BIOGRAPHY OF A SONG:  A Letter To Humanity, by Edric Haleen



THE ORIGINS:


(I swear to you -- I did originally intend to write a hero song . . .)


I wrote this song for the very first SpinTunes challenge (http://spintunescontest.blogspot.com/).  The challenge was to write a song from the perspective of either a superhero or a supervillain.  Well, I really wanted to do a hero song.. And, as I’ve done in the past, I decided that I wanted to focus on one very specific moment in the life of a hero (rather than write a broad, general, “I’m Captain So-and-So and this is what I do” kind of a song).  So I decided to explore the moment when an otherwise “normal” person decides to accept the mantle of being a superhero.  What drives a person to make that choice?  What is that person feeling?  Is (s)he fully aware of the immensity of this decision, or is (s)he swept up in the emotion of the moment?


I was excited, because I knew that this could lead to exactly the kind of epic song that I really wanted to write.  With the exception of the very first Song Fu song I wrote (Blue Moon was written over my Spring Break), every other Song Fu song was written while school was in session and I was busy teaching.  This time, a challenge FINALLY coincided with summer vacation, so I really wanted to unfold my musical legs and see what I could do with all that extra free time.


So I started brainstorming.  I was sitting up in the orchestra perch at the Riverwalk Theatre, watching the audience start to take their seats to see The Light In The Piazza, and jotting down notes on several pieces of computer paper that I had gotten from the box office.  One of them I had quartered -- the four headings were “Am I ready?” “Can I do this?” “Should I introduce myself differently?” and “Will they like me?”  It was set up to receive my ideas about the thoughts and doubts that my nascent superhero would be pondering on the night before (s)he revealed him/herself to the world.


The second page started off as a list of “Goals/Ambitions.”  (If I was going to create a new superhero, I needed to know what this superhero would be DOING!)  And again -- I really did intend for this song to be a hero!  My list began . . .


        Fight crime

        End world hunger

        Stop corruption

        Curtail greed

        Equality for poor

        Save the planet


And that’s as far as I got.  Because that last thought led to an arresting moment.  My mind superimposed the phrase “save the planet” over the stock superhero phrase “save the world.”  And that was it.  Destiny had spoken.


My protagonist would be a villain.  One who was literally attempting to save the world.


And this was awesome.  Now I had another theme to explore!  And it wouldn’t even have to REPLACE any of the other themes -- it could be ADDED to the song!  And added at the end!  In that moment, I knew that I would have another of (what Dave would later term) my “signature ‘big reveals.’”  All that remained was to write it . . .



THE MUSIC:


Stephen Sondheim had it absolutely right when he penned the line “Ev’ry minor detail is a major decision” for Sunday In The Park With George.  A lot of people don’t stop to think about the fact that every single bit of a song or a piece of music reflects a very intentional choice made by the songwriter or composer.  Don’t believe me?  Try this.  Sing “Happy birthday to you” (just that much) -- but instead of going DOWN a half-step on “you,” try going UP a half-step, instead.  Just that one change radically affects the melodic line, doesn’t it?


Well -- the music for this song involved a whole HOST of choices.  Creating the orchestration did not come easily or quickly for me.  Every single note that’s in the score was put there after much deliberation and trial-and-error -- and the notes you hear are often my fourth or fifth attempt at getting it “just right.”  But at the end of all things, it turned out just the way I wanted it to, and it’s hard for me to imagine being more proud of it.


It’s a very “horizontal” score.  It has long, continuous musical phrases.  Voices come and go and dovetail with figures that stretch across several measures.  (The initial Bb sustained by the violins lasts for the first 46 seconds of the three minute song!)  And that was done intentionally.  For as often as I’ve been told (accused?) that I write “musical theatre” songs, I wanted this song to go even beyond that.  I wanted this song to feel almost cinematic in nature.  That effect, of course, was aided in no small part by the string section pumping madly away in the background.  But I also loved playing with the colors of the different instruments.  I’m reminded of a passage from The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norman Juster.

I used lots of open intervals throughout the song -- particularly open fifths -- to reinforce the “hero” theme, but I also had some wonderfully tortured dissonances while the protagonist was singing about the pain and suffering in the world.  As much as I tease woodwind players about their “kindling” instruments, I really love the musical color of the oboe, which (along with the English Horn) provided for some beautiful moments in the orchestration.  And it was the woodwinds and the strings that carried a lot of this song.  The brass only comes in for about 20 seconds after we first hear the word “hero,” and then not again until the very end of the song.  The piano does sort of take over a third of the way into the song, but it’s mostly there for continuity -- its not a terribly exciting part.  (Although the orchestration does drop down to just the piano and the cellos when the protagonist is singing “And before long, greet the new world...” just before the big build to the end.)


