Bowie Fiction

There was a time during the twentieth century when the position of the greatest science fiction author was officially split into three. The greatest authors were considered to be Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark, and Isaac Asimov.

Of the three, the latter two came to an official accord on how to respond to questions of who was the better writer. While sharing a cab ride in New York, Asimov and Clarke drafted The Clarke-Asimov Treaty of Park Avenue.

This agreement stated that when asked who was best, Clarke was to refer to Asimov as the best science writer, and Asimov was to refer to Clarke as the best science fiction writer. Each was to claim to be second-best in the other’s field.

The only written evidence of this treaty appeared in the dedication of Clarke’s novel Report on Planet Three:

“In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov Treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science fiction writer.”

Why am I talking about this? Because it helps to establish my point: that there are many different moving parts of the speculative genre. There are science writers, science fiction writers, science fiction artists, and filmmakers. But there is one mode of science fiction we seem to often overlook: the science fiction poet. The Spectatorial is incredibly cool to have published a selection of speculative poetry in every issue.

The speculative has pervaded every form of storytelling we have to offer, so why don’t we recognize any great science fiction poets the same way we recognize the writers and the filmmakers? In the tradition of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, who should I name the greatest science fiction poet of their time? That’s easy.

David Bowie.

France David Bowie
Image from chartattack.com

Now hang on, don’t shout me down right away. Let me make it clear that, yes, I know Bowie was a musician/songwriter, but hell, isn’t a good lyrical song just a poem with some groove to it? I know there are people who write actual science fiction poems, but hear me out. David Bowie had a long and illustrious career. Not all of his work was science fiction, but so much of it was, and it made for some of the best and most memorable science fiction poetry of his generation.

The obvious and easy place to start is Space Oddity. It’s a famous song: the tragedy of Bowie’s fictional astronaut, Major Tom, who breaks free from earth and becomes lost in the depths of space. This is a character Bowie would revisit throughout his career, writing and expanding upon the story until Major Tom became a permanent fixture of our pop culture. Sure, Space Oddity is a great song, but it also doubles as Bowie’s earliest science fiction poem to pervade our imaginations.

rocktrain.net
Image from rocktrain.net

Next, I want to talk about Bowie’s great concept album, which for the sake of this article I’m going to call an audio-epic poem. It’s a majestic tragedy of a bisexual rock star who becomes the prophet of a race of god-like aliens. This character prepares the world for the coming of the messianic extra-terrestrial beings of infinity, but is tragically deceived: he is consumed by the Starman, so it could take physical form, and the aliens he convinced humanity were coming to save them end up destroying the world instead.

Does all that sound familiar? Because it should. That is the story of what the Rolling Stones Magazine ranked the 35th greatest album of all time, and I would argue one of the greatest epic poems ever written:

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

The story begins in the song/poem Five Years, in which the narrator ominously proclaims that there are only five years left until the end of the world. The panicked reaction of the human race is juxtaposed with the narrator’s love interest calmly getting ice cream. Powerful themes of chaos, death, unity, and acceptance run throughout the album, through songs like Moonage Daydream and Lady Stardust. Songs like Starman reveal that perhaps some otherworldly beings might come to save us, but first humanity must prepare to receive them by learning to love rock and roll:

There’s a Starman waiting in the sky,

He’d like to come and meet us

But he thinks he’d blow our minds”

highsnobiety
Image from highsnobiety.com

Even the tragic death of Ziggy Stardust in the finale of Rock and Roll Suicide reads like poetry. Ziggy being destroyed by the Starman he worked so hard to bring to earth seems like something we should have seen coming, with Ziggy’s name literally being Stardust.

Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth,

You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette

The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, and then you forget ohhh you’re a rock’n’ roll suicide”

Really, the tragedy of Ziggy Stardust reads like anything Clarke, Asimov, or Heinlein might have written. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a long narrative piece of science fiction poetry about unity and self-destruction. It’s got aliens and world-ending prophecies and cool guitar solos. I’m not sure about you, but that’s good enough for me. If you choose to disagree with my interpretation, that’s also okay.

