The Lunar Divine

a sequel story to

The Last Sun Sage


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Already the forest was no longer silent. Bekthe plodded along the mountainside with her hands outstretched, her glowing skin lighting her way. She touched the trunks she passed, and they seemed to sigh in comfort. It was a comfort for her too, hearing their voices after so long.

The jungle’s hums and murmurs had awoken her moments before, and she’d found herself curled against the great tree where her father had performed his sacrifice. She’d fallen asleep out of pure exhaustion. How much time had passed, she did not know. But utter darkness filled the forest all around her. At long last, Night had arrived.

She paused to gaze up at this strange sky, both old and new. She blinked and squinted. What she expected to be a black emptiness was embedded with millions of tiny, bright specks. How could a sky be so dark yet carry so many twinkling lights? They entranced her, filled her with questions. What were they? How far were they? How long had they existed, and what had brought them into being? Were they actually millions of beings giving off light, just like her?

Was there any way they could help her?

She couldn’t think of a way that they could. Somehow she had to awaken her people, but there was no guidance for that either. In all the writings in the temple, her father had not been able to find the answer. No revelation had come to her in prayer. And now here she was, the last walking creature in her world, with nothing and no one to which she could turn for help.

That realization bore down on her, compressing her chest as she stared helplessly at the glittering sky. She thought of her mother, the first person she would awaken, if she only knew how.

What if she never figured it out? Her father always told her that the answer would come, she would find it…But how could he know that? Even if he was beside her right now, there was no help he could provide her.

Trials and Divinations

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Sun, moon. Fire, water. Light, dark. Death, rebirth.

We’ve always been fascinated by cosmic opposites.

I knew when I first proposed the idea for The Last Sun Sage that I wanted it to have a second half, an invocation of the moon, embodying these opposites.

Thus begins our next triptych, our first ever sequel installation, The Lunar Divine. The story picks up shortly after the events of the Sun Sage triptych, so you may want to get up to speed if you missed that one! Young Bekthe’s father, her guiding light, sacrificed himself to save their civilization in the face of the descending Night. (Parent, child.) Can Bekthe be the light for her fallen people in a new age governed by shadow and moonlight?

While The Last Sun Sage was very much on the fire and brimstone end of the spectrum, The Lunar Divine explores a different kind of sacred space: private, serene, mystical. I pulled out all the stops for the Sun Sage‘s instrumentation (full orchestra and full choir), but I chose a greatly reduced ensemble for this next piece: piano and women’s choir, a kind of pale reflection of it’s predecessor’s grandiose forces. I toyed with the idea of incorporating a boy soprano solo as well, but ultimately felt that a more streamlined ensemble was better here, and the absence of men from the chorus helped represent Bekthe’s new state: fatherless, alone.

Fairy Bells and Midnight Spells

You have done well to make it this far, traveler.

The bridge and stream lie at your back; never mind the course of water now flowing at an uphill tilt. Before you, a moonlight-dappled path twists away through the tangle of trees. You may hesitate and think to turn back, but a sweet chiming of bells drifts to your ears, beckoning you forward. They seem to weave a serene enchantment through the entire forest.

A warm summer breeze caresses the shivering leaves. Is that an owl calling in the distance? No, the breath of wind carries the keen of a pipe carved from a weeping tree…

Your footfalls reverberate in time with the low beat of a drum. As you approach the fairy court, a new passage of music comes into focus, plucked by elegant fingers on strings stolen from a silver horse in a vale bathed in moonlight–long before your kind first ventured here…

Do not push aside that broken branch and enter their circle, stranger.

Do not fall in step with their swaying dance.

Do not listen too closely to their lulling song, trespasser.

It may be the last music you’ll ever hear.

Find Your Step

At long last, I’ll be the true social butterfly I was meant to be, and no one can say otherwise. I, a grown-up lady, will finally be allowed to dance the waltz, to step and turn amidst so many happy adults…and be one of them. Dare I even dream that Detective Chief Inspector Spindson might ask for a dance? He usually refrains from any dancing, but perhaps the stars will align in my favor on such a magical night.
from the diary of Chrysalisa Flutterbey

We’ve featured several Comic Con-themed posts this past month to celebrate Candice’s first convention adventure, and now we invite you to step back in time a few weeks for a reflection of our last triptych, Gentlebugs of Lacewing Manor. The gentlebugs will welcome you at any of their fashionable gatherings, although you may want to bring your own tea and food, unless milkweed brulée and pollen tarts are up your alley!

