[GUEST POST] Christopher Grano of Zahatar on Putting Charles de Lint’s Words to Music


ABOUT ZAHATAR: The term “Zahatar” refers to a timeless spice blend from the Middle East. The band Zahatar brings modern spice to timeless tunes. Zahatar arranges all of its own music, pulling themes from the Celtic tradition, Chinese and Spanish folk melodies, bluegrass, pop/rock, film soundtracks, ragtime, the Classical era, and more. Zahatar is currently comprised of Christopher Grano on violin/fiddle, Sarah Hoskins on cello/djembe, Scott Stewart on viola, ‘Cille Lutsch on flute/pennywhistle, Emily Smith on pedal and Celtic harps, and Shilo Stroman on percussion. Zahatar is currently crowd funding an acoustic album based on the lyrics from Charles de Lint’s The Little Country. Follow them on their website, Facebook, and on Twitter as @zahatar.

The Mysterious Nature of Music in Fantasy Fiction

by Christopher Grano

Some might say that my love of music and my love of fantasy fiction are merely complementary, but for me, they are a singular passion. Stories told through music speak to all of us. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow stated that music is the universal human language, while more than a hundred years later, Marilyn Manson would say that music is the strongest form of magic.

Music is a cornerstone of fantasy. The first songs told stories to explain the creation of the world, long before history benefitted from the written word, before the word “civilization” even existed. The human voice was the world’s first musical instrument; it required no tools to build. Music has always been a tradition of humankind, right along with storytelling.

The Native Americans sang and danced the stories of their ancestors. The Vikings of the Dark Ages entertained guests from faraway lands with elaborate lays of great warriors and fair maidens. Old tales told around hearth fires, changing with each telling, growing more fierce or more mysterious, or altogether more outrageous in their otherworldliness.

Some of the earliest printed works of literature appeared in verse, meant to be sung-not dictated. Over the centuries, however, as the printed page has supplanted the spoken word as the principal medium of story, the primal connection between music and story has degraded. When story and music were one, so too were fantasy and reality. Whether coincidental or not, that divide has also widened with time, and belief in the magical has faded.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that some magical storytellers have used music to enhance the reality of their creations, beginning with the father of modern fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien weaves songs throughout his novels, using them to express the flavor of his world and hint at its rich history. He even places songs in his character’s mouths, when emotion so overwhelms them that they can express themselves no other way. In the first drafts of the epic tale of Beren and Luthien Tinuviel, Tolkien wrote in ancient verse form. A story in song, full of magic, evoked fully without a single phrase of musical notation to reinforce it. Tolkien’s songs have captured the imaginations of generations of composers who have tried to set them to music.

Other authors have utilized printed scores to express the distinct synergy between the worlds of music and fantasy. Kate Thompson intersperses chapters of The New Policeman with traditional Irish melodies. Another of my favorite authors, Charles de Lint, wrote his own melodies to accompany his novel The Little Country. Just as Tolkien, a professor of linguistics, focused on the lyricism of his Elvish language, de Lint enlivens his story with a musician’s perspective. Though much of his knowledge of Celtic and folk traditions is self-taught, de Lint writes with the practiced detail of a professor of musical culture, imbuing each lengthy description of the timbre of the Northumbrian small pipes with a mystery and magic all their own.

Growing up as a blossoming musician as well as a lover of fantasy and science fiction, I was deeply enchanted by the works of both Tolkien and de Lint. I loved the exotic sounds of Tolkien’s Elvish, and I tried to learn the language to more fully appreciate the richness of his creation. With de Lint, however, the magical language was one I already knew. At fourteen, I transcribed some of the tunes from The Little Country onto tattered manuscript paper to play with different harmonies and inflections on my violin. Hearing the tunes that expressed the situations and emotions in the book unlocked for me a hidden world of deeper meaning in the story.

De Lint’s music effectively evokes the sense of old lands and tales, and immediately takes one back to the aesthetic of “the old country,” where the Green Man walks through the forest at night, and the Little People pass through the ancient standing stones, and the magic of Faerie lies just over that hill yonder, breathing the echo of a music we all recognize in our bones, the source remaining desperately elusive. I wanted to capture this feeling, to channel it and express it to the world.

This desire lingered at the back of my mind as I progressed into adulthood and attained my degree in Music. Now, I have found a place with the acoustic string band Zahatar, a music group that constantly asks “what if?” in an effort to innovate new concert experiences for audiences. They were willing to take a chance with me, and more astoundingly, so was Charles de Lint! With the author’s blessing, I have taken the sixteen melodies printed in the appendix of The Little Country and arranged them into full songs, adding parts for a six-piece Celtic ensemble. (You can learn more about the project here.) From the fiddle bow sending clouds of magic rosin dust into the air to the sweet nostalgia of the viola line to the soaring melodious cello, on to the pixie-esque strums of the Celtic harp and the fluttering fairy wings of the flute, and the mourning song of the pennywhistle and the incessant call of the drums, demanding a dance, a handclap, a heartbeat. This is magic brought to life.

We have a unique opportunity now to capture the magic of this music in a recording. It is my dream to share the sounds of the story that people have been reading for two decades.

Everything up to this point has seemed to move in slow motion and yet instantaneously. I can imagine that’s often the case for adventurers on a journey; the road can be long and hard, but passion drives you, and when you reach your destination, part of you still wishes for the journey, realizing then that the journey is the destination. The journey is home. It is my hope that others will share in this particular journey, so we all can bask in the shine of an otherworldly triple sun, and smile to ourselves at the dust of the traveled road smattering our feet and faces, and wave to the denizens of Faerie as we pass by hill, stone, and tree, in search of the lost music. I can still hear it – it’s there, just over the next rise, on the other side of that green hill there. I’ll meet you there soon. And over a fire and under twilight, we’ll share stories of the strangeness of the world. Through song.