But for the sake of my argument and my own sanity, let’s just say I’m right. Let’s all congratulate David Bowie for making a hugely accessible collection of science fiction poetry available to the world forever. In the spirit of the Clark-Asimov treaty, and by the power and authority vested in me—meaning that I’ve read all of Asimov’s Foundation, keep a copy of The City and the Stars under my pillow, and have Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars playing as I type thisI hereby give the title of “best science fiction poet of a generation” to Mr. Bowie.

RIP Starman.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Swamp Things and Singing True: a Review of the comic Bayou

bayou_screen064
Image from lovelaughterinsanity.com

If you’re going to build a world with words, look at Jeremy Love’s comic book series Bayou for inspiration—you can’t go wrong. What began as a web comic is now printed in two beautiful volumes that you need to read. Southern swamps have never looked so beautiful.

I have to warn you though, Bayou is not what I would call easy reading. It will make you think in ways that might not be familiar in your standard, comic-reading experience.

For one thing, Bayou is building on African-American folklore, such as the stories of Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear, and Tar Baby, among others. Their stories come together in a beautiful and horrifying mix of history and fantasy. The world beyond the swamp is a kind of pre-Abolition wonderland, where the characters of slave folklore live under the Bossman’s thumb and try to get by one way or another.

20090603_bayoucomic3.nocrop.w670.h403
Image from vulture.com

It does help to have at least a touch of knowledge about these African-American folk tales when reading Bayou, just as it helps to be acquainted with Greek or Norse mythology when reading other comics.

It also helps to have some knowledge of the Blues. Bayou embraces what I have seen other comics merely touch on: song lyrics included in the comic’s panels. You see, our cast of character includes several rambling musicians and singers. The enchantingly beautiful and somewhat deceitful songstress Tar Baby is the mother of the comic’s protagonist, Lee Wagstaff. Brer Rabbit and Bayou come out of their swamp-side world to sing the blues in a Southern speakeasy, and it all goes to hell when the local levee breaks and a flood takes them all. But come hell or high water, these characters get to speak and sing in their own voices. The past and present overlap in Love’s storytelling, and songs ease the transition between them. Similar to how Disney movies use songs in a montage to mark the passage of time—only Bayou never turns away from real-world darkness.

bayou2
Image from webcomicoverlook.wordpress.com

Nearly every character in Bayou speaks in a dialect. This includes the Southern accent, and specifically period-consistent African-American slang. It’s easy to pick up as you go along, and what isn’t totally clear becomes clear with usage (such as when one woman calls another a “heiffer” in a barroom spat). It also includes multiple uses of the N-word, with asterisks for the following letters. It’s a jarring reminder of the history of hate and oppression. You can never forget that slavery is in the characters’ recent past—but why should you? Little Lee may be free, but we first meet her as she swims in the swamp to retrieve the body of a boy her own age. Young Billy Glass lies dead in the bayou because local white men lynched him.

This ain’t Carroll’s kind of wonderland.

Bayou is full of love and hate, cowardice and bravery, sinners and saints. Even the characters that are anthropomorphic animals are beautifully and tragically human. You’ll see the best and the worst of the characters in this comic, but all of them are truly people—even if many of them don’t recognize it.

-Contributed by Miranda Whittaker

Spec in Song Spotlight: Kyle Morton

typhoon - white lighter
Image from wearetyphoon.bandcamp.com/album/white-lighter

Spec in Song explores the use of the speculative in music, whether it be fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or beyond.

The content of Kyle Morton’s songs is just about as wide-ranging and eclectic as the musical styles he works into them. This makes sense considering that his main band, Typhoon, consists of eleven multi-instrumentalists; their work features acoustic and electric guitars, basses, violins, drums, ukuleles, banjos, and even a horn section. Yet somehow in this mess of moving parts, he manages to craft imaginative and intricate speculative worlds.

Morton is by no means a ‘speculative artist,’ however you might define it. His themes and stories are all grounded in real-world problems such as aging, relationships, and chronic illness—specifically Lyme disease, of which Morton is a sufferer.

However, as he addresses these ideas in his colourful soundscape, the imagery and plot he weaves place him among some of the greatest sci-fi and fantasy writers of our time.

