Evolution of a Song: The Course

So, for ten months now, my friend Thomas (of Mad, Bad, and Dangerous To Know) has been asking me to write a Thing. (Thomas may, in fact, be persistent.) The Thing being a break down of my song, The Course, which was the final and winning piece of the 2017 Northshield Bardic Competition at Warriors and Warlords (WW). Basically, the purpose is to show the evolution of the piece from conception to final product, to illustrate my writing process. Thomas was a finalist with me, and he did his own Thing after the Competition on his song When Northshield Sings of The Griffin.

And so, months & months after him, here’s my own break-down of my song, The Course.

The Competition

If you’re unfamiliar with the SCA (Society of Creative Anachronism), then go read about it. It’s an organization with a focus on recreating aspects of the Middle Ages that I’ve been more-or-less active in for 14 years (15 in September!).

In 2017, Queen Aibhilin Fhionn and King Konrad der Lowe von Ulme designed and sponsored a bardic competition to select Their, and Their Heirs’, bardic champion. The competition was in three parts. We’re skipping the first two parts, and zooming right to the third, The Mystery Challenge. The revealed format was

  • write and perform a piece (song, poem, story, etc.)
    • must be under five minutes for a song, and seven minutes for a story
    • must be upbeat
    • must have at least one joke

As originally advertised, this challenge’s rules were to have been presented at the end of the Second Challenge on Friday night, and we would have overnight to compose the Mystery Challenge. As it was, the Mystery Challenge was revealed after the Second Challenge, but in the morning of Saturday, and we had five hours to compose. And we were to perform it for evening Court.

Wee hoo, I say. Wee hoo.

One thing to know about me, is that while I have written pieces in a short amount of time before this day, it was due to things coming to together quickly, not by a looming five-hour deadline. And I’m not always a fast writer — I’ve actually had a few songs sit unfinished for more than a year. So, this, this was a challenge.

It was down to Thomas and myself. We were the finalists. We were to go head-to-head, and only one of us could be Champion. And, after our names were called, Thomas shook my hand and gave me one further criteria to meet:

  • “Kick my ass.”

Wee. Hoo.

I had one further complication that Thomas did not have: my husband and I were camping (for the first time) with our three children, all 6 and under years. And it was lunch time. With nap for the one-year-old coming directly after.  So, in reality, I had less than five hours to produce something.

Creating the Song

I was lucky. By the time I had walked back to camp I had a tune. It was upbeat and catchy, and most importantly, I liked it. I recorded it immediately on my iPad (for those curious, I used the Voice Record app).

It is common practice for me to record an initial stab at a melody. For one, I have had a melody completely leave my head, to either be lost for eternity, or to magically return to me later (Reflection is one such song — the tune and words for one line hit me in IA as I was heading down to Calontir’s Clothier Seminar, left me, and then returned to me in IA on the return trip). Second, my melodies often evolve, and it’s nice to have a reference back to the initial thought (plus, if it changes enough, I might be able to grab the unused part of the tune to create a new piece. Use all of the Caribou, folks.).

An aside: a friend once asked me how I came up with tunes. It’s a hard one to fully answer since I don’t tend to struggle with tunes. I open my mouth and start stringing notes together. Sometimes, they sound absolutely wretched. And sometimes I get something I like. Sometimes I listen to the world around me for a rhythm or noise I can work off of. Sometimes I already have a text, and I’m just trying to find something that works with it. (Which if the song is in the dróttkvætt verse form, it can be incredibly challenging, I tell you. The metre has a set syllable count, but not a regular cadence, which means the tune has to be somewhat flexible. I have made some grotesque attempts!)

Once I get something worthy of play, I just start repeating that snippet over and over until it’s lodged in my head. Then I record. Then I keep repeating it, until I feel comfortable to start riffing off it. And I record that. And I just keep singing it, and riffing, until it starts to stabilize. Sometimes the end product is similar to the beginning product, sometimes quite different.

So, great, I had a melody!

I went through my motherly duties: helping my husband gather lunch, plate the food, and make sure the children ate. And still, I had a melody! But I had nothing for words. Not a clue what I wanted the song to be about. As I took my youngest into the canvas tent for nap, I started to wonder if I should log this tune away and see if a new tune would get me further. Time was running out, after all.

I lay down, and nursed my child to sleep in the heat. Thursday and Friday at WW had been very pleasant weather, but the temperature had spiked on Saturday. And as I lay there, sweating, I longed for the water on the stand.

Hmm…. Water. Heat.

I tried a few words to the tune and the chorus to a water bearing song started forming.

For as strong as the throng that courses out to war,
stronger is the course of bearers Shielders of the warmth

So, why these words for the chorus?

