Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The Soundtrack

The tune that I taught myself to play on the flute this morning is the one that Loreena McKenitt is scatting wordlessly in the above video. I first heard the song when I was a teenager and found it enchanting. What I didn’t know at the time was that the melody was lifted directly from a medieval Spanish song, the title ’Santiago’ being a reference to the original lyrics, which tell the story of a man’s pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The story is that the man spends the night with a prostitute before his journey, and along the way he meets the Devil who, disguised as St James, persuades him to hack off his penis. The man obliges, and swiftly bleeds to death. His traveling companions then discover the body, and make a swift escape to avoid being accused of murdering him. The Devil and his minions return to claim body and soul, but Mary intercepts them and commands them to return it, on the grounds that they won it unfairly, and they have to let it go. The man is restored to life, but his penis is never returned. 

The title of the song is ‘Non e’ gran cousa se sabe’ and there are several versions available online with the original lyrics. 

Now, it’s really quite impossible for me to convey, in the context of a D&D game, what a profound effect medieval music has always had on me. The best I can really do is to describe the physical and cultural landscape, from the gritty to the sublime, and provide a sense of the world that inspired the music. Simply playing it in the background during games didn't work. 

My first experience with D&D was as a kid playing outside, with books and dice spread over the sidewalk. This was in the days before portable devices and iTunes made music ubiquitous, so the issue never came up--and besides, my only exposure to medieval music was an anthology my father had on vinyl, and perhaps the flute section in the intro to 'Stairway to Heaven'. When I started playing again as an adult, and was somewhat awkwardly shoved into the role of DM, I fancied myself punctuating my exposition with a few bars on the flute here and there. For the sake of convenience I settled on letting things like this flow throughout the game:

My idea was that it would enhance the setting. In practice at least one player found it inappropriate and distracting. I was told, eventually, by a member of our campaign who offered to take a turn DMing so that I could play for a change, that he could use music more effectively than I was doing. What that turned out to mean was that he played certain video game soundtrack loops as he deemed appropriate for the setting of the current scene of the game. This struck me, though, as cheesy and contrived, and not merely because of the cheapness and inauthenticity of the music itself, although that was certainly a factor. The impression I got was of a ham-fisted attempt to dictate the mood we were supposed to be feeling. 

Certainly I'm guilty of susceptibility to mood. I'm moved everytime I hear Anwnn's rendition of 'Douce Dame Jolie', for instance. It's breathtakingly evocative, and my frame of mind completely alters toward it, no matter the situation. Especially when preceded by the instrumental virelai in the clip below, I'm sucked right into the pathos. 

I don't suppose it does much for the spirit of combat, though, if that happens to be the emotional orientation of the campaign at the moment. 

Eventually, after some discussion with the players last year, I settled into the habit of using sound effects more than music. After all, in the actual fourteenth century, that's mostly what the characters would have heard. I organised a plethora of clips in YouTube and iTunes to fit different situations, and most of them are related to the weather and environment. (Sadly, the only place 'Douce Dame Jolie' might be appropriate is at a noble's private party, and our party isn't at that level socially.) There's bawdy and off-key a cappella mingled with rough chatter for the alehouses and low-end taverns, pipers and drums mixed with conversation for the better establishments and certain parts of town, lots of premodern street noise for the cities, and a variety of nature-based noise for the countryside. A ton of different rain sounds, for example.

One obvious benefit of this is that it frees me up to focus on other aspects of narration. We've certainly had players who were less than snappy in the past, and who, five minutes after my detailed description of how the icy rain is soaking everyone to the bone and painfully numbing their extremities, ask, 'What's the weather like?'

I doubt many players are going to feel the way I do, and perhaps the far more common preference is for so-called 'epic' cinematic music with the subdued string section and bass drums that so often go along with warriors racing into battle on horseback in period films, but the musicians who try to bring the arrangement and instrumentation as close to authentic as possible are the ones that get me going in the morning. 

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