In “100 Years,” from Typhoon’s third studio album, White Lighter, Morton paints a bleak and downright disturbing picture of a post-modern dystopia. After he (or his character) falls asleep under a tree and sleeps for 100 years, he wakes up to find the world changed. “I awoke in the future,” he says, and what a future it is.

Entire cities of old folks’ homes / In every household a hospital bed for everyone / They laid me down and they stripped my clothes / They gave me a shirt that says / ‘I survived my own life.’”

Morton draws a painful link between society’s emphasis on survival over living and his own struggle with mortality. In doing so, he flings the listener into a different world. Yet this world is torn down just as quickly as it is created, giving way to introspection. “I told you / I told you / I have nothing left with which to hold you.”

Morton’s lyrics are an interesting blend of metaphor and hyperbole. Some are realistic, if overstated (like living for 100 years, even in sleep), but are combined with fantastical elements. What comes out of this mix is fantastically deep world-building, spiralling even out of a few short lines.

He continues this world-building on his solo studio album, What Will Destroy You, bringing a post-apocalyptic flavour to tracks such as “Survivalist Fantasy.” This is a song that explores his complicated relationship with intimacy in a sort of ‘last man on Earth’ scenario.

The scene is set by the lines: “The traffic lights are out and all the phones are dead / Don’t answer the door for anyone.” In a world with a zombie apocalypse obsession, these lines strike a cultural chord. At the same time, the lyrics aren’t intrinsically apocalyptic, and can bring to mind real world scenarios of riot and revolution.

Before we lost the power I think the television said / Stay inside your homes wait for help to come / That must have been weeks ago / Now I’ve got this sinking feeling / You and I are the only ones.”

Again, we see world-building that takes familiar themes and alienates them so that they make more sense surrounded by the fantastical. Who hasn’t thought, when fighting with a partner or struggling to communicate with a loved one, that the world is coming to an end? Who hasn’t questioned the value of living when there doesn’t seem to be any life in their years?

Morton writes stories that are both close to home and entirely other-worldly, which makes for a complex lyrical experience. Being familiar and yet new, it’s definitely worth a stumble through one of his worlds.

Suggested Tracks:

-Contributed by Stephan Goslinski

Narrative to My Ears – Analyzing the Use of Musical Narrative in Clone

hall.jpg
image source: http://projectclone.com/hall.html

When asked about their favourite work of fantasy or science fiction, very few people respond with a piece of music.

Most people suggest books, like the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or a movie or TV show, like Star Wars, Star Trek, or countless other star-somethings. I have yet to meet anyone who has named a song or a band. Until recently, if you had asked me, I wouldn’t have done so either.

Ben Cooper, the man behind the musical act Radical Face, is the reason for this change in perspective. For years now, he’s been a relative unknown in the expansive indie folk industry, but in 2014, with the help Richard Colorado and Bear Machine Records, he released Clone, one of his most ambitious projects.

With Clone, Cooper created an audio-visual experience as compelling and narrative as a film or novel, but focusing on the music.

Next time you’re watching a movie, try plugging your ears. Like my mom taught me when I got scared watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Lupin as a werewolf is terrifying), most of the scary stuff is tied up in the sound. It is the same with the happy stuff. And the sad stuff. And pretty much all the other stuff that makes you feel something. Like plugging your nose when you eat, plugging your ears when you watch a film mutes the flavour and dulls the experience.

On the other hand, musical artists through the years have done their best to become lyrical storytellers, bringing realms of science fiction and fantasy onto our vinyl, CDs, and iPods. Yet, aside from the most popular artists (I’m looking at you, Mr. David Bowie), the speculative rarely makes its way into mainstream music, at least not into the more common mediums, such as film and print. People love David Bowie for his music and the characters he portrayed, not the characters in his music.

Conversely, Cooper focuses on the story and his protagonist, “Subject 006,” and tells a vibrant science fiction tale about a clone who escapes captivity and gains his freedom, experiencing all the world has to offer along the way.

city_nighttime1
image source: http://projectclone.com/city_nighttime1.html

At this point, you’re probably reading this asking, “What’s new here? I’ve seen a musical. I’ve listened to a concept album.” Oh, this is much more than a concept album.

