Writing the Score of Pope Joan


by Christopher Moore

Of all the questions I am asked about my involvement with POPE JOAN, after the subject matter itself, the most frequent area of interest is the music and the process of composition.

As I write this diary entry, I am in residence at Ragdale, a writers' colony in Lake Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. It is exactly two years to the week that POPE JOAN was born during my first Ragdale residency. So at the moment, I am very aware of the mechanics of my creative process as I begin the writing of my new show, FRANKENSTEIN.

From its inception, I had always planned for POPE JOAN to be a musical. One of the resons for this is that I believe that theatre is basically ritual, and the best ritual has always contained some musical element. Also, I tend to always hear the musical possibilities in most stories that intrigue me, because the dark material I tend to be attracted to often contains complex or unpleasant political/moral/sexual attitudes. I believe that musical drama can help an audience relate to these issues on a basic, "gut" level, and thus allow them to make a journey with the characters to places their intellect might not accept, or even might reject outright.

I think that, because my musical sound is essentially an accessible one, my biggest musical influences are Top 40 pop and post-1970 musical theatre. I am particularly suited to write dark musicals with popular scores. In order to keep the POPE JOAN score from being a generic clutch of pop tunes, however, I imposed a set of musical conventions on the the score.

These were the areas I addressed:

PERIOD SOUND -- There was really no way to write this story as a musical and be accurate to music as it existed in 855. Not only was the modern concept of harmony unknown at this time -- the very concept of polyphony was barely in existence. Even the medieval sound that modern listeners associate with Gregorian chant was several hundred years down the road in terms of musical development. A night of authentic "Dark Ages" music would have been a very long night indeed for modern ears! Therefore, I would need to incorporate some of the "flavor" of this sound without being truly accurate.

ANACHRONISMS -- As is obvious from the comments on period sound, my musical anachronisms are many -- and as deliberate as they are unavoidable. Therefore, the only stylistic boundaries I imposed on myself were that there would be no out-and-out rock sounds, and no ethnic sounds that are non-European -- that is, Latin rhythms, blues, jazz, or outright musical comedy "Tin Pan Alley"-type tunes.

MOTIFS AND MODES -- I think a well-written score ought to have a musical subtext, the way a good drama or actor's performance does. Therefore, there are musical elements built into the POPE JOAN score that may not be readily identifiable to the lay listener, but which give it a cohesion it would otherwise lack.

Most of the "religious" music in the score is based on the natural E-minor scale, or Phrygian mode, and its modern counterpart, the key of E-minor. This scale was chosen for several reasons. It sits in a very comfortable place for the major vocal ranges. For those who accept that different keys have individual "personalities," E-minor has a distinctly mournful (but also majestic) quality. Phillip Glass based Gandhi's big aria in SATYAGRAHA completely on a repetition of an ascending natural E-minor scale. For me, this scale symbolizes the stability of the entrenched power of the Church, and all that is good and bad implicit in that.

If we lower the fifth step of the E-minor scale a half-step, we get the note B-flat. Musicologically, the "creation" of B-flat was a very significant event. The whole notion of sharps and flats (also called "accidentals") is essentially the dividing line between modern -- or scale-based -- Western harmony and the older "modal" music -- which the eight-note patterns were based on, and using exclusively the white keys of the piano. (Obviously, the piano post-dates the modes, but it is the easiest way to illustrate the point.) B-flat was the first accidental recognized as "legitimate" by early musical authorities, who -- not shockingly -- happened to be the Church. This "permission" was granted to avoid a particular "interval" occurring in one of the more frequently used modes. (Intervals are the particular relationships of distance between notes, either consecutively or sounded together.) The interval in question was the tritone -- more technically, the augmented 4th/diminished 5th. This interval was literally known as the "devil's music," probably because it is the most obviously dissonant interval. Its use was strictly forbidden in the Church's music for hundreds of years. So, of course, I saw B-flat both as a metaphor for the first crack in the Church's orthodoxy, and also as its own potential for transformation and renewal into a new structure, if it chose to avail itself of same. The "devil's music" could become the music of the New Age. If only they saw it that way!

This set of musical relationships between E-minor and B-flat inform much of the score. All of the music sung by the Holy Ghost is in E-mnor. The opening number, "This Church Will Stand," begins tonally ambiguously as the early Church leaders struggle to identify themselves. Is it E-minor or E-major? A-minor? Finally, we reach the musical phrase, "Once a cult -- the result," and we hear the word "Church" for the first time on a B-flat chord. This chord provides a very stately and "churchy" effect, but is actually setting up a series of chord progressions which lead to the first modulation -- into, of course, the key of B-flat.

In "Sad and Tragic History," the plotting cardinals sing in the key signature of E-minor with a prominent B-flat dissonance illustrating their sneaky and "devilish" ways.

Joan's first song, "Another Rome," is in E-minor to suggest that beneath the Church's glory is a sadder, poorer reality that simultaneously exists. There is deliberately no B-flat in this number, since Joan has not yet reached a point of personal transition or tranformation. This transforming moment does occur in "This is the Hour," when Joan has accepted the papacy. At the momentof transubstantiation of the Eucharist, she accepts that she too has been transformed. In E-minor, Joan sings a B-flat on the word "undone" (as in "I am transubstantiated, transformed, my sex undone ..."). In her transformation lie the seeds of her "downfall."

There is also a musical progression to the Joan-Louis relationship. Louis' first song, "My Priest," begins in B-flat minor (the "dark" side of B-flat). By Joan and Louis' duet, "Stand With Me," the verse is in B-flat minor, but the chorus proceeds to its relative major, D-flat, illustrating that from the darkness of their pasts, there is the possibility of "light" emerging. In fact, the last line of the song becomes the first line of Joan's anthem, "A Thousand Years From Now," sung in a very traditional D-flat.

The "healing" chords, heard first when Joan heals her father, and later when she heals the dead child in the marketplace, are always heard ascending until "Pray With You," when Lucius sings his verse against them as they descend, to foreshadow that Joan will not be able to heal him later.

While musical structures like these can be imposed on a score with great results, I have to say that there is not and never will be a substitute for a good tune. I have abandoned some intellectual constructs when the power of the music served the moment, whether or not it fit into some overall scheme. Melody is still the first and best reason to see or hear a musical. Otherwise, why sing at all? It's the people who sing -- not the helicopters or the chandeliers.

Mr. Moore may be contacted at christopher@orlok.com

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