Setting the Mood
Notes from our resident composer.
Deep, Dark Woods
Peaceful Heart, Warrior Spirit
Serafim: When we were recording Peaceful Heart, Warrior Spirit, I already knew I wanted to create something shaped by the idea of a journey or path. I imagined somebody in a hooded cloak on the journey of a lifetime, trying to reach the source of wisdom and balance, in the case of your dad. I felt a strong pull toward the type of music that you associate with the desert or a trek to a mountain peak, something with a little mystique, something eerie, that sense of anticipation, even a worried quality to it. I decided that the composition would have two voices, one lower, deeper, associated with Socrates.
Sierra: So you were thinking about this dialogue between the student and mentor?
Serafim: Yes. And then the second voice would be higher, more sprightly, less calm, more eager. I did some experiments over weeks and arrived at a certain sound or vibe. And then I showed it to you. I felt that it still needed something. Do you remember how you felt?
Sierra: At this point, my typical reaction is to be wowed by the sounds you’ve created and the way you’re layering them together. But it also made me think a lot about the complexity of music and the way [when it comes to audiobooks] it’s asked to do a pretty big job in a very short amount of time. This is not movie music; we’re talking 30 seconds at most under the opening/closing credits and yet it has incredible power. They talk about an image being 1,000 words but I think that 30 seconds of music could be…100,000 words?
Serafim: People say ‘setting the tone’ when talking about literature, even though tone is technically a musical term.
Sierra: Good point. I think the immediate feedback I gave you was just that I felt it was a little too dark. It fascinated me the way you’d hooked into these slightly darker themes in the memoir, but I thought there was another dimension that was maybe missing.
Serafim: I think I felt the same way but you articulated it very constructively.
Sierra: After you worked on it more (which I know you’d always planned to do) and then came back to me, it was still there—this journey through a dark wood—but then you come out of that. There’s this feeling of hope, first this conviction that you would come out of it, and then this incredible vista.
Peaceful Heart, Warrior Spirit
Sierra: When you sat down to work on Peaceful Heart, Warrior Spirit, do you get any ideas from the music you did for previous books? What is the first thing you lay down that becomes the anchor point for what you’re coming back to?
Serafim: My intention, my obsession, really, is to learn to perform on my modular synthesizer as effortlessly as on the cello. So my aspiration is to be able to pick it up and, for each musical idea, to know exactly what cables I connect where to get that particular sound. Right now I’m very far from it.
Because this is very new territory for me, I have to go dig through the manuals, watch video tutorials, and things like that to get even remotely to a type of sound that I want. That is the beauty of modular: creating this sound that lends itself to a lot of exploration and a lot of happy accidents. On the way to a particular sound in your head, you might stumble upon a sound that will just sort of fit.
Sierra: So it sounds like you have to draw on instinct and imagination when you’re going on these sonic journeys?
Serafim: Yes. The way I usually start my composition is I lay down a pattern of some sort. I had to really search for the pattern that I created for Peaceful Heart, Warrior Spirit. As I experimented with different elements surrounding the pattern, unexpected things happened, just because I turned the dial in a certain way. I definitely made a lot of twists and turns and detours in my search.
Watch Serafim perform an extended version of music from the audiobook Land: A New Paradigm for a Thriving World.
Listen to music from:
That’s Your Cue
Serafim: I was originally intending to find some stock music and I remember your saying ‘Why don’t you compose something?’
I was surprised to hear you say that. I always liked recording and as a cellist, I would sometimes just make up melodies, but I never envisioned myself as a composer. So having been given a very specific task, which was finding music appropriate for Daisy Miller, I immediately found myself thinking about the temperature, the ambiance, the vibe of the book and I started from just recording in the booth.
Sierra: Oh, that’s right, you actually took your cello into the whisper room! Which is hard, because it is tiny tiny. So you recorded cello using the same microphone that I narrate to—then what did you do with that?
Serafim: I layered multiple instances of me playing cello on top of each other: I did a pizzicato (plucking) and then I did another pizzicato, and then the melody—because there needed to be some texture and I thought that having a sort of cello choir would be really effective there. For Four Meetings, I felt that it needed something a little more mysterious, so I actually went into my library of electronic sounds and found an electronic pattern.
Sierra: When you say your ‘library of electronic sounds,’ what is that?
Serafim: I had, over the years, been collecting interesting sounds, downloading them.
Sierra: See, I didn’t even know about this. Have you used these for anything before?
Serafim: Not really, I was just playing around with them.
Sierra: So, literally for years, non-composer you has just been collecting sounds just for no particular reason?
Serafim: Well, sometimes—like me and Misha [older brother] used to make music and I always liked fooling around with different sounds, just for my own pleasure. But I had this type of sound that I thought was very appropriate for Four Meetings, this percussive pattern, and then I added the cello…
Sierra: Wait, I know this part—then you decided to build your own synthesizer. When exactly did you look up and say ‘Oh I should do more of this—I’m going to learn this whole thing’?
Serafim: I think it was probably during Four Meetings because I realized, I have this library of sounds, I have the ability to enhance the cello with all these interesting electronics, and we decided that for each of the books, I will be creating a little musical piece. And I thought: Well, wouldn’t that be great if I can create a way to perform these pieces live? Because what I liked best about the Four Meetings music is that this electronic sound was actually a generative type of sound, where I could play with it, so it felt like I was playing with that electronic pattern, like a moment of collaboration.
Sierra: So it’s very similar to me, voicing these different characters, and playing a game with myself.
Serafim: Yeah, so then I thought: Rather than using a library of sounds that somebody created, that I can’t really change, wouldn’t it be cool if I could actually create my own sounds? And that led me to the modular synthesizer, which is an analog instrument. I still use the computer to record but I have this physical instrument that I’m interacting with in addition to my cello, a musical collaborator. So, for the next pieces of music, all the sounds will be created by me.
Sierra: I can’t help but think, hearing this story in this way (because obviously I’m living right next to you while it plays out), that it sort of cements for me this idea I’ve had, that with certain things in our lives, we can’t approach them directly, we have to sort of crab-walk toward them, sometimes over years.
Serafim: And it also takes encouragement. You encouraged me to take something that I had already been fooling around with and actually create something specific that exists for others.