Cooper is not one to shy away from concept albums; indeed, he often prefers them. However, what we see in Clone is a more multi-faceted, nuanced attempt to tell a single narrative, focused on one character through a traditional beginning-middle-end plot structure. Cooper employs multiple media, specifically visual art, video, and prose, alongside the music, creating a fully formed web of narrative.

Having listened to the project more than once now, I am finding it easier to follow the narrative by only listening to the music. At the beginning, I held fast onto the descriptions of the action, and though they are purposeful and do contribute to the experience, they shouldn’t be used as a crutch.

The reason Clone is so hard to follow in terms of its narrative is that it is primarily instrumental, and where lyrics are used, they are sporadic and represent the thoughts of the protagonist, so they can only really be used as mile markers along his journey. The story is told through this character’s feelings as he interacts with his environment, feelings that are presented through the music.

I should mention now that I hate instrumental music.

I’m a big fan of stories, so when a musician bypasses the lyrical method and doesn’t use words, which are generally a fundamental building-block for stories, I get a little put out. It’s for this reason that I also don’t generally stand and look at a painting for ten minutes, or however long a concerto is supposed to last. Most instrumentals that I have heard have attempted to ‘paint a picture’ of a person, place, event, or feeling, and I, a sucker for narrative and character development, don’t tend to spend much time on these things that seem static in nature. However, by marrying instrumental music with the concept of narrative, Clone has encouraged me to take another look at this ‘static’ art form.

city_nighttime2
image source: http://projectclone.com/city_nighttime2.html

What Clone presents is a series of dynamic paintings, moving pictures, which could hypothetically be dissected into images of individual feelings, but when experienced in sequence, along with the accompanying media, create a story. After all, what is a story but actions and reactions to feelings? We often say the best stories are the ones that make you feel, and Clone simply removes the middle-man and plops the feelings right at your feet (or into your ear-holes, I guess).

Unfortunately, this method of musical narrative is not particularly common on its own. Upon discovering this, my first thought was “Why am I just now discovering this? Is there anything else like this out there, or is this the only one?” The answer is yes, to both.

Firstly, Clone has not been my first introduction to musical narrative, or at least attempted musical narrative, nor will it be yours, if you’ve liked anything I’ve said and choose to check this out. In fact, every time you watch a movie or TV show, the score contributes to the narrative. Far be it for me to call them music, but even laugh tracks play on the same idea of auditory cues in narrative.

At the same time, we rarely see musical narrative uncoupled from its visual narrative, which I would wager is because of its vast popularity as film score. It has found its niche so to speak—and it does a dang fine job where it is.

However, if we don’t push outside the limits and comfort zones that are established in these niches, then who knows what possibilities are going unexplored? It is only through the marriage of narrative with music, and the separation of music from its reliance on visual cues, that makes Clone so successful. It is both narrative and music, without sacrificing either, but it took a leap to get there. I guess Cooper’s Radical Face persona lives up to its name.

This isn’t to say that what Clone has done is the be-all and end-all, or even that it’s objectively good; some people might reject it as vehemently as I initially rejected instrumental music. However, the sort of work done in Clone is the sort of leaps we need if we want to keep the genres of speculative fiction fresh and thought-provoking. There are a lot of stories out there, and we’ve been looking for them for a long time. Maybe it’s time to listen.

people in Sopelana beach with haze
image source: http://projectclone.com/hall.html

The music, video, visual art, and prose of Clone can be found at projectclone.com (it’s separated into 6 acts, so start with Act 1: The Laboratory). Also, all the music and videos are available on YouTube, and it is encouraged that you find a playlist there and consult the prose (Act Info) on the website as necessary.