Something that’s REALLY cool?  If you listen to this song through headphones, it’s almost like you’re inside the orchestra!  I wasn’t initially aware that Finale moved the different instruments around between the left and right playback channels -- but it does, and I discovered this when I decided to put my earbuds in and hear how my work-in-progress sounded through different speakers.  It was awesome!  (I did switch a couple of the instruments to the “other side” of the orchestra from their default settings, to help emphasize some of the musical interplay.  But thanks, Finale, for doing that!  I never would have thought of that on my own . . .)


By the way -- if you'd like sheet music for this, or any of my other songs, you can visit this page.  I can actually send you both an orchestral score and a piano arrangement for this song!



THE LYRIC:


Every bit of this lyric (with the aid of the music that underpins it) is carefully designed to “set up” the audience.  My hope was that no one would see the “big reveal” at 2:46 coming -- which would only serve to make the reveal that much more of a shock.  So much of the lyric works very craftily on two levels.  It’s not until you know the punchline that you understand that when he’s talking about “the world,” he’s not talking about humanity.  It’s not until you know the punchline that the phrases “Everything’s in place” or “Know I’m thinking of you” take on a more menacing tone . . .


The beginning section of the lyric is there to set the mood -- and a very tranquil mood at that.  A beautiful sunset.  The calm and peace of day’s end.  The lyric starts off like a poem.  Then we learn that it’s a “point of view” song.  Next we get to the platitudes so often uttered by so many heroes.  These lyrics are all designed to put the listening into a very comfortable frame of mind.  Everything -- including the music -- sounds very safe and familiar; almost formulaic.  It’s clearly a hero’s song -- about a hero’s journey.


But as we near the “big reveal,” it’s important to get the listener to start paying closer attention to what’s going on.  So two very important things happen to help effect that.  For one thing, the meter shifts.  With a run of eighth notes in the lower instrumentation, the song shifts into 3/4 time.  This adds a little bit more urgency to the music; the song’s got a little more drive now.  The other thing that happens is that the words start coming in much longer phrases.  For the first two-thirds of the song, the lyric consisted almost entirely of a succession of short, individual thoughts, most of which fit within the space of a single measure.  It didn’t require much concentration at the beginning to follow along with the thoughts as they were being presented.  But now, the listener is forced to start threading bits of lyric together across measures to make sense of the ideas.  “At the sunrise” doesn’t stand on its own.  And simply adding “When the dawn comes” doesn’t complete the thought either.  It’s not until you’ve come to the end of “As the world wakes, I’ll begin” that you can make sense of the entire thought.  And the same thing happens for the line “And before long, greet the new world that a hero ushered in.”


Then, the next stanza requires even more attention from the listener.  Because now the rhyme scheme and the musical lines are just slightly at odds with the sentence structure of the lyric.  When the line begins, “As I start to pursue where my calling has led . . .” we naturally assume that the line will conclude two measures later with a rhyme for “led.”  But it doesn’t.  The thought ends after just one measure (“Know I’m thinking of you.”), and a NEW thought has begun by the time we rhyme with “led.”  And this thought hasn’t resolved yet!  All we have is, “All the things that I’ve said . . .”  So we now have to keep listening into the NEXT line . . .


And at this point, it’s the rhyme scheme that takes over.  I’ve said before that rhymes allow a listener to anticipate what’s coming.  (The way I’ve explained it is, “Don’t believe me?  If that wasn’t true, the joke “Rah, rah, ree -- kick ‘em in the knee!  Rah, rah, rass -- kick ‘em in the OTHER knee!” wouldn’t be funny . . .”)  So here we’ve got a very solid progression of “pursue . . . led . . . you . . . said . . . true . . . __________.”  There HAS to be something there!  Even if you’re looking at the .jpg version of the lyric sheet -- which only shows an ellipsis and an extra blank line of space -- if you’re listening to the music it’s clear that everything’s building towards a release.  So your brain has been guided (tricked?) into paying the most attention at the exact moment that the hammer’s been scripted to fall.