Shieldings is a reference to an Old Norse designation: skjǫldungar. As defined in the Cleasby-Vigfusson Icelandic-English Dictionary (it is my go-to dictionary for Old Norse translation), this refers to “the famous lineage of the kings of Denmark”, (p. 553). The term derives from the ancient legend of Skjǫldr “shield” (in Beowulf, Sceld Scelding) who was washed upon the shore as a baby upon a shield (hence his name), and became a great king and progenitor of the Danish kings. The term can be used to refer to that ruling lineage, or for the whole of the Danes. And when I use it (or my variant Shielders, as in this song), to the folk of Northshield. I wanted to both play with the term Shielders, and play with the idea that water bearers protect fighters from the heat. I ended up using “warmth”, despite the effort needed to enunciate the word, because of how it expands the previous line’s last word, “war”. And I wanted to make as many references to water and liquid as I could, hence why I play with the word “course” — a river cuts a course, and anything like it can issue forth/course out, the course could be a path or even metaphorically a path towards a goal.

Now, in terms of the song and verses, my first decision was a no-brainer: this song was going to be in English. I am not so fluent in Old Norse to create a bardic piece quickly in that language. It usually takes me a few days or weeks to create a stanza of Old Norse poetry. When I was writing the script for Sefa Farmansdóttir’s Elevation to the Order of the Pelican (with quite a bit of Early Old Norse), it took me months to refine and perfect it. Plus, it tends to be difficult to get people to laugh at jokes in a foreign language. 😉

My second decision was whether I was going to try for one of the Old Norse poetry forms. The form I like best is dróttkvætt, but I have also written in several of the other metres. The chorus was certainly not in a Norse metre, and finally I decided that neither would the verses – I would let the melody sculpt the song’s ultimate form – but, to help keep the Scandinavian flavor, I decided to use alliteration rules.

Alliteration is the a sound at the beginning of a word that is repeated at the beginning of other words. For example, “Telling Tales of Tigers”, features three words that alliterate (all of them alliterating with the sound /t/). Alliteration was a frequent feature of Old Norse (and in general, Germanic) poetry, and can be a great aid in memorization. It was also a feature of select phrases in the Law Books.

Typically in Old Norse poetry, within a couplet, three words alliterate. In the second line of the couplet is the head-stave (hǫfuðstafr, compound noun of hǫfuð and stafr), which is the first word in the line and it signals the alliterated sound. No other word matching alliteration could be in that line. The other two alliterated words are found in the first line of the couplet, called the props (stuðlar, singular stuðill), and their position in the line is flexible. Due to the fact that the Norse terminology of alliterated words evoke posts, I like to think of alliteration as the support structure, holding up the poem.

Now the topic, as I said, was water bearing. As I crafted the verses, I found I was hitting a snag: the heat was permeating my brain and turning it to mush, and thinking up words was difficult. Only one thing for it: jot down what I can and fiddle with it later. But, there came very quickly a second snag: I was composing on my iPad, and it was beginning to overheat. So, I turned it off and tried to memorize what I could, which meant I created a little bit and just repeated it and went no further. But there was one last snag: Thomas was within ear shot, composing his own song. Luckily, I had those other snags, so I could just take a break from composing. Thank goodness I recorded my tune so it wouldn’t get jumbled against Thomas’!

As soon as my daughter woke up, I took both of us to our van and cranked up the AC. She played in the front seat while I let the cool air do its work and allow both my brain and my device’s brain boot up, and I began cranking out my verses.

I had already composed the first couple stanzas in the tent, and I composed the rest of the song in the van, messing with the couplet and verse order, trying out different combinations.

Let’s take a look at some of the verses in this first draft in detail:

01 See them take up spears, my child,
02 spy the points so sharp.
03 Foray-moons for battle’s sky:
04 fly Shielders out to war, fly Shielders out to war.

05 Stars of armor are not still,
06 streaming out a pace.
07 We shall walk behind their wake
08 and water all in war, we shall water war.

For as strong as the throng that courses out to war
Stronger is the course of Shielders of the Warmth.

09 See the thirst of soldiers, child,
10 spy the flesh so dark.
11 Forage pails of river’s milk
12 and wash them with your pail, wash away their pale.

13 Stars of armor, battle’s sky,
14 gather might for moot
15 while the bearers gather drink
16 and pour it out for you, we shall pour for you

For as strong as the throng that courses out to war
Stronger is the course of Shielders of the Warmth.

Line 03

“Foray-moon”: drawn from the period kennings meaning ‘shield’ — vígtungl and sígmáni which both translate to “battle-moon”, and tungl bǫðvar “moon of battle” (Skaldic Database). I decided on this one because Northshield has an celestial theme (the northstar, etc.). Hence also ‘battle-sky’, as a kenning for the ‘battlefield’.

A kenning is a type of metaphorical reference that replaces a word. They can be fairly straight forward, like “whale’s way” replacing ‘sea’ (the path of a whale), or they may reference mythology or cultural stories like Otter’s wergild” replacing ‘gold’.

Kenning structure links two words that are either compound (N1-N2, ex. “whale-way”) or in a genitive formation (N1s N2, ex. “whale’s way”; N2 of N1, ex. “way of the whale”). Kennings may also be nestled into other kennings, but I will skip the explanation of these complex kennings, since I keep to the simple kennings in this piece.

Line 05

Stars of armor: not based on any period kenning, but influenced by the typical “armor-tree” kenning meaning ‘warrior’ or ‘man’ and replacing “tree” for “star” to keep up the celestial theme.

