Clandestine Convos: Chaucerian Myth

Chaucerian Myth is dead. Long live Chaucerian Myth.

Born on July 2, 2016 with the release of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucerian Myth reached its natural conclusion with Chaucerian Legends: The Epic of Beileag, Part III on March 13, 2019.

I’ve seen surprisingly little talk about it in the Dungeon Synth groups, but it’s possible that a lot of people haven’t yet picked up on the fact that the journey has come to an end. Until I asked Andrew Oliver about it directly during this conversation, I wasn’t quite sure myself. However, in some ways it seems appropriate. Even in a genre characterized by its low-key practitioners, Oliver cuts an unassuming figure that’s completely at odds with the staggering body of music he produced as Chaucerian Myth: seven full-lengths, somewhere in the neighborhood of 11.5 combined hours worth of music. But it’s not just the quantity that’s impressive – it’s the fact that every last second of it is essential listening.

I had the chance recently to chat with Oliver about literature and music, and he (unsurprisingly) proved to be a thoughtful, intelligent conversationalist. Of course, I’m slightly sad that he’s laid Chaucerian Myth to rest, a least for the time being, but I’m definitely looking forward to whatever he decides to do next.

Clandestine Sounds: Hey, so first off – thank you for the interview. I’m excited to have the chance to talk, because I think that Chaucerian Myth has one of the more intimidating discographies in all of dungeon synth. Seven albums in three years isn’t actually super-prolific by DS standards, but your albums tend to demand more of an investment from the listener than the norm, if that makes any sense. With the exception of the comparatively brief Chaucerian Legends: The Epic of Beileag, Part II, which clocks in at a mere 41 minutes, your albums tend to be at least an hour long and heavily narrative despite being entirely instrumental. Ergo, people who only listen passively to your music probably end up missing a lot.

So that may be the best place to start our conversation: when you were first conceptualizing Chaucerian Myth, did you know from the start that you wanted to do something on such a grand, ambitious scale? Assuming you didn’t accidentally make a 3.5 hour long debut album, what made you confident that you could pull something that ambitious off?

Andrew Oliver: The answer is definitely a “yes.” When I first decided that I was going to make a concept album based on The Canterbury Tales, I knew that I was going to have to do it the right way or not at all. This meant that I was determined to do a real track for each tale, no matter how long it took or how long the album would be.

I can’t say this had anything to do with confidence. To be honest, I actually wasn’t very confident at all in terms of the album’s reception or even how good it would be. I just knew that if I was going to put my time into this, then I had to do the concept justice. Thankfully, when all was said and done, I enjoyed the music on The Canterbury Tales very much, which is the most important thing for me – to make music that I would enjoy and want to listen to. That so many other people have enjoyed it as well is an amazing plus side to all of this, and it couldn’t make me happier. Doing that album and getting such a good reception definitely boosted my confidence and gave me what I felt was sort of a mandate to continue in that vein.

CS: I’ll go ahead and ask the obvious follow-up, since we’re going to end up there eventually: why Chaucer? Granted, medieval themes are omnipresent in dungeon synth, but I associate Chaucer much more closely with Brit Lit surveys and serious academic study than the sort of High Fantasy subject matter that seems to inspire most medieval synth. I also have to admit to being really surprised that you’re based in North Carolina – I thought for sure that you’d turn out to be from the UK.

AO: Well, at the time of writing The Canterbury Tales, I was getting a degree in English Literature at my university. I had recently reread The Canterbury Tales and found myself incredibly inspired. After all, Chaucer is my favorite author/poet. It made sense for me. The Tales is such a magnificently written story with so many different themes and subjects, it seemed like a perfect concept for an album. Then, of course, there’s Chaucer’s other works like Troilus and Criseyde, which is also brilliant, so I knew I had to make that into its own concept album as well. It all just kind of snowballed from there.

CS: I don’t think many people know that Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde was one of the sources that Shakespeare drew from for his play, and thus assumed you abandoned your Chaucerian focus with the second release. I thought for sure you’d abandoned it with The Faerie Queene, but I had forgotten that Spencer used Chaucer’s Rhyme Royale in some of the books.

Setting aside the Epic of Beileag trilogy for the time being, since that really deserves a series of questions of its own, the only album that I haven’t figured out how to connect to Chaucer is The Book of Margery Kempe. They lived during roughly the same time, but if memory serves Kempe was a Christian mystic – a far cry from the sort of female characters that appeared in Chaucer’s poems. How does her autobiography fit into the framework of Chaucerian Myth?