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Candice’s yet-to-be-named “dapper bugs”.

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Monocle Mantis, at your service.

Before Chrysalisa’s debut, before the waltz, before Chrysalisa herself, we had Candice’s first work-in-progress trio of portraits to springboard our ideas. Candice also noted that these anthropomorphic characters belong to the same universe as her Monocle Mantis, a dapper gent with a steampunk-esque flair to his attire, but aside from that introduction, Holly and I had completely free reign. We were two intrepid explorers on the brink of uncharted territory, eager to boldly go where no one had gone before yet mapless, unsure of the path to forge ahead. (Forgive me, I saw Star Trek over the weekend.)

The daydreamer in me has fantasy on the brain pretty much all the time, so perhaps it was natural for my brainstorming to gravitate toward the Regency/Victorian-era + magic books I’ve read and enjoyed: Patricia C. Wrede’s Mairelon the Magician and The Magician’s Ward duo, and most recently, Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix. (If you know of any other good ones, shout ’em out in the comments!) Both alternate-history universes share the imaginative element of magic as well as the more historically-accurate social settings: sweeping manors, twilight parties thrown by the wealthy, young ladies’ debuts into society, dances…

With these various scenarios swirling around in my head, I latched on quickly to the dance theme. Every dance needs music! And thanks to yet another external inspiration–Joe Hisaishi’s delightful main theme for Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Howl’s Moving Castle–I knew I would have a lot of fun composing a waltz. Waltzes are also fitting for the era, and in that period have the added social context that only young women who have debuted in society are permitted to dance them. Because, you know, Propriety and All That.

The Art of Collaboration

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Four eons ago, a writer and a composer huddled over a table in the vestibule of Armacost Library at the University of Redlands, two cups of chai steaming in their hands, a collection of papers with typed print and handwritten notes scattered between them: the birth of an opera.

Okay, maybe that was four years ago.

And if you haven’t guessed by now, those two collaborators were Holly and I, on the brink of finishing our respective programs of creative writing and music composition, ready to plunge into a whirlwind of new post-undergraduate adventures. I’d wanted to work with Holly ever since meeting her a few semesters earlier in a fiction workshop, and our musical drama Lepidoptera grew out of our shared passion for storytelling.

The re-spinning of two ancient folktales, Lepidoptera is the story of a young noblewoman who must hide her love of the natural world from society’s condemning gaze. When a betrothal announcement unravels her web of secrets and threatens her only friendship, she struggles to restore the fragile balance of her public and private identities.

Holly finished the beautiful fifteen-page libretto by the end of our senior year, but it wasn’t until I was partway through my Master’s degree at the University of Michigan that I was really able to dig into the musical side of our drama. I am forever grateful to my undergraduate professor, Anthony Suter, for believing in me and encouraging me to embark on that journey to begin with; and to my graduate professor, Kristin Kuster, for also not only believing in me but for offering unwavering guidance as I pursued this project for my thesis. And for the occasional cookie lesson, which helped keep me sane as I batted away questions like what on earth was I thinking and how am I ever going to finish this on time?!

The Last Sun Sage

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My people have lived beneath our Father Sun for many lifetimes.  As one with our world, we have ever grown with the touch of his rays, without interruption.  We are the Creations that Walk, living amongst our Brothers and Sisters: the trees, vines, bushes, and flowers.  The moss, the water reeds.  All that make up the canopy and forest floor and everything between.  We are all of the same essence.  We are Brother and Sister Creations, fed by the interconnected springs welling throughout our world.  Together we form the forest, nourished by our Father Sun.

Along with life, our Father Sun bestowed upon my people another gift.  The Sun Sages. Creations that carry the Sun’s power within their blood.  Guides, messengers, leaders through the ages.  We are at all times warm to the touch.  Our skin gives off light in the shade.  And when we bleed, the blood is blinding.

It is this blood that will salvage all life in the coming age.  The blood of a Sun Sage.  My blood.

