November 2020 – Not just characters

Welcome to November’s diary entry! For some time now, I have had the feeling that to write music for characters has been getting harder and harder. After a whole year working on House Stark, Targaryen, Baratheon, Lannister, Tully, Martell, Tyrell, Greyjoy… I am convinced I need to take a step back and let the creative juices replenish before I keep writing more characters. This means that for the coming months I’ll be focusing not on characters but on societies, places, objects and concepts. These are the five categories of leitmotifs I decided to work on when I started this project a few years ago and so far, I only have really devoted any time to the first one. So, in this entry I’ll talk a bit about what each category encompasses and what to expect.

Societies

Societies in ASOIAF are more than just people. Whether we call them organizationscommunities or institutions, these are bodies of people with a common denominator that brings them together in one way or another. Here we have religions, military organizations such as mercenary bands and knight orders, commercial entities like banks and traders, political councils, and a long etc.

As if having to create music for hundreds of characters wasn’t complex enough, then there is the question of bringing together those characters under one umbrella as members of a society. The Night’s Watch serves as a good example, with characters from all walks of life taking embracing one single identity, wearing the same clothes, eating the same food, and living under the same roof. The question of how to represent that unity for characters as different as Maester Aemon and Pyp, for example, is proving as difficult as it sounds. For the moment it is all coming together very slowly and one of the areas where I am most excited to work on since it is virgin territory to explore musically.

Concepts

Concepts are the free for all category of abstract ideas that do not exist in the physical universe of ASOIAF: death and life, magic, love, honor, etc. These leitmotifs are usually the simplest as they need to fit almost any modification and arrangement, but also need to work together with other leitmotifs to add new meanings. Some of these leitmotifs date back to the very beginning of this project, like the life and death leitmotifs.

These four (diatonically) consecutive ascending notes embody the essence of life, and by extension joy, creation, goodness, etc. By opposition, the four consecutive descending notes represent death, sorrow, destruction, evil, etc.

But how can 4 consecutive notes constitute a motif, I hear you ask? The answer is that they really don’t unless you take context into account. To find 4 consecutive notes is not hard at all in almost any piece of music so this is yet another reason why it takes me so long to write music. With very few exceptions I always try to avoid using 4 consecutive notes unless I am referencing some of these aspects, although they are rarely in the foreground. Usually they are hidden in the accompaniment or as a harmonic progression but in some exceptional cases they can be part of the melody as in the case of Oberyn Martell’s leitmotif.

Life and Death in Oberyn Martell’s leitmotif

The four notes descending at an uneven pace tell us that this man is not to be trifled with: he is dangerous. The four quick ascending notes also tell us that this man is full of vitality and enjoys life to the fullest. But the theme is not over yet, and the life theme is repeated one more time with a little twist at the end, where the very last note is a bit higher than usual, giving the life motif a bitter sweet ending, perhaps significant to how this character approaches life. There are similar uses of the life/death motif in many other character’s leitmotifs such as Robert Baratheon, Stannis and Renly Baratheon; Loras Tyrell, Tyrion Lannister, etc. so I won’t cover them all here. Suffice it to say that after repeated listening the association becomes clear enough that hearing four consecutive notes, either ascending or descending, should give the listener pause and make them ask themselves what is the music trying to tell us.

Places

Places are probably the easiest leitmotifs to work on in conceptual terms, as they represent a concrete physical location (at least on the page) and nothing else. At least in theory. In reality places are also associated with the events that took place there, their flora and fauna, and of course, the people who live there. The interweaving of leitmotifs of places into character leitmotifs makes it is hard to say where one begins and the other ends. Even some sketches and ideas that originally started as leitmotifs for places have ended up becoming characters who lived in those places. All in all, leitmotifs for places are usually much simpler than character leitmotifs precisely because they work via osmosis: the characters usually pick up these little quirks of the land in subtle ways that are usually only see under a magnifying glass. Staying a bit longer with Oberyn Martell’s leitmotif, let’s see if there is any of the Dornish leimotif in him.

The leitmotif of Dorne consists of a very simple undulating melody, almost devoid of any rhythm, where long-held notes evoke the endless and empty the desert.

Oberyn Martell’s leitmotif couldn’t be more different with its complex rhythms and fast notes. However, upon closer inspection a glimpse of the desert landscape is barely visible, with broken pieces of the Dorne leitmotif appearing like a mirage, never drawing attention to themselves but adding to the connection between Oberyn and his homeland.

Dorne in Oberyn Martell’s leitmotif

This subtle approach allows for a subconscious association between the two leitmotifs rather than a direct quotation: after all, the leitmotif is not “Oberyn Martell crossing Dorne”.

Objects

Objects can be incredibly simple or incredibly complex depending on the level of subjectivity of the object they refer to. The range here is quite broad, from anything belonging to a character such as weapons and clothing, to generic elements that need no subjectivity, like blood, poison and fire.

One might think that more personal objects might be harder to write than generic ones but I always have more trouble writing generic objects. I can write a dozen leitmotifs for poison in a (good) day and never pick any of them because they all are interchangeable and therefore meaningless. On the other hand, after a day of hard work spent on the Iron Throne (which is just an object despite being very, very big) I can have Aegon’s leitmotif wrought into it and feel satisfied that it represents the Iron Throne. Then I can repeat the process using Robert Baratheon’s leitmotif and have the Iron Throne during the age of the Robert I Baratheon rule and I also feel satisfied.

The Iron Throne of Aegon I Targaryen

Going back to how leitmotifs intertwine with one another. Let’s look at the accompaniment used for The Iron Throne of Aegon I Targaryen. The accompaniment in the low brass and strings outlines a very simple chord progression that repeats relentlessly, following the four note leitmotif of life, in this case symbolizing creation.

Creation in the Iron Throne of Aegon I Targaryen

I hope you enjoyed this month’s entry and you are looking forward to more diverse leitmotifs in the upcoming months. See you next month!

Maester Ludwig

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