AO: Basically, after doing the Troilus and Criseyde album, I decided that I wanted to branch out and extend the scope of my work to other texts rather than just those written by Chaucer. That’s really about it. And, of course, the fact that after reading The Book of Margery Kempe I basically had no choice but to devote an album to her story. It’s an absolutely insane and enrapturing read that I highly recommend to anybody. Few people have lived such an interesting life as Margery, I think. From being beset by demonic visions to having sex with Jesus Christ, it’s really all there.

CS: She and Julian of Norwich were both fascinating figures from that time period. Sticking with The Canterbury Tales for one more question, were there any characters that you had a particularly difficult time composing a song for? The (possibly) unfinished “The Cook’s Tale”? The (allegedly deliberately) boring “The Tale of Melibee”? One of the better-known tales, like “The Wife of Bath”?

AO: “The Tale of Melibee” was definitely the most difficult for exactly the reason you mentioned. How am I supposed to make a good song out of a story that is intentionally boring? I remembered something one of my favorite high school English teachers told me: even if a prompt is boring, it is up to the writer to make it interesting. Not exactly revelatory, but it helped me out a lot at the time and still does today. In terms of most of the other tales, it was all actually very easy once it came down to actually composing the music and recording it, because my method is basically to go through whatever text I’m working on and take notes regarding how the composition will develop. Essentially, I do a lot of preparation merging the story aspects with the musical concepts ahead of time, which makes it a lot easier when I actually go to compose the thing. “The Wife of Bath” in particular was actually pretty easy. She’s my favorite character from the Tales (and Chaucer’s as well), and her story and character are so rich, it was actually difficult to limit myself in terms of ideas, but very, very easy to acquire them for the piece.

CS: I could probably ask at least ten more questions about Chaucer, but we should probably switch gears here and talk about the music. As I mentioned earlier, Chaucerian Myth is dungeon synth writ large – you make music on a grand, incredibly ambitious scale. What’s your musical background? I’d be stunned if you didn’t have at least some formal lessons or training in compositional theory.

AO: People are always surprised when I tell them that I actually don’t have any kind of formal music background at all, not even so much as a music lesson as a kid. I’m completely self-taught, but in this day and age I’m not sure how impressive that is. There are numerous resources available for free on the internet that one can use to jumpstart their own learning if they don’t have access or resources to any kind of musical education, as I myself did not.

CS: It’s definitely impressive. How long have you been playing? Was keyboard your first instrument, or did you start with something else?  

AO: To be completely honest, very little of my music is actually played on a keyboard, and I’m not very good at playing keyboards at all beyond some basic stuff. For Chaucerian Myth, I write out the sheet music notation in a program called Musescore, then when it’s completed I export the piece as MIDI files and import it into a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), where I do things like choose the VSTs (Virtual Studio Technology) and soundfonts and all the mixing.

My first instrument was the guitar, but really the bass guitar is the only instrument I’m somewhat proficient in at the moment. I have pretty bad arthritis in my hands and wrists, which makes playing any instrument proficiently a bit difficult for me.

CS: Oh wow… so it sounds more like you taught yourself how to read music than to play. Considering how many musicians rely on tablature these days instead of learning to sight-read, that truly is impressive. When I used the word ‘composing’ earlier, I was doing so as a synonym for ‘songwriting,’ but that does seem like a more apt description of your process. I don’t know if you’ve given it much thought, but do you consider yourself to be more in the mold of someone like Bach than any of your Dungeon Synth contemporaries?

AO: I definitely don’t see myself being comparable to Bach, who was uncontroversially a genius few today can hope to compare to (myself definitely included). Nor do I see myself as being better than my fellow dungeon synth artists. Indeed, there are others in the scene that can read and write sheet music more proficiently than I do, who know more music theory, and who compose at a far higher level than myself.

When speaking of such artists, I absolutely must draw attention to Adam Matlock, the true musical genius of the dungeon synth scene, whose projects Nahadoth and Mystal Tree are almost beyond compare in our genre. He is a constant inspiration to me, and his most recent Mystal Tree album New Growth is not only the best album of 2019 so far, but one of the best Dungeon Synth, or at least Dungeon Synth-adjacent, albums ever released. Everyone should check out his work.

