The musical meme continues and concludes here. If you’d like to revisit the first three parts, you can find them by clicking these links to part 1, part 2, and part 3. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. I hope you’ll enjoy this final installment just as much.
16. Compilation – The Medieval Experience
I can’t believe when I was younger I thought Carmina Burana was Medieval music. Technically I wasn’t wrong. It was Medieval lyrics, but it was still 19th century semi-Operatic program music. Even so, it led me through the rabbit hole to some epic fantasy film scores, some of which I’ve mentioned already. There comes a point, however, when enough is never enough. Obsessive as I am, and ever willing to learn something new, I decided one day I’d go in search of “authentic” music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
I didn’t find any. When you live in country community outside a small town in the days before the internet, there’s just not a lot to be had. Ask all you like of the local record store (remember those?), but it just isn’t going to happen… except by accident.
The Medieval Experience is a 4-CD compilation set that I found completely by accident on just such a visit to that record store. They had one copy of it sitting on an endcap near the register where nobody would see it. Nobody, that is, but me. I just happened to look down to the bottom shelf, and there it was. It was relatively expensive too, compared to most of what I was buying in those days. I could barely afford it at the time. I’ve never been very good at restraint, so “barely” translated to a most gratifying “yes.”
That evening, I explored the book insert, trying to wrap my head around what it was I was going to “experience” per the title. This wasn’t going to be Poledouris’ Conan nor James Horner’s Braveheart. The selections on these discs represented music centuries before Vivaldi or Bach. Older than the first Opera. I would hear voices and instrumentation not conceived of in our modern world. I was almost fearful of my first listen. It was like crossing a threshold through time. Once you start across, there’s no going back. My world was to be forever changed. I hit play on that first disc.
And I heard monks chanting. I suppose I should have expected that. There was a resurgence in the 90s thanks to the New Age movement where Gregorian chant was being revived and remixed into some truly awful pop arrangements with thumping backbeats. The discord between the clashing style made me want to beat people who played it upside their head with their own shoes. And now I owned some. But it wasn’t that pop garbage. This was the real deal, or as close to it as we would know in our own time. And it was beautiful.
But it wasn’t what I expected or hoped for. Still a win, but I knew what I wanted. I gave a brief scan of all four discs in search of the ubiquitous lute-laden tunes of the troubadours. The closest I’d gotten so far was Michael Kamen’s score for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I knew that was inspired by something, and I wanted that direct inspiration for myself. I didn’t recognize any of the names on the CDs, so the track listing was zero help. Only one thing to do: skip through all the tracks and see if anything stood out for immediate gratification.
As it turns out, there are very few secular tunes in this collection, and I was too ignorant at the time to understand what it was I had. Some of the greatest composers of the age were being represented by the very best modern ensembles. I had a veritable treasure trove and no knowledge by which to appreciate it. Twenty-five or so years later, this box set is the cornerstone of an Early Music collection that exceeds over 300 discs and another hundred or so digital albums that could not be acquired in physical media. In that mix, I’ve got more than my fair share of Troubadour tunes and lute music, but I’ve also got more of what this original collection offered me: beauty and majesty beyond compare. To understand this music is to become one with history itself, to understand the changing struggles between pagan Europe and Christianity, to understand the conflicts between Catholicism and Protestantism, to hear the clash between Christendom of the West and its Byzantine counterparts in the age of the Crusaders. In a thousand years of bloodshed, ignorance, fear, and pain, this music was the refuge of lost souls, the transmission of prayers to a Higher Authority that would secure a better future and an everlasting peace. One doesn’t have to be Christian to appreciate any of it. The only thing needed is an open heart and a longing for a better life. This box set is the foundation upon which Western music is built. Without it, there is no Mozart, Beethoven, Sinatra, nor Lennon. Wrap your head around that one, if you can.
17. Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
When Pink Floyd was introduced to me by a friend, Dark Side of the Moon was described to me as “the experience of doing drugs without actually using them.” That friend knew two things about me, that I vehemently refused to try drugs due to my already obsessive nature, and that I had ears sensitive enough to pick out nuances that most people couldn’t hope to hear. To my friend who somehow got curious enough to wonder what would happen if my head exploded, this seemed like an experiment worth trying.
I’ve not heard another band in my life like Pink Floyd before or since, but the first devoted listen of this album came across to me as the answer to the question “What if The Joker tried to compose a Bach-style fugue?” I was captivated by what I heard. The more I listened, especially on superior sound equipment, the more I could hear layers where the composers stood with one foot in genius and the other in madness. It was incredible. I’ve dissected this album many times, and while I’ve come to appreciate most of Pink Floyd’s catalog, there are no other albums that have quite the gravitas for me that this one does. Having said that, The Wall does have my favorite of their songs, “Comfortably Numb.” Funny how that works.
Eventually I came to a point where I thought I had discovered all about Dark Side of the Moon as I could, and that’s when I discovered I couldn’t have been more wrong. A local movie theater did a midnight showing of what they were billing as “The Dark Side of Oz.” If you’ve not heard of this, let me explain. You know that 1939 classic musical The Wizard of Oz, the one with Judy Garland? Yeah, that one, the one that helped to solidify the idea that remakes aren’t always bad (the original was silent). Well, here’s what you do to create the Pink Floyd experience of this film.
Step 1 – set the Dark Side of the Moon album on repeat, paused at the beginning of the first track.
Step 2 – play the movie. On the 3rd roar of the MGM lion, unpause the music.
Step 3 – wait for Dorothy to get to Oz before this makes any kind of sense.
The album plays through two and a half times in sync with the film, and there are certain lyrics that will line up so perfectly that it will completely alter your appreciation of both the music and the film for all time. If you’re afraid of that, don’t do it. What is seen cannot be unseen. Pink Floyd denies all knowledge that this was deliberate or that it could have been planned at all. Don’t believe them. Don’t trust them. Something like this doesn’t happen by accident.
A few years ago, the super deluxe 6-disc special edition box set dropped (featured in the album cover pictured above), which gave my ears the audio workout I knew this album could achieve. There are higher quality resolution remasters, alternate takes… it’s a box for the truly dedicated or the truly insane. Maybe I fit both camps. If you have the means and love this album as I do, I highly recommend it.
18. B. B. King and Eric Clapton – Riding with the King
I previously blogged about this album on my Just Listen music series. I don’t know that there’s anything more I can add, except to say that my love of the blues was always under the surface in my early years, and this is the album that kicked it into high gear. It remains one of my go-to listens when I need to scratch that blues itch.
19. Sarah Marie Mullen – We Brought the Summer With Us
This musical journey has gone all over the map so far, I think you’ll agree. Stay with me here for this one, because this opens up a whole new rabbit hole. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been to a Renaissance faire. Ok, put your hand down. I can’t see you, and you probably look silly. But don’t let that stop you from grinning. Odds are that if you enjoyed the experience as much as I do, you’re a regular just on account.
Every single year I go to our local Scarborough Renaissance Festival. That’s where I discovered Sarah Marie Mullen. I originally went to experience a very different kind of music than what I got. I expected something along the lines of Loreena McKennitt, hoped for something more authentic, and got a weird and wonderful hybrid of both and so much more. I loved what I heard. But when I stopped in to listen to Sarah play her harp, I was transcended. The harp did something to me deep down that I can only describe as a peace I’ve never experienced anywhere else. It was like I could feel the shattered bits of parts of me I’d lost healing up again.
I’ve blogged about her and this musical odyssey that ensued a number of times on my Scarborough posts. Basically what happened is a two-fold journey into the musical realms that you just can’t get on the radio. First, I wanted more harp. I went on an absolute tear through the worlds of classical and Celtic music trying to find anything that featured a harp. It’s sort of like when you buy a car, you start noticing a lot more of what you just bought on the road. Same thing here. Harp everywhere, hiding in plain sight where I’d never heard it before. All that Medieval and Renaissance music I own? Harps. Harps everywhere, just as one might expect given its prominence in musical history. I even found it in the Star Wars soundtrack. YEAH, I somehow missed that before. How much did this affect me? I… own a harp. It’s just a little 12-string baby harp, but I dig it out from time to time and let it speak to me.
