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The Story



Much of the architecture of Relancii worldbuilding during my years on the Mountain was musical in inspiration. The Corries in particular, whose music I'd been waiting my whole life to hear, gave an aural shape to my personal growth and development in those years. In essence their music was the vessel that helped carry me from youth to middle age, and with it my evolution toward quietude and serenity (at least before the days of the Troubles).

This naturally expressed itself in the attentions I paid to Relance. The old RPG character Bardal got reconceived as Afiach Bard, who got her own Interlude. I created a famous traveling duo centered in the north of Relance called the Ruggs, meant as a direct homage to the Corries in particular. (I don't recall how much I've talked about them publicly, but my notes on them are quite extensive.)

Yet old-timers may remember another figure from the RPG, whom I don't think I've mentioned publicly in many years: the great composer Mandolar.

Today it is him I will talk about.

RPG Origins

In the RPG, Mandolar was one of those background lore characters. He never appeared in the story in person, and in fact had lived and died some time before the events of ATH.

Mandolar was the one of the Panathar Empire's great composers, and by extension one of the great composers in world history. He was still admired in Galavar's day, held aloft as one of the titans of the art form, the way we exalt Brahms or Schubert—whose "Serenade" is exemplary of the richness of sound and tenderness of spirit in Mandolar's own music, broadly akin to the Romantic era of classical music—but only broadly. I would compare him to real-world composers like the aforementioned Brahms and Schubert, as well as Mendelssohn, Schumann, and even Beethoven if we're talking about Romantic structural genius.

In the story, Mandolar first appeared around the interim between Part I and Part II of ATH the RPG. He was mentioned in the text by name exactly twice:

Mandolar's Tenderness

His first appearance was in Silence's Interlude, The March of Silence:

The sunrise shed its light into a pair of dry receptors. The cracked orbs flinched into action, pupils narrowing and eyelids batting around crazily.

She had been dancing. A slow tune written for the mandolin by Mandolar, the great musician, had been playing in the background as she had danced with her love...who seemed oddly familiar, although she could not recall exactly who he reminded her of. In any case, she had never really had a love. But she had been dancing with him--just then! They had been in a gorgeous ballroom. She, having recently begun to explore the curiousness of her budding sexuality, had been completely mesmerized by this enchanter, both emotionally and physically. He had said all the right things to her; she had made all the right dance moves, even though she didn't know how to dance in real life. The golden chandeliers had reflected their shared perfection, and the music had personified it into something tangible that she could really touch--even if it was her ears doing the touching. They had finally stopped speaking, just hugging each other close and dancing to the slow strum of the mandolin...

A cold breeze hit her and she jolted back to the sunrise. The sun, did it always do that?

As you can see here, Mandolar's name comes from exactly where you'd expect: the mandolin, which I've always thought of as a romantic, sophisticated, and, if played a certain way, a very peaceful instrument.

It's that last quality that registers most prominently in this scene, which depicts the fateful day that Silence would have died in the desert had she not been discovered by Galavar and Arderesh. The image of two lovers hugging wistfully as they dance to a peaceful and tender music had been a dream of mine for years as a teenager. In high school I spent three years in love with a classmate who, sadly (for me anyway), never loved me back. I had that daydream many times, especially standing around on freezing cold winter mornings in the six o'clock hour, waiting for the bus to come take me to school.

The desire for companionship has been with me all my life, and that dream of hugging my lover to a soft music felt like a salve for something that burned me and has always burned me. To imagine finally getting there, finally having a mate...I dreamed of it even then, and it survived into my retelling in After The Hero, with Silence taking my role as the one dreaming of a lover who was never going to be there for her.

There's a dignity and poignance in classical music, like in Schubert's "Serenade," and a certain refinement and brilliance to it. Mandolar's music isn't something you can luck into in a jam session. Instead, like an jetliner, you have to envision it, engineer it, sculpt it carefully into being. Only then can it be truly exquisite; only then can it be exquisitely true.

I created Mandolar to encapsulate something about what classical music means to me, and this scene underscores that. There is a beauty here, beyond what nature itself supplies. The beauty of perception; the beauty of understanding that this music is made through artistic genius and inspiration. And there is great intimacy too. Classical music, for many of us who love it, is deeply personal, the same way popular music sometimes is.