CS: I know I need to delve deeper into Matlock’s music, but I so love what he does with Kolessa that I’m not ready to move beyond that yet (though I did snag one of the Mystal Tree tapes). Since we’re on the topic of your fellow artists, do you have any other favorites? If someone new to the genre asked you whom to check out, where would you point him or her aside from Adam’s projects?

Some of my favorites that I would recommend to people are Ranseur, Gargoyle Collector, Lunar Womb, Druadan Forest, Ur Pale, Tarkin Turfer, An Old Sad Ghost, Argonath, Solanum, Mystic Towers, Abandoned Places, Ilmarin, Mournlord, Secluded Alchemist, Winterblood, and many, many more that I’m sure I’ve missed.

CS: I’d like to circle back now and talk more about your writing process. So you sit down with your laptop and the text you’re working with – what happens next? What sort of work do you do before getting to the point where you’re ready to write?

AO: Well, before any music is actually written, I sit down with the text and take notes, but before that, I usually read the whole thing, all the way through, without taking any notes at all. After that, I go through again, more quickly this time, jotting down musical ideas based on the text: thematic elements, characters, and plot points that would translate well to music and such. Some ideas never make it to the final product, of course, but it’s a good process that allows me to stay focused on the text in my music, while allowing enough room for me to stretch my legs, so to speak, when it comes to interpretation.

CS: Are you thinking about the various textures and VSTs at all at that point, or is it more ideas for melodies and structures? For some reason I’m suddenly thinking about Peter and the Wolf, and imagining you poring over The Canterbury Tales and being like ‘the Cook is definitely an oboe…’

AO: As a matter of fact, that’s a lot of what I do in the beginning – choosing instruments, VSTs, etc. That’s a large part of the character of a sound and a piece, so it is absolutely crucial to know relatively early which sounds you’re going to use to craft these kinds of conceptual, character-driven works. It’s funny that you mention The Cook specifically. I knew from the beginning that the bass clarinet would be perfect to represent him.

When it comes to synthesizer sounds that don’t mimic natural instruments, however, the process is a little different. I usually note the sort of synth sound and timbre I want, but I usually don’t get too specific with those until later, with some exceptions, of course.

CS: Since we’ve mentioned them a couple of times now, what’s in your toolbox as far as VSTs? Since one of the things that I find so striking about Chaucerian Myth is how variegated your tones tend to be, I’m guessing you’ve got a quite a few in your regular rotation.

AO: My main DAW for the Chaucerian Myth stuff was Mixcraft. There are quite a few of the instrument VSTs built into that DAW that do a fine job, so I used those often, particularly the woodwinds and strings. On the Margery Kempe album, I actually barely used any VSTs at all. It was mostly soundfonts from old video game soundtracks. For my more recent albums I’ve used a much larger variety, but the Synth1, SQ8L, and the ARP Pro Soloist VSTs are some of my favorites.

CS: Okay… that seems like the perfect segue into talking about the recent Chaucerian Legends: The Epic of Beileag trilogy. I want to start by asking about the notes on Bandcamp for the last of the three albums:

The final part in this epic trilogy, in which the Chaucerian Myth reaches its conclusion.

A special thanks to all those who listened, supported, and spread the story of Chaucerian Myth in any way. I have enjoyed embarking on this pilgrimage with you all.

That sure sounds like you’re putting your copy of The Riverside Chaucer back on the shelf – have you retired the project?

AO: For now at least, I don’t really plan to do anymore work on the Chaucerian Myth project. I feel like I’ve said what I needed to say in this idiom, but I will never stop making music and have written a new album this past month. I also feel like I have to say that while you can take the man out of the dungeon, you cannot take the dungeon out of the man. Dungeon Synth has been a huge part of my life, and an enormous part of my musical upbringing, both as a composer and a listener. I can say confidently that the sounds of Dungeon Synth will never leave my music, and its influence will likely be felt in everything I do, even though the genres and styles will be different.

CS: So the rumors I’ve seen floating around that you have hours of unreleased CM music sitting on Bandcamp, waiting to be released, aren’t actually true?

AO: They were, indeed. Most likely, what they were referring to were the Epic of Beileag albums, which had all been completely written and recorded well over a year ago, not too long after The Book of Margery Kempe was released.