Second, I wanted more Ren fest music. It turns out the styles and genres of what you can find out there run the full range from the historical to the New Age, from the sacred to the profane, with all points in between. Pirate music, for example, is as ubiquitous as traditional folk tunes. I couldn’t get enough of any of it. But I also didn’t know where to start looking.
As luck would have it, this about the time a new kind of media hit the internet, something called the podcast. If you’ve not heard of this… what rock are you hiding under? There’s literally a podcast for nearly every conceivable topic and style you can name. I listen to about 40 different ones myself (and I’ve not forgotten that I promised to post a list at some point). At the time, however, podcasts were in short supply, and most of them never went past the second or third episode before they died. Among the interwebs today are two of the oldest podcasts in existence: The Renaissance Festival Music Podcast and Marc Gunn’s Irish & Celtic Music Podcast. If you want more of this kind of music, these podcasts will be your friends. Think about all the genres of music you’ve heard me describe so far. Because of these two podcasts, my music collection has since increased by 50%. “Ask and ye shall receive” is a formula that really does work. There’s so much independent talent out there, and the more you dig through any branch of it, the more wealth is there to be discovered. When I say this has been a musical odyssey, I mean that quite literally. I’m still discovering the foundations of it, and I’ve been at it longer than Ulysses was on that boat.
I owe all of that to Sarah and her harp.
20. Howard Shore – The Lord of the Rings: The Complete Recordings
Ok, I lied. Remember I said I could list those composers on one hand who’ve hit me in all the feels at levels I’ve never otherwise experienced? Not quite true. With a single set of film scores, which I lovingly consider as one massive cycle to themselves, composer Howard Shore did the impossible: he out-epic’ed Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. More than that, he supplanted John Williams for the top spot of my favorite soundtrack, which is difficult enough given that the Star Wars saga is about the only other thing out there that can rival these scores as a complete cinematic musical journey. To hear the entirety of The Lord of the Rings: The Complete Recordings is to feel the full magic of Tolkien himself in musical form. I say this having spent a number of years literally soaked in the poems and music from The Lord of the Rings book thanks to the efforts of The Tolkien Ensemble, to say nothing of other interpretations from a great many other performers. Shore’s music is the complete tapestry, the means by which Peter Jackson’s films get elevated to any level approaching Tolkien’s masterwork.
The book pictured above, Doug Adams’ amazing breakdown of Shore’s film scores, comes with a disc of bonuses, The Rarities Archives. It features alternate arrangements and orchestrations to what we already know, offering some insight into the evolution of what we ultimately got. I equate it as the musical equivalent of what Christopher Tolkien offered us over the years. I spent a lot of time with this book, listening and immersing myself into the themes and instrumentation. When I got to the other side, I found myself completely transformed in a way that offered me a musical education that I could apply directly to everything else I listen to. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t go to school to study music. Thanks to this book and these scores, I feel like I’ve made up for a lot of that. Middle-Earth is a living, breathing realm in my heart and mind. These soundtracks are its soul. I wish Tolkien himself could have heard them. I think he’d have approved.
And so concludes this little mini-series of musical influences. Again, thank you for reading. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I know that for myself, I’ve rediscovered some things about myself I’d forgotten. And I can tell you it hurts a lot to leave off so many of my favorites that I discovered as a result of these influences. I don’t get to dictate how the journey unfolds; I only live it.
If this series inspired you, I’d love to see some of you do the same. Limit it to as many albums as you can or want to. It’s completely arbitrary. If you’re so inclined to treat it as a meme, then consider yourself tagged. Here’s to the love of music.