Notes on the Necromantic Symphony

—Yoon Ha Lee—

a few introductory remarks

"untitled" (detail)—Darin C. Bradley
          Honored guests,
          Few reliable records have survived of the premiere of Mrod Zogorith's last and greatest work, the Symphony No. 36 in Mode 9. Zogorith herself vanished after the performance, and morbid rumors in its wake caused the wags to dub it the Necromantic Symphony. It is likelier that Zogorith fled the region during the subsequent Siege of Taruon, or was killed.
          The recovery of the symphony's urtext has enabled us to reconstruct a definitive edition, which the Taruon City Symphony will present tonight in honor of the Treaty of Five Hands and five decades of peace between our nations.

          Ailit Egarin. Mrod Zogorith's lover and primary biographer, although the tumultuous nature of their relationship means that his notes are frequently suspect. Egarin's account is most valuable with regard to Zogorith's art, for his admiration of her music appears to have been genuine and untainted by envy. Egarin himself was an archaeologist whose endeavors were financed by an indulgent family of merchants. His sensitivity to musical form suggests that he might have made a gifted musician, but there are no indications that he considered taking such a path.
          Egarin and Zogorith were estranged before the symphony's premiere, but by all accounts he was distraught after Zogorith's disappearance. He lived on another twenty-three years, becoming a noted patron of the arts upon inheriting his family's wealth.

          The Hall of Teeth. The concert hall that hosted the symphony's premiere. The hall was valued for its ability to render mute anyone who attempted to speak while a performance was underway. After several people died in a fire that could have been prevented had someone been able to alert others, audiences of Zogorith's time were provided with whistles. The reconstructed hall has no such properties, of course. To avoid distractions during the performance, we have elected not to provide you with similar whistles, although you may purchase them at the gift shop on your way out.

          Kantirka Tablet. The region's oldest record of a musical composition, discovered by Ailit Egarin. He deciphered part of it with Mrod Zogorith's assistance, proving that musical notation was extant in the region at least a millennium earlier than had been generally believed. Some have argued that Zogorith derived the entirety of the symphony from the tablet. However, the tablet was on public view for a period of at least three years, during which anyone could have made similar use of it. Certainly Zogorith had her rivals, who would have decried her lack of originality if she did more than draw the occasional motif from the tablet's works.
          Although drawings and records remain of the tablet's markings, it was never fully translated. In particular, the instruments for which the Kantirka harmonies were intended are still obscure. Archaeologists do agree that the tablet describes rites intended to invoke the dead. This is no doubt one of the origins of the symphony's name.
          The remnants of the Kantirka Tablet are on display at the Hall of Teeth tonight.

          Mode 9. This mode is known not so much for its particular tones as its ritual associations in Taruon's early history. In Morienka's day it was called the archaeologist's mode or the mode of bones. Nowadays it is called the necromantic mode. Superstitious Taruonese composers today may refuse to compose in Mode 9.

          Organum. Voices accompanying in what is usually parallel motion. The symphony is unusual in that each of its organum segments has an associated number in the urtext, which does not match the number of voices. Indeed, in most cases the number is too high to correspond to the number of instruments playing that section in an orchestra even of our period; the City Symphony, for instance, has never rivaled the size of a legion. Attempts to decipher the numbers' meaning have failed. The musicians' practice scores include the numbers, but none of them have volunteered any special insights.

          Pradik. The pradik is a reed instrument peculiar to the marshland regions of Ija Vendra. Although reeds crafted from the ijan tree possess great sensitivity, even careful treatment may fail to remove all traces of its poison. The symphony's second movement opens with an elaborate duet for the pradik, often rewritten to accommodate substitute instruments. This has the possibly fortunate effect of removing the pradik's narcotic tones. During one past parade, a pradik performance sent several Taruonese guards marching off a bridge—now named the Pradik Bridge—and to their deaths.

          Urtext. The symphony's urtext went missing in the third year of Councillor Batic's reign. Morienka's recordkeeping was notoriously poor, but the manuscript was probably lost when the Citadel of Teeth fell. Although an anonymous collector returned the urtext to the Taruon City Symphony, it is not known how the manuscript survived the siege.

          Wolf tone. An off note. Zogorith's notes in the final movement's solo for viola add, "Any wolf will do."

          Mrod Zogorith. Zogorith was a native of Taruon who drew much of her inspiration from ancient musical traditions. During her lifetime, her sometime lover uncovered the Kantirka Tablet, the oldest surviving record of a musical composition in the region. Although much of the tablet was damaged during the Siege of Taruon, Zogorith's notes and those of her contemporaries indicate that she incorporated some of its themes into her symphony.
          Zogorith's genius was recognized during her lifetime, but her eccentricities meant that she frequently lost patrons and spent periods of her life destitute, even homeless. There are years that none of her biographers can definitively account for. Her fragmentary diaries are of little help.
          Zogorith's music was in fashion during the prelude to the siege. In an unusual move, the council commissioned Symphony No. 36 at a time when most spending was diverted to military affairs. Perhaps they hoped that Zogorith's well-known patriotism—she steadfastly refused even to conduct outside her home city—would prove influential. Indeed, the second movement is martial in its rhythmic inflections.
          The orchestra never completed the final movement during the premiere due to the assassination of the first violin, who was the niece of a councillor. The assassin, who was apparently unfamiliar with the Hall of Teeth's defensive mechanisms, lost his voice and one hand. The performance was called off.
          At first the public assumed that Zogorith retreated from view in a rage—she had a notorious temper—but she never appeared again. This fact and the discovery of an unidentifiable skeleton in the Hall of Teeth five days before the siege began led to rumors that Zogorith had attempted to extend her life unnaturally, only to have it backfire on her when the symphony was interrupted. To confuse matters further, the skeleton itself vanished during the siege. Rumors abounded of instruments spontaneously burning when they were brought to the Hall of Teeth, phantom wind sections marching along the city's walls during the height of the siege, wolves howling with human voices, and the dead rising to sing in counterpoint. At least one of these notions can now be disproven; we know that the dead prefer organum.
          Whatever Zogorith's true fate, her style has remained influential. To date her symphony has never been performed in full, in the increasingly unlikely hope that she would return to conduct. Tonight we present it in full so that we may present the best of Taruon's musical traditions to you.

          We hope these notes have illuminated your understanding of the symphony's history. Please relax and enjoy the experience that awaits you.

Yoon Ha Lee's work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Helix. She plays piano and composes in her spare time.

content Copyright 2007, Yoon Ha Lee—All Rights Reserved
image, "untitled" Copyright 2006–2007, Darin C. Bradley—All Rights Reserved