Contributed by Stephan Goslinski

The Every Day Speculative Playlist

Are you looking for great new music for your study time, work time, or downtime? Well, here is a suggestion: look to the speculative. Speculative fiction has entertained you with books, stories, comics, and movies, and now it can be used for all your music-listening needs. All of the amazing films that you have admired for years and those that have just recently come to the big screen have a soundtrack. Even the movies that have never piqued your interest or given you goosebumps may have something to offer. Some may ask, “What is a soundtrack without its visual counterpart?” Well, as many probably already realize, a film’s soundtrack is part of what makes it iconic. When people think of Harry Potter, it’s very likely that one of the first things that comes to mind is the haunting melody of the theme song—also known as Hedwig’s Theme—by the sensational John Williams. Pieces of music such as this and many other magical movie tunes and ballads have become representative of people’s experiences, life stages, and love for film.

While soundtracks can be intimately connected to their movie origins, they can also have a separate, special existence, appreciated for their own unique beauty and emotion. So go ahead and explore those dystopian, utopian, apocalyptic, and brave new world soundtracks from films old and new, but don’t limit yourself there. Search up the soundtracks for all your favourites, be they sci-fi, fantasy, drama, or documentary films. Are you into all-time classics? Then search up the “best soundtracks and movie themes of all time” and you are guaranteed a phenomenal musical experience, whether it’s the unbearably romantic Titanic tracks written by James Horner and performed by Celine Dion and Sissel (a Norwegian singer chosen for her emotive and powerful vocals); the chilling score of The Godfather composed by the incredible Nino Rota; or other award-winning scores such as those from The Gladiator by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, or Chariots of Fire by Vangelis. You may just discover a truckload of music you’ve always heard in the background while being occupied by the action happening on screen or while watching the end credits roll, but that you had never really listened to on its own. So why not turn it on at the park bench or while writing a paper at your desk? Who knows—maybe it will be the inspiration for your next masterpiece.

As for speculative films, the soundtracks not only contribute to the unforgettable action but also have the doubly difficult task of creating a completely alternative or futuristic feel for the audience. For non-speculative movie genres, filmmakers and composers can look to ancient or recent geographical, cultural, and historical details while constructing the desirable score. For thriller, horror, and crime movies, composers can employ psychologically and emotionally appropriate musical devices, but the composers for speculative films often have no such luxury. How does one score a world that does not yet exist, that hides under the surface, or that, as many stories try to show, does not really exist at all? While everything must, of course, be reflective of the past, the speculative must also encompass possibility and question the present. These scores must be both foreign and familiar, recognizable yet unique, futuristic but ordinary, both exciting and haunting. Not an easy feat for any composer, and so let’s give credit where credit is due.

Here are some speculative sounds you may already know:

Cloud Atlas

cloud atlas
image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_Atlas_(film)

Released in 2012, Cloud Atlas is a German-American film with an all-star cast that follows six different storylines through the perspective of a single reincarnation. It explores the connections between individuals and actions across time and space, starting in the 1800s, continuing through to the present era and even into the distant future. Beauty, violence, rebellion, and love are intertwined in this historic-futuristic narrative about the power of kindness and hope. From clones to cannibals, conspiracy to comedy, and a bright future to the apocalypse, this film is a medley of impressions with something for everyone. The original soundtrack, written by Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil, successfully connects the events of several centuries and manages to unify the themes and emotions of each time and place. The main musical theme, “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” is a simple but haunting piano melody with a slightly melancholic and nostalgic sound and a hopeful resolution.

Blade Runner

2
image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blade_Runner

This classic 1982 cyberpunk film, set in the very near future (2019), deals with man’s unending quest to master cloning, and explores the dangers faced by humanity when this ambition goes terribly wrong. Police and clones face off in this complex action thriller, and the epic fight travels from Earth to space and back again. Life and love are overshadowed by moral darkness and the disturbing aspects of advancing technology. The original soundtrack by the masterful Greek composer Vangelis is the perfect complement to this futuristic masterpiece. Electronic, jazzy, and unusual, the tracks incorporate sounds and synthesizer effects to create a strange, foreboding, and eerie listening experience. The tracks “Love Theme” and “Memories of Green” provide a great contrast to the more techno pieces of the film, adding a calmer classical element.