As the first Sun Sage foretold, our uninterrupted sunlight wanes.  We have lived in an age of Day.  But soon our forest will be covered in a darkness that will last many ages, a darkness called Night.  The very last of my people have died since I last beheld our Father Sun above the horizon.  The sky’s bright blue has deepened to near blackness, the gold at its edge the only indication of our Father Sun’s remaining presence.  Now even that glow has dimmed almost completely.  Night is nearly upon us.

Without the sun, my people have perished.  Water alone could not sustain them.  The bright green of their bodies became dull, wan.  Their leaves and skin withered, until they could no longer walk or move at all.  They are laid to rest now throughout the forest, as nothing has been able to revive them.

Two of us remain, kept vital by the sun’s power flowing through our veins.  Myself and the one chosen by our Father Sun to awaken and lead our people in the new age of Night, after my blood brings life back to them.  Her name is Bekthe, and right now she is only a child.  She is my daughter.

I set out now to perform my sacrifice.  The time is here.  The next person who will read this will have been revived by my blood and awoken by my daughter, the last of the Sun’s children born in the age of Day.

The words of Rahmrev, final Sun Sage before the coming of Night.

Praise to our Father Sun.

 

Praise the Sun

SUMMER IS COMING.

As well as our next triptych, The Last Sun Sage.

laudate solem / praise the sun
infans ignis / child of fire
incende / burn
duce nos / lead us
per diem decrescentem / through the waning day

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Cat and random clarinet sonatas not included.

Dusting the cobwebs off my vague Latin memories and scribbling apocalyptic text can only mean one thing: time to write for choir!

Nothing beats the joy of collaborating with real, living vocalists. But sometimes we can’t afford to hire our own personal choir. I’ve used non-text choir samples in past projects, such as One with the Light for Noniko Hsu’s collaborative multimedia production Asah & Raeq. It’s easy enough to assemble “ooh” and “ah” tones into a gliding melody. But for Sun Sage I wanted to do something more. I’ve had my eye on the text-building function in my fancy EastWest choral library for awhile, and its time has finally come.

Transcribing my handwritten sketch into the music notation software Sibelius was a breeze.

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I know I know, I broke one of the syllables wrong.

However, no one would try to pass off Sibelius vocal samples as a legitimate representation of music, not least of which because it stays on the same open vowel. The lyric text is purely for appearance. (And for vocalists reading your music, obviously.)

Case in point.

That apocalyptic refrain I sweated over and conjugated and declined and pored over dictionaries and re-conjugated and consulted the random Latin scholars of the internet dredged up by the Google search engine and re-conjugated again because did I mention I remember almost nothing from the Latin classes I took six years ago? Yeah, you’re not going to hear any of that in a Sibelius playback.

Mermaid Memories

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Candice’s work-in-progress.

Let’s shuffle aside the various tunes from The Little Mermaid queuing up in your mind right now (or is that just me?) and dive in for a closer look at our most recent triptych, The Fisherman’s Bride. Spoilers ahead, so please check that out first if you missed it!

This triptych was instigated by our artist Candice, who provided an open-ended visual prompt in the form of her merwoman portrait, accompanied by the title. Therefore Holly and I had a lot of freedom in how we chose to interpret it–cue the brainstorming whirlwind! Before I moved forward with the music, I wanted a general idea of theme and tone for the forthcoming story, so Holly and I had several chats over the good ol’ interwebs to deviously mastermind a new drama  swap musings on “who is this character?”, and “what story does she want to tell?”

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Illustration by Edmund Dulac for Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.

The main thread we unraveled from our conversations was an interest in diverting expectations. From the fairy tale classics to their Disney adaptations, stories involving mermaids often revolve around their transformation into humans, and the resulting emotional and inter(mer?)personal conflict. We contemplated inverting the traditional mermaid-to-human scenario and projected several variations along those lines: perhaps the fisherman’s bride is actually a human, preparing for her transformation into a merwoman? Holly decided to explore the possibilities of her human protagonist visiting a fish market and suddenly being overwhelmed by visions of the sea and underwater life. Funnily enough, the narrative worked out to parallel a kind of aftermath of the classic fairy tale route, since the fisherman reveals in the ending that Francisca was regaining memories of her life under the sea, not merely hallucinating. It’s bittersweet and I love it (I didn’t see the ending until the night before we posted), and it just goes to show that you never know where the story will take its author!

