after The Wind and the Lake, I'm sharing my efforts on yet another attempt to score a late romantic symphonic poem. This time, it's based on "Lost Horizon", a novel by James Hilton and a personal favourite of mine: if you've never heard of it, it's the novel that originated the myth of Shangri-La, and is a fascinating read. I always loved the mood, the dialogues and the story, and after re-reading it recently I thought it would be a perfect theme for the music I was working on.
You can listen to it here:
Once again, I uploaded the whole score (that can be played and followed using the MuseScore soundfont) as well:
It's explicitly dedicated to Lennie Moore, as he's a composer that has had a HUGE influence over my music taste and style. He's mostly known as the author of the Outcast soundtrack, which completely blew my mind at the time, and still does. While I had appreciated classical, soundtracks and orchestral music in general before, it was Outcast that sparked the flame for me, and made me want to experiment with orchestral scoring of my own as well. This poem is dedicated to him also because of his incredible kindness to a humble fan: I knew my work would musically be partly inspired by the Ranzaar theme from Outcast, so I contacted him to ask if the score was available for sale anywhere, so that I could study it as I also do with classical scores; he just sent me, without asking for anything in return, the complete and annotated score for the whole piece, with a detailed analysis of the different parts, choices and everything, which as you can imagine was amazing to look at! A great composer and a great human being too.
Coming to the work, besides the above mentioned Ranzaar, the main musical influences were John Williams' main theme for "7 years in Tibet" (since Lost Horizon is set in a lamasery on the Himalayas and I wanted the same "vibe"), the usual Tchaikovsky with his 1st symphony "Winter Daydreams" (in particular for some texture choices, like flute and bassoon skething a theme), Rimsky Korsakov's Antar symphony (again, just because it's so mysterious!) and, in part, Holst's "Neptune" from The Planets (mostly for how magistrally it makes use of harp and celesta to create a unique atmosphere). Not sure if the piece ended up sounding more like a soundtrack than a poem (a friend told me it reminded him of Danny Elfman), but I definitely approached it as a classical piece, or at least tried to: of course I love soundtracks too, so if it sounds like one I'm happy as well!
From a composition point of view, there are a few themes that recur in the work. If you're interested, this is basically the process I used to compose them:
- The main theme, the one the piece starts with, is what I call the "Shangri-La" theme. It's supposed to be airy and (mostly) uplifting, but inspired by Wagner I decided not to let it "resolve" until the very end: before that, any time it appears it's "interrupted" by more or less dissonant choices. The theme itself I had in my mind for a very long time, and its origin is actually a bit silly: if you watch this old SNL clip, you'll notice it's similar to the theme for Simon's TV show I remember liking the way the simple tune sounded like, and it must have been in my head long enough that it became what you can hear in this piece instead (and a bit more unsettling, perhaps!).
- The second theme, which follows the first attempts of the main theme to resolve, is what I thought of as "The Mountain" theme. The main backdrop for Lost Horizon is this hominous mountain in the Himalayas, called Karakal, and so I wanted it to be an important part of the piece too. It starts slow and then grows, only to come back at the very end (if you can spot it). This theme I had in my mind for a long time too, and is actually directly inspired by Outcast: I think it's the first theme I ever wrote that used the chromatic mediants Outcast used so perfectly, and that I fell in love with right away.
- The exposition is made of basically two different themes, who are similar and yet different, and are both meant to represent the mystery that Shangri-La is for the main characters, and the different impact/effect it has on each of them. Any time the mystery seems to be unveiled, it becomes clearer that there's more to uncover, and that not everything is at is seems. For the second theme in particular, I liked the idea of a modulation that seems to go higher and then always stops, up until the very end.
- As anticipated, the climax is indeed the main theme coming back and finally resolving in a "triumphant" way, just to become a whisper once more, where eventually the Shangri-La and Karakal themes merge together and slowly fade out. If you're wondering why I chose to end it that way, it's mostly because of how the book final chapters end and my perspective of it: if you haven't read it yet, I won't spoil it for you.
From a technical point of view, as last time I scored everything with MuseScore first, and only at the very end I imported it in Ardour to work on the virtual orchestration. Once more, I used @Michael Willis' amazing orchestral template for Ardour, and followed pretty much the same approach as last time: that is, using my modified Virtual Playing Orchestra SFZ files that use the MIDI CC 14 to change articulation depending on the context, and automating everything else as needed (e.g., volumes for crescendos, diminuendos and overall balance). I won't bother you with too many details on this, as it was pretty much the same effort I did on "The Wind and the Lake": you can refer to that post if you want to dig deeper on exactly what was done there.
There are a couple of things I really don't like, though: french horns and clarinets are worse than my previous effort... Horns for some reason sound quite bad at low velocities (which is such a pity, as they're among my favouite instruments in the orchestra), while clarinets in VPO have a very long attack that you can't get rid of even when playing with the modwheel CC; I tried to mitigate both issues, but I still don't like how they sound in the VPO version. Weirdly enough, they both sound much better in the MuseScore version, which is supposed to have a much lower quality soundfont. Anyway, I recently managed to get access to a free copy of the BBC Orchestra by Spitfire Audio: in the next few weeks I may try to play with that one too, to see if the outcome is better.
Anyway, apologies for the once again incredibly long post...
Hope you'll enjoy this as much as I did working on it, and looking forward to your feedback!