The Hunger Games

3
image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hunger_Games_(film)

Based on the dystopian series by Suzanne Collins, the Hunger Games films (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay: Part One) provide an action-packed representation of a disturbing future in the post-war North American country of Panem where, every year, two children from each of twelve districts are forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the pampered Capitol folk and the government of Panem. The 2012 score for The Hunger Games was written by James Newton Howard, a composer also known for the great scores of The Dark Knight, Water for Elephants, Blood Diamond, and many more. The film’s music varies beautifully between grandiose choral segments, powerfully orchestrated themes, and catchy, single-instrument tunes, making it a perfect fit for both the action scenes and the heartbreaking emotional scenes. The soundtrack of the movie featured songs from more than fourteen artists including Birdy and Arcade Fire. Fun fact: Rue’s famous four-note whistle in the movie originated from the melody of composer Nino Rota’s “Love Theme,” from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film Romeo and Juliet.

Have any suggestions for life-changing movie scores? Comment away!

-Contributed by Polina Zak

Music of the Spheres: Sci-Fi Soundtracks and the Classical Tradition

There has always been a connection between space and music despite their differences. Long before the space opera genre rose to prominence, space and music were both viewed as conveyors of awe and mystery, respective wonders of the natural and human worlds. Early medieval musical and academic theory considered music to be a science more than an art—not surprising, given the complex physics behind it. A concept passed down from Pythagoras and other classical philosophers known as “musica universalis” or the “music of the spheres” suggested that each of the planets produces its own sound based on its size and rotation. Similarly, in the physics of music, the length and vibration of a string or pipe determine the sound it produces. While the “music of the spheres” was said to be inaudible to the human ear, it was nonetheless an important philosophical and mathematical concept that brought music to the center of the universe, so to speak.

Besides physics, the mythology of the planets also works its way into music. Western classical music is full of references to classical mythology, which itself brings in much from the sky. Baroque composers in particular were fond of mythology in their music. Many of the gods of the Roman pantheon share names with the planets, leaving deities like Saturn, Jupiter, and Venus scattered throughout music spanning centuries. In 2014, Toronto’s own Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra organized a special event called The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres, which combined texts from astronomers, baroque music, and images of space in a celebration of the first telescope. We use mythology and music to explore things that are meaningful and fascinating to us, and the universe beyond our planet is near the top of the list.

There are some orchestral motifs that we can’t help but associate with space, and while John Williams’ Star Wars score is partially to blame, there is more history at play. We hear these sounds in incidental and classical music alike: triumphant brass lines mimic the grandeur and glory of space; rapid, fluttering passages of strings and upper woodwinds suggest the anticipation and excitement of going beyond the final frontier; soft, haunting music with unexpected intervals or time signatures, played on rare or even electronic instruments, paints the picture of unexplored new worlds. George Lucas reportedly used orchestral music as inspiration and as a stand-in for the Star Wars soundtrack before Williams’ score was done; Lucas wanted the music to be familiar, as the world of the story was not. So Williams drew from tried-and-true classical motifs and created the most iconic soundtrack ever. (Compare Gustav Holst’s Mercury with “Landspeeder Search/Attack of the Sand” from Star Wars Episode IV).

Arguably the common ancestor to all of these space opera soundtracks is Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets. Written in the early twentieth century, Holst portrayed the planets (excluding Earth, as it has little astrological significance, and Pluto, yet to be discovered) according to the emotions and influences associated with them by astrology and hints of mythology. Mars, the Bringer of War is a dark, rhythmic piece, constantly moving. It could play aboard the Death Star and make perfect sense. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity is the most-well known movement of the suite, and features a beautiful moving passage in the middle that was later adapted as a hymn tune. Jupiter is quintessential, containing the “space sounds” of exploration and vastness as well as the most tender, emotional moments of space opera.

Of course, there are instances of classical music directly used in science fiction as well. The opening section of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra is well-known now for its role in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Inspired by the book of the same title by Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra was a ‘soundtrack’ of sorts from the beginning; it was ‘program music’. Both Nietzsche and Kubrick examine similar themes in their respective pieces. The triumphant fanfare mimics the glory of space and the dawn of humanity; it is a celebration of the ingenuity, creation, and wonder to follow.