I have said before that the classical symphony orchestra is my pick for humanity's greatest invention of all time. From the beginning, I always envisioned Mandolar as a paragon of this. Maybe not a true Beethoven or Mozart, at the very, very top of the heap, but, rather, one of those first-tier composers that the general public can't really name by name, yet who stands as one of the greatest and has a magnificent style all their own.

Mandolar's Passionateness

Mandolar's second appearance comes in the very last paragraph of Chapter 6, which at 250 pages is the longest chapter by far from the RPG:

Briefly he noted the absence of Sourros' consciousness from his thoughts. After so many years, his head seemed empty. But that was as good as it was bad. His thoughts were his own now--his power--was his own as well. It was lonesome without his closest friends, but it was by no means unbearable.

Galavar walked amongst the Sodish citizens before he left on horseback for Davoranjium, humming Mandolar's famous third movement, The Cry of the Dreams. It was a piece of youth, of ambition, and of eyes locked into the future, dreaming, crying for glory. That was what he wanted most. Didn't everyone want that to some extent, even if foolish modesty and corrupted gleanings of honor kept them from expressing it? He pondered the thought, and rode on.

This is the other side of Romanticism: burning passion. Actually, I would say it is the obverse side, the original side, and that the "other" side is the tenderness I mentioned above, the salve that soothes burning passion. Day and night, really.

(Humorous side note: It might have been a famous piece of music indeed, to be known as his "famous third movement." The reality is that, at that age, I didn't have as well-assembled a classical music vocabulary as I do today. Tee hee!)

You can see why Mandolar's music was so well-regarded in Gala, not least by Galavar himself. Most of Relance had no idea who Mandolar was, and certainly didn't listen to performances of his music. Such performances would not really even have existed outside the Empire.

Which brings us to a very interesting point: Before recordings, music was always live. Today, classical music and music in general has two modes: a static "fine" art that is appreciated by aural exposure to the recording, and a living "performance" art that can only be experienced in person. And once upon a time, only the latter mode existed.

Gala's Rich Musical Tradition

On Earth, in the days when our great classical masterpieces were still current, a typical person of that era would be lucky to hear this music performed twice in their whole life. More likely, they would only hear it once, ever. And most classical music is not easy to reproduce through humming or singing. So, unlike folk music, you couldn't really reproduce it yourself. Classical music, essentially, fails the oral history test.

Thanks to the musical notations and extensive accompanying notes, we have nevertheless preserved this music very well into the present day, where we can now enjoy it on demand, basically for free. But ordinary people in those bygone centuries would have had to attend a live performance.

Much of what we think of, when we think of "popular culture," intersects with music and our cultural behaviors surrounding the ways we listen to music and share it. Yet these customs are 20th (and now 21st) century in nature. Without record players (or the modern-day digital equivalent), and without concerts and other live performances—and without the means to travel to the places where those performances occur—our whole culture would be different. Before recordings existed, if people were to bond over music they'd have to attend the performances together, sing it themselves, or discuss music rather than directly listening to it. Their private homes and third places (like cafés), and the bonding rituals therein, would have been quite different in some respects from what we're familiar with.

Shared Music Must Be Live Music

This causes a storytelling problem. Relance, for all intents and purposes, doesn't have music recordings. For Galavar to know Mandolar's "famous third movement" so well, he would have to have actually attended a live performance at some point.

Fair enough; we can assume he attended a performance during his years of study in the Empire.

But what about Silence? For her to have known it before she ever met Galavar, she must have heard it in Junction City. And that gets a little murkier. Perhaps there was a performance of Mandolar's "slow tune." Or, perhaps, she did listen to a recording—since if any place on Relance is going to have recording technology, it would be Junction City—but how likely are either of those things?

And even if we solve the question for her as well, what about the rest of Gala?

What I'm getting at is that it's not plausible for musical tastes to be as cosmopolitan in a world without recordings as in a world with them. Musical exposure, and therefore the sharing of musical knowledge between people, is culturally and geographically constrained. Another way of putting it is that Galan culture as a whole cannot have common points of musical reference when it comes to music that is not regularly performed in Gala itself.

