What does love sound like?
Yes, it is the middle of February, the time such questions sound particularly twee, but I’m asking in a literal sense. What does love sound like?
This ballet project is quite humbling. Scoring or arranging a piece of music for orchestra isn’t like writing a piece of music at all. I know how the music goes, but now I’m figuring out what it sounds like. It’s the difference between writing a script and having a performance. How many violins it takes to make a “twirling around looking up at the sky as a little kid” sound. 8, by the way…it takes eight, apparently.
Emotion is even more difficult to transcribe than action, because it’s so personal, and love is the most personal emotion. So I’ve tried pianos, an English horn, a vibraphone, a harp, and a muted trumpet as the lead instrument in the second movement of the ballet. Ok, all of these are digital. I mean, I play a few instruments but I’m not Buckaroo Banzai yet. See, I’ve invested in a few virtual orchestras, computer software with recordings of actual instruments being played by virtuoso musicians which offer, in some cases, extremely granular nuances of tone and virtuosity that you can play with. So at least ONE of these sounds should sound like love, right?
There’s love and there’s fear, those are the only things there are. What about hope? Love. What about anger? Fear, duh, it’s like you didn’t pay attention to Yoda at all. But we’re all a little more… familiar with fear. Case in point: we all know exactly what fear sounds like.
Bum Bum Baaaaaaahh!
Buh Dup Buh Dup Buh Dup Buh Dup.
We can all hum fear, right off the top of our heads; minor diminished chords, that shriek-y thing from the string section, very very low slow brass. And then the synthesizers, and the super echoey sounds. Oh! Oh! And the CHILDREN SINGING LAs. Not the Danny Elfman fast LAs, but the singsong super innocent ones coming down the dark hallway in a little white vintage dress.
la la la la la la la la
Grown Men run away from those LAs. In my experience the thin line is the darkness. One night my kid was singing sweetly to herself in her bed as I was saying goodnight to her I kissed her on the head and turned off the light. And she kept singing. In the dark now. And there was just a little second there where I thought she was going to eat my face. She must sensed my terror, because she stopped singing, and with genuine heartfelt concern said in the ABSOLUTELY SWEETEST VOICE EVER (in the dark)
“What’s the matter, Daddy?”
I didn’t run. They get you if you run. For sure. But I did turn a light on. Kept it on all night. It was like a slumber party.
Yep. Fear is a soundtrack that’s easy to recognize. Also super easy to make now; I just got a software update that came with four digital instruments designed to do nothing but make scary wind noises and dissonant freak-you-out sounds. And there are loads more of these things you can buy, because there’s a great demand for it now if you’re a composer doing soundtracks. Think of all the spooky shows on tv… then list a few love shows. Is that even a thing? A love show? Romantic comedy I guess…how many of those are still on?
The soundtrack of fear is inspiring new advances in technology, while the musical instruments of love don’t really seem to be evolving all that much. There’s the acoustic guitar, and the piano in the right hands (or with the right hands on top of it), and the human voice (if it’s in a reasonably well lit room). In the 80s, there used to be saxophone music; oh yeah, that was the love throw down. A sax solo? What? Forget it, it’s over, we’re heading right to a chapel from this dance floor. Or laundromat. That music was everywhere.
I do play the alto sax, but not like that. There was never a chance of anything romantic happening while I was rocking the golden tin Bundy. I don’t think those student saxes are capable of playing love music – they must have some sort of regulator or governor in them to keep the youths from being corrupted.
So what to do. For the ballet, I decided that an English horn, when played well, sounds like happiness to me. A vibraphone sounds like childhood. A piano sings of time. But love, as mentioned before, is personal, and can sound like anything, really. I’ve written love songs. They never seemed to work out. Well, one did, once.
When I was about 22 I went to a birthday party in a large shared flat in San Francisco. The person who invited me introduced me to the host, a young woman who had the very specific problem of wanting to let her girlfriend know how much she loved her.
“Let’s write her a song” I said, because, me.
It was her girlfriend’s birthday party. I didn’t know either of them, but the young woman brought out a guitar, and we both sat in her kitchen, and she told me all about how she felt; how they’d both been hurt, how she had never been able to express her emotions before but now she could, but only while her girlfriend was sleeping… she’d whisper how very much she loved her into her slumbering ear. When they were both awake, face to face, she was much too scared to say anything.
So that’s what I wrote the song about. I played it for her about 20 minutes later; she sat silent for about a second and then, without another word, ran out of the room and came back with her girlfriend, who was understandably concerned about the stranger in the kitchen with the guitar. I introduced myself as her birthday card, and sang the song for the very second time while they held hands, and cried a little, and at the end I said “Happy Birthday” and walked right out.
Love is personal. It’s not that nobody knows what love sounds like, it’s that only you know what love sounds like to you – and when you recognize the music, it could be metaphorically played on any instrument at all. Except, as previously discussed, a children’s chorus, because that is eternally terrifying.