March 26 - Behind the Scenes of the Lovecraft Anthology
With all three parts released on YouTube and the website, I can finally go into detail about my latest project. Based on the mythos created by US horror author H.P. Lovecraft, "Death Waits Dreaming" is written for a full orchestra and choir, augmented by all manner of ethnic percussion, cimbalom, electric guitar, and music box. Before I talk about the music, I'd like to give some background on Lovecraft and why I chose to write about his work.
To quote Red from the YouTube channel Overly Sarcastic Productions, "It would be inaccurate to describe Howard Philips Lovecraft as a man with issues. It's more like he was a bundle of issues shambling around in a roughly bipedal approximation of a man." Paranoid, racist and sickly, trauma in his childhood home in Rhode Island inspired his turning away from school and towards writing dark fantasy/horror. Unlike the cold, stony aesthetic of horror such as Dracula and Frankenstein, Lovecraft's works reeked of soaking-wet rot, decay and primal ooze. Over the course of several years and dozens of stories, Lovecraft created what we now call the Cthulhu Mythos, a series of interconnected tales of New England life interrupted by revelations of impossibly old and powerful deities called "Old Ones." He was also very proud of that New England heritage, and was intensely racist towards anyone not of a "purebred" white background. As a result of his lack of schooling, Lovecraft had a poor understanding of math and science, resulting in things like geometry (The Call of Cthulhu), the visible light spectrum (Color Out of Space) and even the air conditioner (Cool Air)* scaring him enough to write stories about them. Many of these stories have not aged well. But the concepts of massive alien creatures BEGS for some overblown, mysterious/aggressive music, and these pieces mark the fifth (!) time I've tried to compose music about the mythos. It was an absolute blast letting rip with this music, especially in the final movement.
Perhaps his most famous work is the short story that lends its name to the mythos, the 1928 "Call of Cthulhu." Told from the perspective of Bostonian Francis Thurston, the story slowly unfolds the tale of a great evil being called Cthulhu, who watches over an entire sunken city of Old Ones as they sleep. The work, and so the music, is divided into three sections. The first, "The Horror in Clay," concerns the discovery and inspection of a mysterious statue later revealed to be of Cthulhu. The movement opens and closes with a cimbalom solo to drive home the mystery, but the more prominent middle section introduces the serpentine overarching melody for the pieces. The second section, "The Tale of Inspector Legrasse," tells the story of police officer Legrasse's experience raiding a cult in New Orleans 20 years before the events of the plot. This cult danced around a giant flaming pillar, atop which stood a statue identical to the one discovered by Thurston in the first section. As they dance, they scream and chant in an unrecognizable language, roughly translating (according to the author) to:
"In his house at R'leyh**, great Cthulhu waits dreaming."
This is where I got the title for this work, albeit replacing the name with the more abstract "death."
(And just in case you're wondering the exact ethnicities of everyone in the cult, don't worry! Lovecraft goes on to list a truly staggering amount of races, all of which sharing the common trait of not being white.)
The hyperactive percussion in this movement represents the cult, with strings and piano churning underneath with the main theme. Soft trombone chords close the movement. The third and final section, titled "The Madness from the Sea," describes Thurston as he reads the account of a Norwegian sailor named Johansen. On a sea adventure with a crew of eight, Johansen and his crew discovered an island not on any map (the top-most part of R'leyh), there discovering a massive stone door. For some reason, the crew decides to open it, and Cthulhu himself climbs out of the door. Two people immediately drop dead of fright, three are stepped on, and one falls through the Earth itself because why not. Johansen and the last remaining crew member escape back to the ship, with the final crew member going insane days later. Cthulhu chases them to the beach, but Johansen turns the fleeing ship around and rams him in the face, making him explode into a massive pile of goop. As the ship sails away, however, Johansen sees Cthulhu pull himself back together and climb back through the door, with the island sinking back beneath the sea. Obviously, this movement called for some truly massive music, and the entire orchestra explodes with fury intentionally reminiscent of Holst's Mars. The main theme is used in a heroic action setting as Johansen rams Cthulhu, but the movement ends with a solo music box as Thurston, having finished reading Johansen's diary, finds his own sanity crumbling away, for he knows too much.
It's a lot, but I will gladly take any excuse I can find to write over-the-top. I hope you enjoy listening to this music as much as I did writing it.
*This one in particular amuses me greatly. You know you're dealing with quite the character when they write a horror story where the terror is air conditioning and immigrants.
**That sunken city I mentioned earlier.