The Olympus Surprise Song

This is  not  what writing is like all the time.

This is not what writing is like all the time.

Writing is taxing work. I can spend hours on a single section of dialogue choosing, re-choosing, deleting, re-ordering words, and still end the day feeling like I barely made a step forward. Writing music with lyrics gets even more complicated because there is the added aural dimension which will affect mood, atmosphere and story. What key? What's the tonality? When should notes rise and fall? Which words should be emphasized? Am I emphasizing the correct syllables as if the words were spoken? This laboring over details makes up the majority of my work when I write songs - toiling over rhyme, meter and melody as if trying to solve a riddle, often leading to frustration, but usually resulting in a rewarding finish if I stick with it.

And then there are the surprise songs.

These are the song moments in my shows that come together as if by magic on the first go. The songs that show me why people came to believe in Muses as angelic voices inspiring people to write, paint, perform.  They often end up with a depth or flow that I could not have imagined when I first set about writing them. And each of my shows so far has had at least one surprise song. Below, I discuss the development of one of them.

"I Used To Weave" from Tales of Olympus
I knew I wanted to include the story of Athena and Arachne when I was conceptualizing Tales. The problem with adapting the myth, however, was that Athena is completely justified in punishing Arachne for her pride and insults against the gods. So I asked the questions "What if Arachne really was a better weaver than Athena? What if transforming Arachne into a spider was a result of Athena losing her composure and acting impetuously?" And then this question came, which set the tone of the song: "What if Athena has not been able to weave ever since the 'Arachne incident,' because the act is a nagging reminder of her lowest moment?"

Then came the opening lyrics "I used to weave..."

Calliope (Chrissy Brooks), Zeus (Steven Shear), Hermes (Min Kahng) and Aphrodite (Lauren Spencer) tell Athena (Michelle Drexler) she's not so bad.

Calliope (Chrissy Brooks), Zeus (Steven Shear), Hermes (Min Kahng) and Aphrodite (Lauren Spencer) tell Athena (Michelle Drexler) she's not so bad.

This set-up allowed the song to have layers. We get to know Athena as a fuller character, and more importantly as a flawed character. In regards to character arc: by singing "I Used To Weave" Athena is finally giving in and telling a story, when previously she sat to the side, unwilling to participate. There is also a key revelation about the relationships on Olympus. At the end of the song, the other gods console Athena, showing for the first time that this dysfunctional, leftover group of gods is really a family of sorts. The song also contains some of my favorite lyrics:

Now I'm best of who's left
But I've lost all the joy
Of creating a blanket, a scarf or a sleeve
And each spider I see is a reason to grieve
I used to weave...

There's something about the words best, left, lost, blanket, scarf, sleeve, spider and grieve with their blended, recurring consonants and their simplicity. This combined with the sense of loss and regret with which the words are sung (performed masterfully by both Michelle Drexler in the world premiere, and by Rebecca Pingree for the staged reading) pulls at my heart in a way that's difficult to describe, except to say I am moved.

"I Used To Weave" is my favorite song in Tales of Olympus. It has also remained largely unchanged from its original draft, which is understandable: Surprise songs, formed from an outflow of sudden inspiration, usually don't need major revisions.

Posted on December 11, 2013 and filed under Composition, Creative, Musical Theater, Performing Arts, Thought, Writing.