© Copyright 2015 Corbis CorporationWhy all this talk of story in a music-focused post? Well, as I’ve mentioned already, narrative plays an integral role in my approach to composition, especially when considering shape/structure, dramatic progression, and emotional development. Not only does it inspire me creatively to discuss story ideas–especially with Holly!–but it was important to establish an emotional space for this triptych music before plunging in blindly. Even though we didn’t have all the fine details hashed out for this particular narrative, we did know that it was going to be a little more light-hearted than our past works. While the music I eventually wrote doesn’t encompass the entire progression of the story, I do feel it nicely complements the discovery of the golden kelp forest, with a sense of anticipation and even playfulness.

A Dance with Death

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At the world’s beginning, two great beings brought Life to the land and seas.  Their images still exist on ancient temple walls.  The Light Being, garbed in pale robes billowing and boundless as the clouds.  And the Dark Being, wielding at times a glaive, at times a scythe, but most often a clean and ready sword.

Through their union, they made Life in the depths below the salty waves.  As ages passed, Life spread slowly under the control of these two original parents and the pact they shared.  The Light gifted a small piece of its essence to every creature, and when each creature met its end, the Dark was there to retrieve that piece and return it to the Light.  And, grieving, the Light remembered each piece it ever gave and every creature that ever carried it.  With every piece the Dark returned, the Light’s sorrow only grew.

“Why can our children not exist forever, as we do?” the Light finally asked.  “I would rather they carry on my essence than lose it.”

“It does not belong to them,” said the Dark.  “They are earthly.  Their bodies are not made to carry it forever.  Therefore they cannot keep it.”

“But why must their existence end?” asked the Light.  “Why can it not continue beyond the body, the core of their being, carrying my essence?”

“Then how would your essence ever be returned to you, with you giving and giving with no replenishment?  And how would this eternal Life, now boundless in the world, ever be controlled?” questioned the Dark.  “Who is to say where it would go, what bodies or forms it might choose?”

“Perhaps it is not meant to be controlled,” said the Light.

And with those words, the Light Being and the Dark Being both knew that their bond was no longer as it had been.  Though they both were bound as one by their pact, would they now be at odds evermore?  Could one win the argument?

Prelude to the Dance

Emperor, your sword won’t help you out
Sceptre and crown are worthless here
I’ve taken you by the hand
For you must come to my dance
— Anonymous: Vierzeiliger oberdeutscher Totentanz, Heidelberger Blockbuch (ca. 1460)

The stage is set, the candles lit, and the curtain will soon rise on our danse macabre… But first, a tantalizing little prelude for your eyes and ears.

The foundation of the musical material is derived from an idea I explored and then set aside, unused, during a brainstorming phase for a collaborative Masters flute recital presented by Noniko Hsu at the University of Michigan in October 2015. Asah and Raeq wove a story through flute performance, manipulated video projections, dance, and animation sequences. It featured two main characters, one representing life and growth, the other death and decay.

I’ve rarely1 had time to resurrect abandoned fragments, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to shed new light on an unused motif. This piece is not a literal representation of the danse macabre (“an artistic genre of late-medieval allegory on the universality of death”2), but the parallel was irresistible to include and it spares my Logic rants ramblings for another day. Plus who doesn’t love checking out creepy medieval artwork?3

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A segment of Lübecker Totentanz by Bernt Notke (ca.1463). Very cheerful.

I decided to keep my working title, A Dance with Death, and accompanied my initial sketch for Candice and Holly with a few suggestions, the strongest of which was: this “dance” is really a battle. The other concepts were hazier: one character could represent “Death,” due to his or her prowess in battle, or alternatively could be battling a representation of Death? Perhaps a master swordsman/woman with a swift and sinuous style of fighting?

Needless to say, Candice and Holly ran with this premise in an awesome direction and transformed it into something even better, and I’m excited to share the finished triptych with you next week. Here is a taste of the forthcoming conflict:

Tune in Tuesday, March 22nd for our fourth triptych, A Dance with Death!


1 See: never.
2 Thanks Wikipedia.
3 Hieronymus Bosch is where it’s at.