter ... "The Family" / Sand Worm Planet” by Danny Elfman, off Beetlejuice [Soundtrack]
“Strange Brew” by Combustible Edison, off Four Rooms [Soundtrack]
“Adelaide” by Midnight Syndicate, off Gates of Delirium
“Oompa Radar” by Goldfrapp, off Felt Mountain
“L'Exécution” by Angelo Badalamenti, off The City of Lost Children [Soundtrack]
“Interlude II” by Stratus, off Fear of Magnetism
“The Night Garden” by Waldeck, off The Night Garden
“Discovery” by Xcyril, off StarGate Odyssea
“Windfall” by Dead Can Dance, off Within the Realm of a Dying Sun
“The Supper” by Bruno Coulais, off Coraline [Soundtrack]
“Betrayed!” by Iain Ballamy, off Mirrormask [Soundtrack]
“Primeval Landscape” by John Corigliano, off Altered States [Soundtrack]
“Awakening” by Midnight Syndicate, off Vampyre: Symphonies from the Crypt
“Chthon: Modules” by Ensemble of the Dreamings, off Chthon [Videogame Soundtrack]14
“It Was Fantastic” by Bruno Coulais, off Coraline [Soundtrack]
“Theme (from - "It's Better to Travel")” by Swing out Sister, off It's Better to Travel
“Lydia Discovers?” by Danny Elfman, off Beetlejuice [Soundtrack]
“In noctem” by Nicholas Hooper, off Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince [Soundtrack]
“The Citrine Cross” by Hans Zimmer, off The Da Vinci Code [Soundtrack]
“Invocation” by Combustible Edison, off Four Rooms [Soundtrack]
“U Plavu Zoru” by Pink Martini, off Hang on Little Tomato
“Solstice Spirits” by Nox Arcana, off Winter's Majesty
Total:  27 tracks,  76:55

And that just leaves us with the unexpected tracks, primarily those which are coming from popular music rather than classical or cinematic music.  First up we have “Oompa Radar” by Goldfrapp.  Now you may recall Goldfrapp from Smokelit Flashback III (and IV, and V), but we’ve also seen them on Darkling Embrace, Sirenexiv Cola, and even Totally Different Head, thus demonstrating their amazing versatility.  “Oompa Radar” is a rare instrumental tune from them, very bizarre and carnivalesque, and it works well here.

Then we have a short connective tune from Stratus15 which flows directly into our centerpiece, the amazing track “The Night Garden,” by Waldeck.  Waldeck is an Austrian trip-hop artist who I first discovered via his cover of “Bei mir bist du schon” and so had him pegged as electroswing.  But he really is more suited for Smokelit Flashback,16 and of course the title track of his second studio album17 is practically tailor-made for this mix.  I have no idea if the primary feature of this tune is an actual theremin, or just electronically-generated “vocals” as we’ve seen on other tracks here, but it’s really quite stunning.

From there we hit the second Xcyril track, and then into a Dead Can Dance instrumental, “Windfall,” which somehow manages to be both wordlessly-vocal and carnival-like despite not really being either.  I’m not sure what instruments they’re using, but the combination of pipes and chimes, backed by the sound effect of a howling wind, gives the whole thing what one Internet reivewer described as “an almost macabre carnival style.”  Exquisite, and quite perfect here.

Which just leaves us with one of Swing out Sister’s instrumental tracks off of It’s Better to Travel.  Swing out Sister is of course best known for their tracks worthy of Smooth as Whispercats, but they have a bit of range as well, as this track shows.  It’s not quite as creepy as some of the tunes here, but it fills its slot here in the final stretch very nicely, bridging a Coulais and an Elfman, and setting us up for the 1-2-3 closing punch of Combustible Edison, Pink Martini, and Nox Arcana.

Next time, I think it’s time (and the proper season) to return to some autumnal meditations.


1 Which are, as you know if you’ve seen the film, an actual thing in Coraline.
2 My first, coincidentally enough, is the aforementioned Hallowe’en mix.
3 Pemberton I discovered from his work on LittleBigPlanet; The Awakening I discovered while aimlessly flipping through cheesy horror movies on Netflix.  It’s not too shoddy, really.
4 A trippy little movie by one of my literary idols, Neil Gaiman.
5 As are nearly all the songs on the Four Rooms soundtrack, to be fair.  You may recall my first mentioning Combustible Edison back on Paradoxically Sized World III.
6 Specifically, on Salsatic Vibrato III and then again on Moonside by Riverlight.
7 You always want to find at least two sources that agree for this sort of thing.  Otherwise it’s likely someone just pulling shit out of their ass.
8 I must stress I have no data to back this up.
9 And, honestly, they were all pretty dingy back in those days.
10 Which we shall come to in the fullness of time.  Probably.  Dreamtime and its cousins are not exactly “modern mixes”, but they’re not exactly pre-modern mixes either.  They live in a strange half-state that may or may not ever see them fleshed out in this series.
11 Please note that I have no idea if new printings of the book still include the free CD.
12 And, if you’re looking for a version of this track, make sure you find one that uses the glass harmonica and not an inferior substitute such as a celesta.
13 Again, while I normally hate to point you to places where you can download things for free and the original artist will get nothing, this album is impossile to find, so you gotta do what ya gotta do.  Since I originally wrote this, this music has become more popular, primarily due to Wizards of the Coast (the owners of D&D) using it for background music in several D&D liveplay videos (e.g. Force Grey, season 2).  I’m guessing they used it because they already owned it, so it saved them beaucoux bux in music royalty fees.  Anyhow, I still can’t find a way for you to purchase it legitimately, but you can get it via the SoundCloud link I’ve updated the mix list to use, or you should be able to find it by searching YouTube.
14 Not really a soundtrack, and arguably not even a videogame, since it was never actually produced.  But you can still download the music files for free in .wav format (or .au format, if you know of a program that can decode that).
15 Who we heard from briefly on Paradoxically Sized World I.
16 And we’ll start seeing there once we get to Smokelit Flashback VI.
17 By which I mean not counting his EP and remix albums.

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