Program music is orchestral music that tells a narrative. Whereas opera, or anything with text, is direct in its musical storytelling, program music is subtle and open to slightly more interpretation. As large-scale orchestral works became prominent, so too did this kind of musical narrative, like The Planets. Program music also includes symphonic poems, like Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and film music, such as Williams’ soundtracks. Symphonic poems convey a certain story, poem, or work of art, or more abstract narratives like landscapes—operas without words. And once film became a common medium in the twentieth century, program music led to incidental music and soundtracks, highlighting the action on screen.

One does not have to be a musician, or indeed know anything about music, to hear Holst as a precursor to some of John Williams’ soundtracks or the various reincarnations of the Star Wars theme. In our current culture, it could very well be that we associate the orchestral motifs mentioned earlier with space because of the undying popularity of space operas. This is not a bad thing. There is no reason why we shouldn’t access elements of classical music, human emotion, and science this way; the most wonderful thing about culture is that it is constantly reworking and reusing past stories in new contexts. The mystery and beauty music inspires within us is only matched by the mystery and beauty of the unknown—of distant worlds and the infinite reach of the universe.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege

Forty Miles of Mountain Road: Faust and the Blues

The Faustian myth, wherein one sells their soul for fame or fortune, is an incredibly popular motif throughout world folklore and literature. While the story draws on a number of earlier figures and myths, Faust by name originated in Germany in the sixteenth century. In the legend, he was a scholar who, displeased with his life and research, made a deal with the devil and exchanged his soul for insurmountable knowledge. Various retellings of the story give Faust different fates; in the earlier versions, he is inevitably damned to hell for his actions.

Of all the deal-with-the-devil stories, Faust burns the brightest. This can likely be attributed to Christopher Marlowe, whose play Doctor Faustus, published posthumously at the beginning of the early seventeenth century, brought the story to an English audience. Two centuries after this, Goethe published his play Faust, now regarded as a pinnacle of German literature. And these are only two of countless works of literature, art, and music that are derived from the original legend.

Not only has Faust inspired numerous musical works, including symphonic and operatic music by major classical composers like Gounod, Stravinsky, and Wagner, the legend has also inspired stories about the musicians’ personal lives and practices. Niccolò Paganini, the celebrated Italian violin virtuoso, was rumoured to have sold his soul in exchange for his remarkable skill. These occult associations were strong enough that after his death he was initially denied a Catholic burial by the church.

But perhaps out of all music, the blues is arguably most closely associated with the Faustian myth. Arising amongst African-American communities and gaining popularity in the Deep South at the end of the nineteenth century, blues music flourished for decades and set the precedent for the birth of rock and roll in the fifties. Blues songs draw from many influences, including West African and American folk traditions and work songs, often from plantations, which recount racial, romantic, and economic hardships. Ironically, considering its associations with the devil, Christian spirituals were also important to the development of the blues. While it is an overgeneralization to say that all blues music is melancholy, it is of course sad by definition, and thus reflects the historical context of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Faustian legends surround Robert Johnson, one of the most influential and talented blues musicians ever. It was said that Johnson, out of the desire to be a great musician, met with the devil as a young man at a crossroads and gave his soul in exchange for mastery of the guitar. One of his most notable songs, Hellhound on My Trail, can be interpreted as telling the story of the devil coming for what he’s owed and the folk magic used in a last attempt to evade him. Another song, Cross Road Blues, describes the speaker asking God for mercy as he kneels at a crossroads.

The crossroads is an ominous motif in folklore and superstition, regarded as a place where one is likely to meet a ghost or, in this case, the devil. The popularity of the Faustian myth and the fact that Johnson died quite young add to the story. Although the legend has been widely discussed in this context, there is little evidence that Johnson had anything to do with the occult. However, he was said to have practiced in graveyards, as they offered a quiet, private space in which to play.

While the content of these songs is evidence that Johnson was aware of the folklore he was a part of, it is little evidence that he made any supernatural deals himself. When musicians appeal to the Faustian myth, is more for the sake of a good story than anything else. These many great musicians obviously did not really sell their souls for their talent. The ’devil’ or any other great evil feared by African American blues musicians was far more likely to stand for racial discrimination than any supernatural being. However, the key issue behind folklore is not whether any of it is ‘real’; it is the endurance of stories like the Faustian myth that fascinates us.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege