Music is the universal language: it does not matter that the words are occasionally lost on us, because it is the feeling that matters, and feelings do not change whether they are in Chiropolene or ka-Khastan or Jiao Qinese. A sense of wonder does not require translation.
In the course of editing The Heretic’s Guide to Homecoming, I scrapped over 50,000 words. Whole scenes, whole locales, whole characters were scrubbed from the narrative for the sake of telling the most cohesive story possible. There are only a few things that made it all the way from the very first draft to the completed work–the above quote is one of them.
This is the first hint that I care for music as much as I care for writing.
I have an odd relationship with music: I’m blessed with sharp ears and cursed with unskilled hands. I inherited my father’s perfect pitch and spent most of my childhood receiving extensive ear training in the form of what we lovingly called ‘torture sessions’–picture a nine year old girl sitting in her parents’ home studio, listening attentively to one unbroken run-through of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells II, and then being quizzed about the sounds and textures she’d heard. This was my education.
At the same time, to be blunt, we didn’t have the money for instruments or tutors or music lessons. Where my friends and cousins all had pianos in their living rooms, I had to sneak in practice sessions on the church piano after mass, one shy ten-minute sitting at a time. I’ve lived a long time composing melodies in my head, only to have no way to externalize them. Words are often the closest I get. It’s one reason my writing is so lyrical.
You can only imagine the eerie sense of convergence that happens when something living hitherto only in your head is suddenly alive and resonant and able to be played on repeat. You can only imagine how surreal it is, to have it leap into being that way.
I’d wished and wished for a soundtrack to accompany Heretic’s Guide, for an EP, for even one song, just one, lean and bright and full to spilling with meaning. And thanks to Sophia and Irene, I got what I wished for. Their work has given shape to the nebulous thing lurking in my head, but they’ve also added their own character and flair, coming up with musical figures and relationships and symbols I never could have dreamed of. Below, you can take a peek into their minds, and see a fraction of their genius written down for us to follow.
As for me, all I can say is this: the song sounds like the book. Like all 180,000 words of it. Like an emotional summary, delivered in the universal language. I’m very excited to see where we take it from here.
Words from Sophia Carreras
Ever since I was young, I have loved the concept of soundtrack and storytelling through music. I grew up listening to the 1967 LP of ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ a “symphonic fairy tale for children.” The narration laid over Sergei Prokofiev’s original 1936 orchestral piece explains each instrument acting as the voice or movements of each character in the story. You hear them, but you also see and feel them. I have been interested in creating these worlds ever since.
Sienna and I began collaborating musically three years ago when she shared with me the first stages of her book, ‘The Heretic’s Guide to Homecoming.’ I was taken by it. Upon meeting, we found that we are moved by so many of the same sonic ideas and travels, pointing out the same moments in songs no matter how subtle.
A lot of the time, I live in alternative tunings while working with the guitar. I’ve found that often it gives me a more expansive field to play with sonically and, at times, richer palettes with which to create characters. So, inspired by Sienna’s story and spending time with her character Ronoah, I created a tuning for him. A place for him to live and notes he could use to tell his story. The patterns would repeat and crescendo and relax. He could tell you of his anxiety, his repetitive thoughts, his feeling small, his wish for relief, to know and be stronger. And so, Sienna and I created the first version of ‘Firewalker: Ronoah’s Theme’.
With the book set for release, we revisited the track knowing it was time to complete it. Three years was time to grow. Time to play in various projects, improve myself as a musician and grow as a person. Three years was time for Sienna to create the story that she was meant to. We were both ready.
Up until then, I was lucky to have very talented musicians and producers around me to work with. But this time I was doing it on my own. So I did a fair amount of research, learned my software and gear and, for the first time, recorded and mixed a project in total on my own. This in and of itself has been such a rewarding musical experience!
One of the most special aspects of this project happened at the very end. Having completed the track for the moment, guitar, drums, stand-in piano and strings all set — enter Irene. To have someone, an incredible musician mind you, listen to something you’ve created and add to it exactly what the song is longing for… that is magic. Never having met before or talked directly about the project, Irene was able to capture the exact essence and emotion with the string section better than I could have ever imagined. This is the dream and I am infinitely grateful to them for giving so much of themself in the process.
So, across three countries, three years, and many Skype sessions, the first track from ‘The Heretic’s Guide to Homecoming’ soundtrack is here. Thank you to Sienna, Irene, and absolutely everyone who ever listened to the song and encouraged us through the process. You are all magic too.
Words from Irene Zhong
Listen. Have you ever had Chinese herbal medicine?
I drank it like water when I was growing up – apparently I was a sickly child. Depending on the blend, the medicine could smell spicy, pungent, or vaguely floral. Most mixtures were so bitter and sour that my eyes would water as I forced it down. Sugar made it worse. Healing is not easy; I learnt this lesson early on.
So I must thank Avi Silver. Brilliant, warm, compassionate Avi, an agent of the enigmatic yet generous workings of the universe, who introduced me to the wondrous world of Shale. When Ronoah walked in, heart in his hands, I saw myself in him. In his restless silences, his obsessive and destructive thoughts, the tug and pull between his desire for something more and his fear and anxiety – I’ve lived through this, I still live with its echoes. I couldn’t have been more thrilled when Sienna asked me to write a string part to his theme, which Sophia had already composed and recorded. I dived right into writing before I could dwell too much on the pressure of being the final piece to this puzzle.
Before I started, Sienna and I discussed at length about the role of the violin. The tricky thing was, it would be very easy to record a few tracks with chord notes, have a lovely sounding chorale and be done with it. Thank god, we all wanted more than that. After all, why have live strings if they’re going to be underutilised? Even in the background strings, I employed a variety of textures and expressive techniques from the rich palette of a violin, to give nuance and meaning. A warm vibrato set against the hollowness of an open string, the idiosyncratic rasps of a drifting bow – like shifting sands, like smoke. The pure tones of a harmonic slicing through the air. Even when it’s quiet, it’s still speaking to you.
‘Melody’ is a funny label, in this case, since it spends a lot of the time hidden. After they heard my final version, Sienna and Avi remarked that if the guitar was Ronoah, the violin played the role of Genoveffa, his godling. I think I just laughed, because it was, miraculously, in such accordance to what I was trying to do. I wanted each phrase of the melody to ask, ‘why not?’ the sentiment growing bolder and more insistent with every iteration. The first melodic figure – a quiet, murmuring trill, before it trails away and sinks back into the ensemble – it’s the nervous flutter in your stomach, a skip in your heart before you commit to doing something fantastic or ruinous. The violin then echoes the melodic contours of the guitar, taking on a conversational yet hesitant tone. This undergoes further transformation in the last chorus, soaring higher and higher – and Sophia’s fantastic writing was no small part in this. The subtle change in rhythm gave me enough space to expand the echoing phrase of the guitar. The melody wanted to be more, and was able to get that as the guitar repeated and built tension.
The ending of the piece was perhaps my boldest choice. It was also my first choice. In Sienna and Sophia’s initial vision, the high note of the violin is sustained, maintaining a delicate and glassy texture before the guitar finished alone. The ending would be just the guitar, just Ronoah, laid bare, Sienna explained.
Just Ronoah, I thought. What a heartbreaking and familiar sentiment, that bitter disappointment when you remember you’re just you and not enough.
I decided to double down on this, leaving the guitar stranded earlier and more abruptly to accentuate its loneliness, the suspenseful waiting in between the fragments of melody. I needed this to leave an impact, to be understood. Seeing Sienna’s reaction as I called her after the first pass was confirmation that I had made the right call. She made a grand, swooping gesture with her arm as she said, ‘the melody just, swans off!’ Indeed, it did.
I couldn’t have asked for a better compass, a more judicious and creative director than Sienna Tristen. Her guidance and suggestions made sure that by the time I finished working on the piece, I could sit back, listen, and truly believe we achieved something great. We worked in very similar, intense ways that even I don’t completely understand. One thing I always had to worry about when working with many others, but never with Sienna, was being misunderstood. It was such a relief to see that I could express what I meant through music, and to see that sometimes, words weren’t necessary. Sienna used 180,000 of them to bring Ronoah to life, to weave together a journey of transformation, growth, and healing. She’s much better with words than I am.
As I worked on Firewalker, I was continuously reminded of the calibre of the artists I was working with – most of all, Sophia Carreras. A recurring thought that underpinned my string writing was that it would be a love letter to Sophia’s marvellous craft. The supporting string parts that cradled the guitar, the melodies that interacted, echoed, and played. The fact that I’ve listened to this piece a thousand times over while recording, and I still love it every bit as much as I did upon first hearing, if not more. How grateful I am, to have been able to take part in this collaboration.
I could say my end of things was over and done with in a day and a bit, but, I could also say that the process began when I read the words ‘speak of this to no one’ and thought of my own culture, and how music spoke for me for a long time, before I knew how to speak through it.
Listen. Can I be honest with you? The first thing I recorded was the zither. I retuned one of the strings (F-sharp to an F-natural), wrapped my thumb and forefinger with plectrums. The plaster was old, losing its stick. I was nervous – after all these years, could I still pull this off? Only a few quick notes, very narrow margin of error.
Hearing the zither now, as a part of Firewalker, is bittersweet, nostalgic, and beautiful. After all this time, it still sounds like home.