And no sooner have you been asked to completely re-evaluate your perceptions of this character?  With full orchestra at his back, our newly-revealed supervillain triumphantly exults, “And it all starts tomorrow!”  But the triumph towards which the song and lyric has been inexorably building is now horribly, horribly ironical.  It’s not really being savored by us anymore like we’ve been set up to expect, but by him and him alone.  We’re just kind of left blinking in befuddlement -- trying to wrap our brains around what’s just happened . . .



THE CHARACTER:


The protagonist in this song has decided that he’s literally going to save the world.  And by that, he means that he’s going to eliminate what he views as the chief threat to the world -- the one species on the planet that has forgotten how to live in harmony with nature and instead believes it holds dominion over nature (another nod to Daniel Quinn, although Quinn’s ideas are more nuanced.)  This character is going to try to end the oppression and enslavement of the planet.  Now -- I honestly don’t know how he plans to eliminate humanity.  I’m guessing it’s most likely a terribly lethal and contagious virus, or something like that.  (His desire to save the world doesn’t seem to lend itself well to the idea of nuking the human race to oblivion.)  But he’s thoughtful enough to let us all know his intentions in advance through this letter -- although he does withhold three very crucial words from the letter that will only become evident to the rest of us when it’s too late to do anything about it . . .


I love the fact that the protagonist never gives his name.  From his point of view -- why would he?  He’s writing this letter to humanity to explain himself, but he’s not expecting people to rejoice at the news -- and he’s certainly not expecting them to survive long enough to pass down stories about him.  Why would he need a superhero name?  And as far as the song is concerned -- it’s so much better that he doesn’t.  Because that allows (forces?) the listener to entertain the thought that this could be anyone singing, and that someone really could be singing these sentiments this very evening.  For this type of extremism isn’t hard to find in the world.  We see more and more often on the news how single individuals or small organizations of people can wreak havoc and chaos with relatively little trouble.


The thing is -- we always seem to dismiss these people with terms like “fanatic” and “extremist.”  Which they may well be.  But the mindset they hold has been shared by many different kinds of people, and by many different societies and cultures, for a good long time.  Replace one word from the penultimate line of this song’s lyric, and you have the wartime rally, “Once the enemy’s dead!”  Replace it again and you can mirror any number of forms of intolerance -- “Once the Commies are dead!”  “Once the heathens are dead!”  “Once the niggers [apologies] are dead!”  “Once the savages are dead!”  “Once the Muslims/Jews/Protestants/Catholics are dead!”  “Once the abortion doctors are dead!”  “Once the faggots [again, apologies!] are dead!” . . .


There’s plenty of intolerance to be found.  And it’s sickening.  But what we often fail to acknowledge is that the fanatics and the extremists believe that they’re acting rationally.  (And oftentimes, “rational” people can go to some pretty remarkable extremes, themselves.)  This character doesn’t think of himself as a nutcase or a maniac.  He truly believes that he’s taking up a hero’s quest.  He’s acting upon principled beliefs.  His letter to us is not peppered with exclamation marks and wild rhetoric -- it’s a calmly stated manifesto.  And with an evocative film score playing in the background, I imagine that most everyone new to this song will probably feel strongly sympathetic towards the protagonist-- at least until the 2:46 mark.  And that is what I find most riveting about this song.  That it’s designed not so much to invite you in to the mind of a supervillain, but rather to force you to have to disassociate yourself from this villain once you’ve already embraced his passion and his ambition!




And it’s possible . . .



. . . that someone is sitting alone this very evening, watching the sun set over some inspiring vista, anticipating what tomorrow holds in store . . .








I swear to you.  I really did set out with the intention of writing a hero song.



(Sorry ‘bout that . . .)




And so, as everyone slept peacefully on, Milo stood on tiptoes, raised his arms slowly in front of him, and made the slightest movement possible with the index finger of his right hand.  It was now 5:23 A.M.


As if understanding his signal perfectly, a single piccolo played a single note and off in the east a solitary shaft of cool lemon light flicked across the sky.  Milo smiled happily and then cautiously crooked his finger again.  This time two more piccolos and a flute joined in and three more rays of light danced lightly into view.  Then with both hands he made a great circular sweep in the air and watched with delight as all the musicians began to play at once.


The cellos made the hills glow red, and the leaves and grass were tipped with a soft pale green as the violins began their song.  Only the bass fiddles rested as the entire orchestra washed the forest in color.  Milo was overjoyed because they were all playing for him, and just the way they should.