Who Am I, And What Are the Halloween Carols™?

 

In a Thumbelina-nutshell, I love Halloween and I’m an organist/composer/singer.

Like many people, I am thoroughly enchanted by the Halloween season and month of October.  And since the organ is the instrument blood-related to Halloween, writing Halloween music came as a big, “Well, of course you need to write Halloween music.”

The Halloween Carols are a collection I have written for the purpose of celebrating Halloween and the fall season.  They are based on the history of Halloween, the rapturous feelings that autumn inspires, and the quirkiness of this unique holiday.

In December we pull out our Christmas CDs, but what do we pull out in October?  Cheap, “spooky” sound effects and time-weary compilations?  It makes me sad.

I think Danny Elfman gave us some great stuff with his music for “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride,” and I love what he creates.  But we need more!  And I have my own style to give you.

 

MY MUSIC STYLE

I am a classically trained organist who worships both the “classical gods” and the “rock gods.”  My compositional style embraces both worlds – and I should add the “folk gods” in there, too.  Folk melodies have a magical way of lasting and lingering (which, by the way, is the true definition of “haunt” – to linger, to visit, to stay with), and many classical and rock compositions are based on these old tunes.

I have always had a love for old Christmas carols – carols that have survived centuries to delight us today.  One of my most exciting purchases ever was The New Oxford Book of Carols.  I am intrigued by what makes a carol a treasure – these perfect, concise gems of music.  Some of these carols survive from the medieval era and are well known today, like “Veni, Veni, Emanuel.”  I endeavor to do the same thing for Halloween.  I hope I have created (and continue to create) beautiful, charming, intriguing music that will last for centuries.  

I first composed each melody as a round (like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” it harmonizes itself).  I then harmonized the melody into a four-part carol.  I made the harmony of the carol differ from the repeating chords of the round to give interest and variety.  When I have the sheet music published, each song will be printed in two versions – the round and the carol.  The round is more simple to play, the carol more challenging.  I want this music to be for everyone.  I am currently working on arranging and “fluffing up” the carols and recording them.

 

BACKGROUND AND INSPIRATION

The idea to make each melody a round was inspired by the traditional American tune, “Ghost of John.”  I grew up on “Ghost of John” and I remember how neat it was to sing as a round with my big sister, Stephanie, and friends.  I had forgotten about it until 2002, when it came back to haunt me (I’ll explain the details shortly).  This little tune actually inspired the whole Halloween Carols project …

… which had its beginnings when I was in college.  But first I’ll rewind to my early days, growing up with Halloween.  I remember Halloweens from my childhood having a dreamy, surreal feel to them.  My favorite decorations my mom put out were ceramic pumpkins and a white ghost whose eyes lit up.  I loved how they looked in the dark and I remember dancing around them.

As a native of Orange County, California, I was very lucky to grow up with Disneyland.  I loved the Haunted Mansion – especially the ballroom with waltzing ghosts and the organ player.  I also loved the graveyard where the statues sing in tight harmonies – I would always croon my neck around the “doom buggy” I was in so I could hear them as long as possible before moving out of range.

I started piano lessons at age 7, then organ lessons at age 12, which I took in a cathedral.  (This has instilled a love of various forms of cathedral architecture in me.)  If my practicing had become sloppy or infrequent, my organ teacher, Robert Cummings, knew how to inspire me – he’d blast out some brilliant Bach piece as I watched.  I’d then pant and drool, saying, “OK.  OK.  I’ll practice.”  In high school, he introduced me to the world of Ralph Vaughan Williams and my life is richer because of it.

Many types of music inspire me.  My parents played various records around the house – Beethoven, Mozart, the Beatles, the Star Wars soundtrack…  I distinctly remember one day, listening to Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” over and over.  I must have been about 4 years old and had figured out how to set the record needle in the place where I wanted it.  I ran around in circles as this music played, first starting with creeping movements, then building to an all-out chase of my own tail.  I remember going so fast that my legs were at a steep angle with the floor.  As Grieg’s piece climaxed, I collapsed on the ground and watched the ceiling spin, deliriously dizzy, my little lungs puffing in musical ecstasy.  And then I’d get up and do it again and again.

Oingo Boingo (Danny Elfman’s marvelous Day-of-the-Dead-influenced band) was introduced to me when I was 10.  My big sister’s friend came over with tapes of them after school.  The first cassette tape I ever bought was their “Dead Man’s Party.”  I had saved some money, gone over to the music store with Stephanie, and she said, “Buy this one.  It’s cool.”  I listened to it constantly and to this day, “Just Another Day” is still one of my favorite songs.  The Halloween-ish aspect of their music has had a pronounced influence on me.