CS: Where did Beileag come from? I did a bit of digging to see what I could find on my own, but aside from learning that the word ‘beileag’ is Scots Gaelic for ‘beer,’ I’ve not found much of anything at all. Is this one an original story? A pastiche of multiple works? Something else?

AO: Beileag is an old Scottish name that I took a liking to, and I had recently been very inspired by Britomart, the Amazon warrior character from The Faerie Queene. The Beileag trilogy is an original story that utilizes elements and inspiration from all of the works I’ve covered in my previous albums. Eventually, I hope to put it in written form, but we’ll see. The story isn’t really fully formed as much as it is a series of images and plot points and characters that I made into an album: just certain things that I thought could be vividly and effectively expressed through music. In a way, it ties together all of my previous albums, and thus all of these real-world stories and authors, into a connected fantasy world of my own creation. That’s about as much detail as I can go into, probably.

CS: Based on that description, it makes sense why this felt like a natural endpoint for the project. Did you have an idea going in that it might be the final opus, or did that not occur to you until afterwards?

AO: When I first came up for the idea to do the trilogy, a lot of things were different. I had originally planned on just putting it all together on one massive album (very glad I didn’t do that!), and I also had thought that maybe I had a few more Chaucerian Myth albums in me after the trilogy was completed. The more time I spent writing and recording the albums, however, the more I realized it was the logical conclusion to the project, as I was really expressing everything I wanted to musically and had nothing more to really say. With those last three albums, I got to complete everything I had wanted to do with the project from the beginning, and so what use was there to continue in this vein? Dungeon Synth is not a genre where someone can keep going past their prime for the sake of collecting a paycheck, and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to. The more of the albums I wrote, the more I realized it was time to move on.

CS: Do you have any plans for a physical release of the trilogy now that it’s complete, or are you content to let the project be for the time being while you work on other things?

AO: I definitely don’t want to wash my hands of the project completely by any means. Chaucerian Myth is extremely near and dear to my heart, and I have no desire to just turn away from it. There are plans to release the trilogy on physical media, though I’m not sure if I’m supposed to discuss the details of that yet. What I can talk about is the fact that The Canterbury Tales is about to be re-released on CD by Out of Season, the label who did the original cassette box release three years ago. It’s amazing that it has been that long. I am very confident that the release will be fantastic, as Out of Season have more than proven themselves to be professional, capable, competent, and overall excellent at what they do. I may be with Ancient Meadow Records now, but I will never forget how important Out of Season is to my musical journey and to the scene in general. Everyone should give them the support they deserve.

CS: For the record, I was a bit disappointed to hear that a second cassette edition of The Canterbury Tales wasn’t also going to happen, but those sets do seem like a pretty massive undertaking. You mentioned that you were already working on new music. Are you willing to talk at all about what’s next for you?

AO: Absolutely. It’s still in the writing stage as of now, but I’m working on a new album. Its sound could best be described as a Chamber Folk and Classical crossover. There are some small jazz elements and a lot of Vivaldi influence, with some pop sensibilities as well. Kind of like if Bach and Vivaldi tried to write a pop album, lol. There will be vocals, and arrangements with real instruments, including strings, woodwinds, brass, piano, etc. There’s some Edvard Grieg influence in there, too, as well as Guernica (the Japanese artist). A lot of the pop influence comes from artists like The Beach Boys, The Bird and the Bee, Sobs (excellent band from Singapore), and Regina Spektor. There will, of course, be lots of Dungeon Synth impressions as well, and there are at least a couple songs that people might find reminiscent of something I might do in Chaucerian Myth. However,  it certainly is a different kind of album, which is definitely what I need right now. It’s probably going to be a long time before I get this all recorded and released, as it is still in the writing and arranging phase, but I’m set on doing it I think the final product will be one I’m very happy with.

CS: Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview. I’ve really enjoyed it. I always like to leave the final word to the artists – is there anything else you’d like to add?

AO: Only thanks to you for this lovely interview. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about my music, and am always humbled that there are people willing to listen to and read about it. Thanks to all my friends and fellow artists in the scene for helping me get to this point and bringing me up in a wonderful environment where my music and knowledge has been able to grow: Adam, Justin, Izaac, Abe, Jordan, David, Jacob, Kyle, Keegan, and many more. You know who you are. Thank you all for listening and helping.

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