If a dead foreign composer like Mandolar is going to be appreciated in Gala by more than a handful of people who had heard performances of his music elsewhere, that music must be performed in Gala. For Mandolar's music to be widely recognizable in Gala, at least one person in Gala with access to a symphony orchestra and authority to influence their schedule would have had to call for Mandolar to be performed. And then a significant number of Galans would have had to turn out to listen to that music.

If the music were not so complex, this wouldn't be necessary. That's why folk music is so simple: It has to be simple, so that ordinary people can preserve it through their voices and through accessible musical instruments. The stuff that can't be preserved this way, doesn't get preserved through oral tradition or popular culture. Classical music, with its structural complexity and oftentimes numerous voicings, needs live orchestras to survive and spread.

Musical Culture in Gala

But getting an orchestra is not easy.

Prior to the events of ATH, "Gala" is interchangeable with "Sele," the lonely city-state at the cliffs on the edge of the world. This is significant because it means that Galan culture, for the first 25 years of its existence (35 years relurian) is highly localized, and thus subject to common influences and trends. In other words, Gala has a coherent, unified cultural identity. Despite its prolific internal diversity, there is also a shared experience of "being Galan" in particular. This coherence goes on to be fundamentally challenged once Gala begins spreading out across the world during ATH, but in those earlier years it wasn't an issue.

During that time, musical tastes in Gala were nevertheless very broad. With immigrants from all over the world, there was by no means one prevailing musical style. In fact diversity is one of Gala's hallmarks, and cultural fusion (in music, food, and so forth) is understood to not compete with the original sources of that fusion. This is reminiscent of modern liberal democracies on Earth, where passionate subcultures retain the distinctiveness of the things they love even as the overarching popular culture blends stuff together. Subcultures' enthusiasm is insulation enough against fusion trends, let alone more corrosive forces like appropriation, which still occur but do not threaten the original.

Gala has a very strong edge here, too, because Galan culture specifically distinguishes between cultural assimilation, which it considers vital to the continuity of Gala, and cultural homogenization, which it considers an existential threat to the continuity of Gala. This gets into the reason why Gala is what it is in the first place: imperialistic yet liberal. Gala's most influential exponents and leaders understand and broadly agree that Gala as a whole must have a distinct purpose or way of life. Galans can have their own tastes—and are expected to have their own tastes—in matters of personal preference, including music, but they are also required to abide by Gala's laws and economic system, because Gala's central purpose—and the way of life that, after accounting for diverse individuality, everyone still shares in common—is one of tolerance and goodwill. People want others to succeed, and they expect others to want the same of them. This can only be achieved through socioeconomic equality of opportunity and the reliability of Galan institutions and cultural norms. And so when it comes to these considerations, there can be no compromise.

Getting back to musical culture in Gala, then, there is a simultaneous coexistence in Gala of a great diversity in music forms, many active fusions thereamong, and an implicit respect for and tolerance of the integrity of all musical art forms. There's no one "best" music; people don't argue as we might about which music is good or bad. Galans are very good at discerning between personal preferences and objective absolutes. As such, there is relatively little cultural hegemony by which popular forms of music among Gala's most powerful leaders imposes itself upon the general public as being synonymous with a civilized, educated upbringing and lifestyle. Galavar is free to love Mandolar, and this makes little difference to the curriculum prepared for children in the Galan Academy (notwithstanding the awareness bias by which those things that people are not aware of cannot be targeted for inclusion in a curriculum).

Thus, when it comes down to something like classical music, it isn't forced upon people. Children are exposed to some amount of it like they are exposed to some amount of virtually everything, and can freely choose to focus on it further thereafter, but they don't have to and it isn't held against them if they don't. This cherished Galan tenet also ensures that subcultures are quite passionate and dedicated, as well as correspondingly small in affiliation. Gala has quite a long tail indeed of subcultures.

All of this means that it isn't terribly likely that Mandolar would be terribly popular in Gala. I mean, as the Narrator, I could declare it so—I could declare that, by sheer chance, Mandolar's music is a part of the popular culture—but I generally don't do that. If I have a strong desire that something be so, I generally develop a convincing justification for it.

