Music from Mars?
Together with Little Willie and Hoover Street Gym, Battlescarred is also an “epic” song, but of a different kind.
It is not exaggeration to say that Geoff’s Battlescarred has been years in the making. A fighter’s surprisingly humble legacy, Battlescarred was the ultimate challenge to The Pugilist album. So how, and where to begin?
Trained in the classical tradition, which -could you believe? – still remains very classical, I am by nurture very ill disposed towards orchestral arrangements of “popular” music. Biased as this may sound, and it is a bias, the thick and over-orchestrated arrangements of otherwise great pop and rock pieces I have heard throughout the years passed, do very little to dispel my misgivings. And yet, Battlescarred, then only a bass and guitar draft, with a silly electronic drum beat at the back, supporting some of Geoff’s most accomplished lyrics, asked for a new approach.
By that time Thell’s songs had already been mixed. His clear and calm dialogues contrasting with Geoff’s emphatic narrative of hard-boxing training sessions and tough fights. Geoff’s voice, not by accident, sounding like broadcasted right out from the gym. How to match that? How to instill the right spirit to Battlescarred, how to make it sound like a boxing contest with life, and not another victim’s plight in the face of unconquerable fate? (Who, mortal, can win the ultimate fight in any case? And who can suffer to be reminded of it!). No. Not another “look at me, pity me”. And so we sat down and decided on a different approach: an orchestral arrangement, yes, but one that represented at the same time a new composition, applying techniques commonly used by composers, but without the usual tearjerking (or bombastic) cliches: no neeeeh, naaaaah, neeeeeh, nor boooom, pah, bahm! Or at least not much of it, who can tell what these arrangements may sound like in different ears.
The first thing to do was to choose a motif, a building block that I could use to structure the song. It had to come from Geoff´s own melody, otherwise it may sound odd, or worse, artificial. The obvious choice was the very first bars: Weary worn and battlescarred, with no place left to go… this melody is first heard on the vibraphone (and a faint echo in the marimba), the first few bars in the strings being simply an inversion of this, augmented in irregular intervals. I wanted a clean orchestral sound, but one that would sound like the records I used to play in my old hi-fi, pure luxury at the time, with a low-mass needle and automatic arm! I remember listening to classical recordings conducted by Otto Klemperer, Herbert von Karajan, and (my favorite) the passionate and unpredictable Leonard Bernstein. Those records are now scratched and worn out by use, the hi-fi an antique beyond help, but their sound is still alive somewhere inside of me. It is possible that even before I sat down to write the sequences, even before I decided what to do, an imaginary low-mass needle had already found the groove and begin to play the music for me.
Classical music, maybe better called orchestral music, is still very much alive in films and video games today. The style id usually that of 19th century romantic composers and classical revivalists. It sounds fine, and some of it is of exceptional musical quality, but I wasn’t sure it would do for Battlescarred. I was skeptical about inserting Geoff’s verses into a mammoth composition, where they would sound out of context. I had to weave his sentences in and out of the musical textures, composing the music in and around Geoff’s melody and words, constructing a musical shape that didn’t sound “square”.
There are different ways in which that could be achieved, but it all revolves around maintaining the continuity without boring the listener. Not easy. In a movie, for instance, the music is always aided by the image. The sweeping melodies and percussive events are there to intensify our emotional response and not, as in the orchestral music of the past, to offer a structured musical experience to the listener. Nowadays this is what songs do. The shape of a song is an undemanding game of contrast in which there is an A theme and a relatively catchy B theme, or simply a musical tag plodding along with the theme. The songs for musicals or some high budget films are different. Here other techniques come into play that allow the songwriter to extend the music without sounding too repetitive. These techniques usually circle around what we call modulations, or changes in the pitch and musical scales that enable the music to jump from one area to another using the same material. Some of these songs are true masterworks of craftsmanship on the part of their writers.
The problem with this approach is that in Battlescarred Geoff’s melodies don’t modulate, changing pitch and scale. They are to be heard more like a poem, in which a recurring sentence or motto begins or ends every verse:
Weary worn and battlescarred
With no place left to go.
Hardened to life’s miseries
No tears left to flow.
And this called for a different approach once again.
In the end I used a technique call variations, in which a melody is gradually transformed while, at the same time, sent to different groups of instruments. An instrumental interlude that begins around 2’45” or so would be responsible for adding the soundscape required by the title of the song, a kind of sound battlefield where the listener is asked to reflect on what she or he has heard so far.