We talk nowadays about the cyberspace “cloud.” Back when this ghost story takes place, there were no personal computers. But you could say that there I was, in a half-asleep state, downloading music from the Cloud.
The songs came in fragments. I would be aware that these were assignments, to be developed and finished when I was awake. Sometimes I would be afraid of forgetting the material. The musical phrase or a lyric would obligingly repeat and repeat until I’d committed it to memory. Then I was free to wake up, whereupon I’d start work right away, notating the music or jotting the lyrics, eventually building a song around them.
My grandpa’s music, which was written before World War I, had a heavily romantic feel flavored by chromaticism (he idolized Sibelius, a fellow Freemason; they both wrote ceremonial music for the brotherhood, which my grandfather also published). For the most part he wrote art songs for piano and voice, and choral music.
But the music I was channeling from the Cloud didn’t sound like his. It wasn’t that much like mine either. The songs I’d recorded on my two albums for RCA were, loosely speaking, pop songs. While I wrote them initially on the piano, they were meant to be played with electric bass, drums, etc. This new material didn’t fit anywhere. (To see what I mean, you can download one of them, Sleeparound Town, from my website sarahkernochan.com.)
The other weird thing was, they were all in the voices of pre-adolescent kids. Four of them so far.
It was the fifth song that pushed me to the edge. It was the fevered stream of consciousness of a kid sitting through a Protestant Sunday service while remembering the horror movie he’d seen at the Saturday matinee. I received the music in a hopeless jumble, because the horror movie music was threaded together with the church music. The kid identifies with the persecuted monster, a reviled misfit, which he then confuses with the persecuted Christ.
The kid feels like he’s going crazy. And so was I, being stuck inside his psyche. The words to the song came out in a rush after waking, but the music was fiendishly difficult to write. Snippets of hymns like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “Turn Back O Man,” or the priest’s call and response, collided with scary Theremin howls. The piano part was beyond my abilities as a pianist, so I had to write out every note slowly, and then write a second keyboard part, which was supposed to be a church organ. Then there was the solo kid, backed by another four voices, kids in the church choir. It took me days to write the score for Creature From the Last Off-ramp.
I was still living at my parents’, though I’d moved my piano and rudimentary two-track recording equipment into an outbuilding a few steps away from their house. The only way I could hear what I’d written was to play or sing each part, bouncing back and forth between the two tracks as I recorded, until all the voices and keyboard parts were layered.
At the end of all that effort, I was crushed. The playback didn’t sound like what I’d heard in my head. I was also making a ferocious racket, banging away on the piano deep into the night, trying to master what I’d written. I got pissed-off calls from my father to for God’s sake go to bed. I could tell that he (a composer, too, remember) thought the music was nerve-flayingly awful. My exhausted appearance didn’t inspire confidence, either. I had a wild-eyed, hypomanic aspect, and I stank of psychosis.
It was too humiliating to see my mom and dad trade anxious glances; they were clearly wondering if I was on drugs or irretrievably wigging out. So I called a halt to the whole enterprise.
No more, Grandpa.
I was done as a medium to his message. I didn’t want to write any more music. What was the point? No one wanted to record, publish, or even listen to a collection of art songs from some 12-year-olds’ point of view.
I was angry and felt used. I’d taken to talking to my grandfather out loud. I told him to back off and leave me alone.
Things calmed down, then. The mad shoveling of song material into my dream state stopped. I titled the score Songs of Puberty and put it away. I would not return to composing for a long while.
Nevertheless, he didn’t leave me alone.
(To be continued.)
- I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.