And that's what I did here, with Mandolar.

I like the idea of Gala having a favorite beloved classical composer. And if it's going to be anyone, then why not Mandolar, since he already exists in the canon and represents something I care deeply about?

But there's a certain plausibility problem: It's very unlikely that even an enlightened culture like Gala could overcome the bias and gravity that bends every culture around itself. Why would a dead composer who never lived in Gala be more popular than a living composer?

Mandolar in the Era of ATH the Novel

When I saw the Star Wars trilogy for the first time, I assumed that the Galactic Empire was virtually as old as Yoda: nearly a thousand years. To me that gave it depth and gravitas. When I played The Secret of Mana I made the same assumption of the Empire from that game too. And, years later, with Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, I again assumed that the Kingdom of Zeal and Geshtahl's unnamed Empire, respectively, had been around for a very, very long time.

To me, this kind of temporal depth, this continuity of existence that transcends the fleeting motions of a mere single generation, bestows a certain authority and power. You're probably familiar with this notion yourself: Just imagine how cheap a monarchy would appear if it were declared today, when compared against, say, the British Monarchy and its thousand-year heritage. When an institution has achieved a continuity far beyond that of a single generation or even an entire human lifetime, it takes on a certain life of its own. It becomes a permanent fixture, like the mountains or the stars—"permanent" at least to the naked eye.

What this means for me in general is that I have a strong tendency to make things large, both in time and space. If you think about it, you'll immediately recognize that this is a prominent theme in my work. Vast sandships, huge sprawling fortresses, immense cultural depth and minutiae of societies, and lots of old legacies. Even though Gala itself is completely new—roughly 25 tellurian years old when ATH begins—it is set against a backdrop of thousands of years of cultural tradition by way of the Village of Ieik, the Panathar Empire, and the favoritism of Sourros, the God of Logic and Wisdom.

And so, when it comes to resolving the problem that it isn't plausible that Mandolar would be more popular in Gala than a contemporary Galan composer, it should occur to most writers that one way to resolve this problem is to make Mandolar a contemporary Galan composer. Make him, for instance, an immigrant from the Empire. I could even make him relatively elderly, so that it could be said that he had a long career in the Empire and that some of his works are one or even two generations old.

This would otherwise be an excellent solution to the problem!...except for the inconvenient fact that it shatters the feeling of vastness that comes from Mandolar being a historical figure, part of a world so vast that even the entire Curious Tale can never show all of it. Mandolar as a foreign composer who died dozens or even hundreds of years ago is just so much bigger of an idea than Mandolar as a living citizen of Gala.

What if you and I never talked about the artists and directors and composers of old? How strange would that feel, if we only talked about what was immediately accessible to us in our own era. How limiting it would feel. How blind would we be to our horizons, the horizons all around us, past and future.

And yet this is what most humans do. Each year people are talking less and less about Lucille Ball, who was once a household name. Most people are easily distracted by what is immediately obvious and proximate to them, and there is little direct penalty for this because there is nothing inherently wrong with anything immediately close by us. Indeed, in time this too shall become part of the storied past.

But for me this doesn't fly. I cast a much wider net of awareness. It's one of the things that makes me such a weirdo and misfit. Surely a mate like Galavar would be aware of, and admire, some old, long-dead classical composers. He just would. That's the sort of thing he would do.

That is what Mandolar himself needs to be: part of that grander world beyond the horizon. Only Mandolar's music needs to be current in Galan society.

And so, after re-envisioning him as a living character to see what that looks and feels like, I eventually decided to keep him in the past, dead and inaccessible. Beyond reach. For that which is beyond reach is an imperishable flame, and will shine for ever.

Ergo, it became clear to me that Mandolar shall live as a memory, and that Gala itself would need someone to act as his living exponent—the reason for all these supposed Mandolar concerts to occur by which he would become the beloved classical composer in Gala. There would need to be some living agent to act as the intermediary.

But First! Mandolar's Biography in 5 Paragraphs

When fleshing out this character for the novel I decided right away to make him extraordinary. No fitting to distribution curves. I would deliberately make him stand out. From that decision, his character traits virtually poured out of me.