 

ALL HAIL OCTOBER AND THE FALL

My mom was the first to point out September’s harvest moon to me – gorgeous, huge, yellow, and captivatingly low in the sky.  Mesmerizing.  It’s what starts the magical fall season in my eyes.  Though California’s seasonal changes are more moderate, autumn still has its noble presence.  It’s unmistakable.  And I have always loved sensing something intriguing in the crisp fall air.  The dramatic colors we all swoon at have their effect on me as well.  The lower angle of the sun all day and the light it creates give me such a deep joy, a sensation I can’t explain.

Or the glorious overcast and rainy days, which soak and darken the tree trunks to contrast the wet, shiny leaves – these days make me feel I can do anything.  And the nighttime.  There is something about the night sky at this time of year that seems somehow to stretch out further than usual.  There is an alluring smell.  And a distant, hollow sound almost.  I love what the stars do.  I love what the moon does.  I love how bare branches frame it from my perspective.

When I went to study organ performance at Brigham Young University in Utah, I enjoyed a more pronounced change of seasons.  Though these changes are not as dramatic as on the East Coast or other places in the world, they were still remarkable to a Californian.  As I spent countless hours in the basement practice rooms at the Harris Fine Arts Center, my mind would reach to the outside world, especially in autumn, thinking of all those gorgeously colored trees I had just passed on my way into the building.

 

THE HALLOWEEN CAROLS TRANSPIRE

In the fall of 1995, I studied a semester in Vienna, Austria.  It was there my desire to track Halloween through time and cultures really began to bud.  Though most Halloween history comes from the British Isles, the common threads of forest folklore carried my thoughts into Austria.  I took frequent walks through the enchanting Vienna Woods, which inspired many Halloween ponderings, and I later based some of the Carols on my experiences there.  While in Vienna, I began my practice of asking locals about their Halloween or Day of the Dead or All Saints’ Day/All Souls’ Day celebrations, if any.  I do this in every country I visit – it fascinates me.

My walks in Austria and back in Utah and California (especially the ones just to take in October itself) propelled my thinking.  I wondered why I like Halloween so much, wondered where it came from, and imagined the celebrations of earlier cultures.  That’s when I started to collect Halloween-related materials from the library.  I like getting lost deep in the belly of the library where it’s quiet and you’re alone, and when you have the luxury of losing track of time.  I made two research folders full of fascinating gatherings to start my little quest.  I graduated in Organ Performance and Pedagogy in 2001 and then put my personal Halloween studies in the forefront, knowing I wanted to do something with Halloween history and music.

I wrote songs about cats, pumpkins, old Halloween superstitions from the British Isles, trick-or-treating, and so forth.  But the cohesive Carols project didn’t occur to me until one afternoon in September 2004 when I played the organ for a funeral.  Maybe it was the dead being the focus of attention or the autumn equinox being a week away, but I found myself going directly home to the piano and writing four Halloween rounds inspired by the afore-mentioned “Ghost of John.”

“Ghost of John” wasn’t brought back into my life until a ride home from the beach with friends in 2002.  Out of nowhere, a friend starting singing, “Have you heard of the Ghost of John …” and I exaggerate not – I went INSANE with delight.  I felt like I had recovered a lost treasure.

“Oh, oh, oh!!!!  I KNOW that song!  Oh, oh, oh!!!”  I breathlessly asked, “What are the words?  What are the words?”  No one could remember them all, so another friend called his sister who set us straight with the words …

Have you heard of the Ghost of John?
Long, white bones and the rest all gone!
Oooooooh!
Wouldn’t it be chilly with no skin on?

Just one verse and a simple tune, and it was enough to nearly hypnotize me.  I went home and played around with it on the piano for a long while until I had my fill.  It really was a feast for me.  Pure brain/heart pleasure.  That Halloween 2002, I taught it to two friends and the three of us went trick-or-treating, singing “Ghost of John” at every doorstep.  People loved it and it sure sweetened them up to give some Halloween candy to three twenty-somethings.

While singing from porch to porch, I made an inner vow that one year from that night I would put on a big Halloween concert at my home.  So a year went by with my face in the organ and piano, writing and practicing.  The 2003 Halloween Concert was such a fun night, with friends, friends’ babies, piano students, and their parents attending.  There were pumpkin cookies, candy, homemade bread and soup, cider, and other fall treats everywhere with a Magical Hanging Donut Garden in the backyard.

I kept studying and writing, and as I mentioned, the project became clear after that funeral in 2004.  That afternoon, “Ghost of John” came to haunt me and I thought, “Why aren’t there more Halloween rounds like this?  We need more Halloween rounds!  We need carols for Halloween!”  I’ve spent these recent years refining them and writing, writing, writing, like a gopher burrowing in its blessed dirt. 

To date, I have over 60 Halloween carols and songs written and am arranging them to record over the course of several CDs.  I hope to start a tradition of quality celebrating for this magical, enticing holiday.  I hope more artists, as well, will write Halloween-specific music for us all to enjoy.  I hope my Halloween Carols, like Christmas carols, will appeal to all ages and make people happy.