Tuesday, March 21, 2023

New Inspirational Music

 Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”

Victor Hugo

As I continue designing and writing a new medieval fantasy roleplaying game setting I constantly remind myself how much music motivates and inspires me. Simply having relevant music playing in the background makes me more inclined to sit down and focus on developing game material. Fantasy fandom – from roleplaying gamers and wargamers to those who immerse themselves in literature and online media – sometimes argues about the nature of medieval elements. Can we have ethnically diverse elves, dwarves, and halfings? Must we adhere to the miserable health and social conditions that plagued medieval Europe or can we just play around in a relatively carefree renfaire environment? How much fantasy do we mix with our historical inspirations? So it’s no surprise my own tastes in medieval-themed music runs the spectrum from purely fantastical to authentically historical. Two sources of new music help fuel my enthusiasm for the current project: the soundtrack to the first season of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power and a collection of releases from the British medieval instrumenttroupe Trouvere.

I’ve discussed how music inspired my gaming in the past and how newer material has enhanced my game activities. It started even before I discovered fantasy roleplaying games in junior high school as I explored classical music from the romantic period and then accumulated soundtracks to films I particularly enjoyed (notably Star Wars, but others fill the list). I used themed music to accompany roleplaying game sessions, though these days Tabletop Audio offers themed music and sounds to play in the background to augment the atmosphere (a far easier solution than recording tracks in chronologicla order to craft a soundtrack for a particular game adventure). I have a collection of CDs that, now uploaded to my computer, provide background and inspiration for numerous gaming genres (alas, my 200-disc CD changer/player sits nearby, gathering the dust of this Electronic Age).

I’m always looking for new inspirational music. Sometimes revisiting old favorites doesn’t quite fuel my creative fire; goodness knows how many times I’ve listened to the soundtrack from the classic Star Wars films over the years...originally on vinyl! Sometimes I’m seeking material for a new genre. For whatever reason my inclination toward modern film soundtracks is waning. I’m not sure if it’s the kind of music or orchestration or what, but few soundtracks, even for media I used to really enjoy, resonate with me.*

So I was surprised to discover Bear McCreary’s soundtrack to the first season of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. His score for the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series in the early 2000s demonstrated a broad range and focused intensity. Say what you will about The Rings of Power – and goodness knows, people have voiced their opinions across the critical spectrum – but McCreary did a fantastic job of evoking the different cultures of Middle-earth through musical themes. His sweeping, epic orchestrations hearken back to Howard Shore’s original soundtrack for the Lord of the Rings films with its majestic musical vision of Middle-earth. (Shore’s soundtrack still inspires me, reinforced by visual memories from the movies.) I’m particularly enamored of McCreary’s theme for Numenor which wends its way through various tracks related to that plot thread. What sounds to me like Celtic folk music elements of the Harfoots’ theme have a hospitable, down-to-earth feel (insert “Harfeet” reference here). McCreary seems to revel in his ability to create original musical cues for Middle-earth’s different peoples and characters; his music certainly brings to life Tolkein’s world just as much as the series’ actors, writers, and visual effects. So I use the soundtrack to help inspire my own game-oriented writing in the medieval fantasy genre.

Swinging from the fantastical to the more historical, I splurged and backed a Kickstarter for a new album (and a few older albums) from Trouvere medieval minstrels, a duo from Yorkshire, United Kingdom, who research and perform music on period instruments. The Kickstarter campaign sought to fund production of CDs for their latest album, The Medieval Instrumentarium, featuring performances of music from five centuries on 45 instruments from the Middle Ages. At the level I pledged I received the new album and several past ones, including Music for A Medieval Feast, Magna Melodia: Music from the time of the Magna Carta, and Music for A Medieval Prince. The instrumentation is not as intrusive or sweeping as a movie score, but the music serves as good background to keep me in a medieval mood for writing. Certainly not as majestically epic as anything accompanying The Lord of the Rings, Trouvere’s music evokes the simple musical pleasures of the medieval period. From a gaming perspective it often seems appropriate for town encounters, wilderness travels, and anyplace among civilized lands inhabited by peasants, priests, princes, and, of course, minstrels.

I don’t always actively seek new sources of inspiration. In many cases I stumble upon them. As fans of the Lord of the Rings films my family was going to watch The Rings of Power anyway; discovering McCreary’s soundtrack was a fortuitous side-effect. I dicsovered Trouvere while investigating a game-related Kickstarter project I no doubt heard about through social media.

I’m pretty certain what kinds of media I like these days, whether streaming shows, movies, music, and novels; but I try to remain open-minded about broadening my horizons with something new if it remotely appeals to my interests. Usually it simply serves as entertainment, a momentary diversion from life’s trials. But now and then I find something I can use for inspiration in my gaming activities. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it offers a fresh perspective and new source of creative energy..

Music is there for everybody. It’s a river we can all put our cups into and drink it and be sustained by it.”

John Williams

* For those wondering what recent film soundtracks inspired me, Thor: Ragnarok and Solo: A Star Wars Story come to mind.

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