Born in the Empire several hundred years before the events of After The Hero, he was a war hero in the Scepterial Armies who got swept up in one of the Empire's periodic revolutions, and his gruesome experiences and clandestine misadventures in those events became the inspiration for much of his life's musical work, as he struggled to contemplate the contradictions in the viutari condition and the ubiquitous presence of beauty amid the cold brutality of nature beyond civilization's own fiery bands of injustice.

After his military career, as a prefectural administrator under the government of the winning side, he became obsessed with public health and safety, and fostered the development of numerous tools, practices, and facilities meant to aid sanitation and "the peace." Relatively little of this did any good, and he became known and even to some extent mocked for his eccentricity.

But his music was well-received in his own time, especially in the earlier stages of his musical career. He would retreat to the countryside, as composers often do, and take inspiration amid the serenity and slower pace. In his case it was a mansion in the Scathernabi Mountains, known for their sharp crags (scathers) and plump fruits (nabs), with his sister, who owned an ortry plantation there. It was said he communed with the dwends and learned the stories of "Old Panathar," which, together with his thematic inspirations from the war, he transformed into music fit for the viutari ear.

In person he was quite particular; gruff and mumbly and difficult to please, and as such a difficult mate, especially together with his personal efforts to avoid germs, yet he was not actually mean-spirited or broadly grotesque, though he did enjoy clucko fighting and he abused the aristocratic drug mindin. He was also quite eccentric; he enjoyed niacin flush baths, hosting whippoorwill parties, and was infamous for his garish plaid jackets.

He died as all good artists do: in an enormous chemical fire while attempting to prove the viability of brominated flame retardants. (That is to say, he died ironically.)

Carillon: Mandolar's Spiritual Successor

Years ago, in my Character Names Reservoir, I wrote the name "Carillon," with the note "Maybe a contemporary to Mandolar?"

And sure enough, that solved the question of who would serve as Mandolar's living executor and protégé in Gala. Endowed with several of the traits I originally premised for a contemporary Mandolar, Carillon lived in the Empire as a composer in her own right, reaching early middle age before she was approached to come live in Gala.

She was one of the "Stolen Stars"—Galan recruits who had been somewhat famous back in their homeland, and whose disappearance was thus a problem that needed to be mitigated so as not to draw attention to the existence of Gala itself, which was growing in complete secrecy from the rest of the world.

Though her own music was also enjoyed, and she additionally exposed Gala to the works of many other Imperial composers, it was Carillon who would, albeit not by intention, elevate Mandolar to the status of Gala's most beloved composer. As a successful composer and musician, she was charged with establishing Gala's flagship symphony orchestra, Galakerr, which she did with hasty élan and nearly as hasty success.

She built three performance theaters for the full orchestra to play in. (One of these was on Mousai, in the Vedere, which you may remember from the Prelude.)

Carillon was also appreciated in Gala for her efforts to grant orchestra access to other forms of music. Though her own background was in the Empire, she ensured that Galans who had come from other traditions of orchestral music also had use of the musicians and their instruments and facilities, and in this manner she even significantly grew the roster of musicians formally affiliated with the Orchestra.

So, yeah, a total Mandolar groupie and accomplished maestro in her own right. Perhaps I'll have more to say about her another time.

What Makes Music?

Mandolar, I think, brings something special to The Curious Tale: What is life? It's not wars and great battles and sweeping political narratives. It's everything: the little stuff and the big; the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. To depict a truly alive Galan society, there has to be music, and in fact Mandolar is only a tiny sliver of the music that rings out in the magnificent city of Sele. Its real value is its iconic status: the symbol that Gala has music. Not that it loves music, for any society with music loves music, and any society without music is badly repressed, but that it has music: that it is, despite being fictitious, for all intents and purposes a real place.

That's all for this week. I hope you enjoyed that little insight into the musical traditions of Relance!

Join me next week when I answer a longstanding question that I don't know if I've ever directly addressed: What is the Galan economic system?

Until then, may your notes ring out pure and true.

I would love your feedback on this article!

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O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!