Monday, June 05, 2017

Something New from Something Old - MA-100 – Beowulf

This is a first for me, my friends.  This release contains my own compositions.
             I was a painfully lonely youth when I went off to college in Fall, 1974.  I had taught myself to play piano, note by note, from paltry, heartfelt guitar knowledge.  I ached to communicate something meaningful to somebody else.  A friend from the high-school yearbook took this photo of me “pouring out my simple soul,” as Joni Mitchell put it.
            Although some of my acquaintances were at the same college, they were popular with others; I was not.  My rapidfire sarcasm ensured folks wouldn’t come too close.

            Filled with loneliness though unable to behave like a friend, I took solace in the open rehearsal rooms in the music building.  There must have been twenty or more rooms, about ten by ten feet, each with an upright piano.  Best of all, in those pre-computer-ID days, the rooms were open nearly twenty-four hours.

            I wrote several dozen songs (many more not worth remembering) in those rooms.  Besides words-and-music, I had solely instrumental thoughts.  Rick Wakeman’s album The Six Wives of Henry VIII prompted me to tailor these ideas around specific characters from Beowulf, the epic whose grim Nordic vistas of blood, battle, and desolation had touched my lonely heart.  Thank you, Della Craighead, for introducing me to the struggles and glories of the Geats!  Here’s the version we read in English Lit at Sooner High School:

             In my hours of solitude, the characters of Beowulf came to life for me.  I conjured, composed, memorized, and played music to embody them.  On a night in November, 1975, in my second year at school, I took my cassette deck into the college chapel’s choir room and plugged in a mic.  I recorded these pieces in single takes.  (Track 6, performed on guitar, was recorded separately.)  It was all from memory, of course, because I can’t read music.
            Last week I dubbed the cassette, tried to remove hum or hiss,  and regularized the volume.

The pieces are:

01. Wealhtheow (5:18)
02. Hrothgar (6:33)
03. Grendel (3:06)
04. Beowulf (8:36)
05. Beowulf's Pyre (6:33)
06. Heorot (3:50)

Wealhtheow   Track 1, “Wealhtheow,” is named for King Hrothgar’s wife, whom I imagined as a regal presence like Olivia de Havilland in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood.  Wealhtheow’s public persona was was submissive and sedate, but I pictured her as full of tumult and worry within, as her realm was being ruined by Grendel’s rampage.

Hrothgar   Track 2 is a sketch of the king Beowulf came to aid.  Like all of these pieces, its motives travel inward and then reverse course.  I think of Hrothgar as being serious and stately, but then his mind is filled with despair and sorrow because of his age and Grendel’s attacks.  Then comes the section I originally called “Jerusalem Rag,” which symbolizes Hrothgar’s lost, carefree youth.  Then sorrow returns with an acknowledgement that such frolics are in the past.  The regal, jaunting theme returns, capped by a campy laugh at the absurdity of all life.

Grendel   Track 3:  I was pretty happy when I arrived at the opening “creeper” theme for the villainous beast Grendel.  The middle section, which putt-putts along like musical clockwork, exemplifies that however horrific its results, evil is in itself hollow and unable to conceive anything truly creative.

Beowulf   Track 4, named for our hero, is in two main sections.  The first five-minute stretch conveys Beowulf’s heroism and conflict against both men (the swimming contest) and monsters like Grendel and its mother.  His struggles completed, the final section of the piece conveys Beowulf’s peaceful reign in old age, after he returns home to Geatland, in southern Sweden.

Beowulf’s Pyre   Track 5:  After a long, successful reign, Beowulf’s kingdom is troubled by a terrible dragon.  Many warriors have tried and failed to drive the beast away, so Beowulf arrays himself once more in his battle gear.  After an extended fight he kills the drake, suffering mortal wounds himself.  The Beowulf poem concludes at Beowulf’s pyre, as his kingdom celebrates his memory.
            Performance-wise, the reason for the plethora of fumbles in this piece is simple.  This was the most recently composed, and it was too fresh for “performance memory” to have set in.  However, I think the heroic processional theme which FINALLY emerges from the clouds at 3:41 is something solid.

Heorot   Track 6, named after the mead hall of King Hrothgar, evinces a time before the evil monster Grendel arrived from the night to kill and terrorise the Danes.  It’s deliberately uncomplicated, like the revels it depicts.  By the way, archaeologists may have found Heorot.

            So, my friends, I’m sharing this “suite of character sketches” with you.  If you like any of it, leave a comment.  Thanks for your goodwill in listening.

PS:  See you on Monday, July 3.  We’re taking the rest of this month off in prep for SoonerCon 26.  See you then!

All original content
© by Mark Alfred