Line 09-12

I wanted to hit upon heat exhaustion, especially since I’m prone to it. “Flesh so dark” referring to the blushing cheeks, but then I wanted to draw on the homophones in “pail” and “pale” so I started reconsidering after writing this…

The kenning “river’s milk” is original, and is intended to mean ‘water’, the milk of the river being its water. There are parallels to this type of swap in period kennings: hœna heiðar “chicken of the heather” standing for ‘a game bird’.

Line 13

“Moot” of course means ‘a gathering’, but was often used in kennings for ‘battle’: eggmót “edge-moot”, mót ǫrva “arrow-moot”, mót randa “shield-moot”, etc.

Line 13-16

I needed to fix this stanza — it doesn’t keep up the alliteration.

 

I kept working on the lyrics, ignoring the additional children popping up in the van, and ended up adding two more stanzas to the song, though I didn’t get another recording in (my iPad’s battery was getting low). But, the lyrics ended up as:

01 See them take up spears, my child,
02 spy the points so sharp.
03 Foray-moons for battle’s sky:
04 fly Shielders out to war, fly Shielders out to war.

05 Stars of armor are not still,
06 streaming out a pace.
07 We shall walk behind their wake
08 and water all in war, we shall water war.

For as strong as the throng that courses out to war
Stronger is the course of Shielders of the Warmth. (x2)

09 See the thirst of soldiers, child,
10 spy the flush so white.
11 Forage pails of river’s milk
12 and wash away their pale, wash them with your pail.

13 Stars of armor, battle’s sky,
14 scavenge po’er for fight
15 while the plumbers pack the drink
16 and pour it out for you, we shall pour for you

For as strong as the throng that courses out to war
Stronger is the course of Shielders of the Warmth. (x2)

17 See the bearers flowing forth
18 Feel the cool so nice
19 Soak up all the melee’s heat
20 and wick up their delight, and wick up fighter’s light.

21 Stars of buckets, battle-aides,
22 brace against sun’s might.
23 Wet the thirsty’s gratitude
24 then see them all renewed, it’s all due to you.

For as strong as the throng that courses out to war
Stronger is the course of Shielders of the Warmth. (x3)

As you can see, I made changes to Lines 10, drawing the colorization of the fighters with head exhaustion farther from the accurate red, and more towards the white to draw the parallel to the kenning of “river’s milk” in Line 11, a switch of the phrases in Line 12, changes in vocabulary in Lines 14 and 15 for alliteration reasons. And of course, the new material in Lines 17-24.

Line 21

“Stars of buckets” is a new kenning, that was drawing similarity to “stars of armor”, but this time meaning ‘water bearers’. “Battle-aides” is also intended to be a kenning for ‘water bearers’.

 

Truth was, something felt off on Lines 13-16, and I longed for better vocabulary. But, I had rather be somewhat practiced, especially knowing Baron Thomas — he would be well polished — than to use my time perfecting the piece, so I went with what I had. Perfecting the flow and practicing til there was some muscle memory were vital, especially considering the heat and the speed of the song.

A Final Snag

Practice, practice, practice. But I came across another snag. Every time I stopped repeating the song, I lost the tune. To complicate matters, this was no ordinary Court. This was Court: The Musical, and I had another song scheduled to sing for it, and I was listening to all the other songs being performed in between.

Luckily, I had recorded my song on my handy-dandy iPad! And I still had some charge on it! All that was needed was the first few seconds of tune, and I could go on from there. If anyone had been watching me in Court from the sidelines, they saw me putting my iPad to my ear after every song at Court finished, just so that I made sure I had the tune and could practice for every second available.

The Performance

Thomas went first (his performance begins at 8:40). And his performance and song were impressive. Then there was a break between his and my performance. Practice, practice, practice. Master Dahrien Cordell performed Draw Back the Bow. There might have been more Court, who can remember? The next performance was mine though (mine begins at 14:11).

I have learned that a good performer keeps performing no matter what. Rain and thunder begin, threatening to drown out the beginning of your song? Move closer, sing louder, and hope the mic picks you up (and the sound guy is awesome) and keep on singing. Feel a fly land on your face? (Yes, if you look at the video, that dot on my cheek is a fly.) Just keep on singing. The energy of the performance is one of the major things an audience responds to, and actually is more important than the words (just consider opera, or the number of otaku who learn Japanese anime songs, or Benjamin Bagby’s Beowulf). So, whatever you do, don’t stop to recover, because it breaks the energy of the piece, and you risk losing it completely (in my experience, it’s actually quite difficult to recapture it).

And if you look at my performance with a critical eye, you can see me flubbing up. My pronunciation goes wonky on a few words and I most definitely stumble on a few words. However, I kept singing and the audience stayed with me.

And I won.


 

For a less muddled recording of the song:

Also a performance from Midrealm’s Bardic Madness, Nov. 2017, for the Follow the Leader challenge:

4 thoughts on “Evolution of a Song: The Course

  1. Oh, my Gods. Eyja, this is an amazing post. Thank for it, for the song, for the performance. By the way, I have a project I’m beginning to look at, and I’d like to recruit YOU for it. Get in touch with me, please. – Fridrikr

    Liked by 1 person

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