by Sandy Auden
The Terra Incognita project has exercised Kevin J. Anderson's talents more than anything he's done before. Along with his usual role of book author, he's also turned his hand to writing a connecting narrative text for his CD booklet, lyric writing with his wife Rebecca Moesta and he's been involved with the musical evolution of the Terra Incognita progressive rock CD that ties into the main storyline of his latest trilogy. It could have been a daunting project but it was transformed into something hugely enjoyable by the enthusiastic approach of Anderson, Shawn Gordon (of ProgRock Records), and composer and producer Erik Norlander.
It all started with a three-book publishing deal for Anderson's Terra Incognita series. The trilogy opens with The Edge of the World, set in an age of sailing ships and unexplored seas, incomplete maps with entire areas marked 'unknown territory'. There are two joined continents, two different cultures and two opposing religions.
After generations of friction, the leaders of both lands meet to bring an end to the bloodshed. In an historic ceremony, these rulers agree to divide the world between them. The followers of each religion will have half the world to explore, colonize, and tame. There will be trade and, more importantly, there will be peace.
Sadly, this new spirit of fellowship is short-lived. A single tragic accident destroys, in minutes, the peace that took years to build. The world is once more cast into the fires of war and this time the flames may burn until nothing remains. From the highest lord to the lowest servant, no man or woman will be unchanged by the conflict.
"Like my Dune or Seven Suns books, this is a big story with lots of characters and both sides of the issue so there are no plain black hats or white hats," says Anderson. "At the heart of the novel are the two leaders of the continents/religions -- King Korastine and Soldan-Shah Omra. And on a more personal scale, there's a young sailor, Criston Vora, who sails off on a ship of exploration, the Luminara, saying goodbye to his beloved young wife, Adrea... but bad things happen to both of them, sweeping them apart.
"Some parts of The Edge of the World are the most powerful, most passionate things I have ever written. The subtext is how we tend to demonize the enemy (each side) and perpetuate hatred and intolerance, escalating violence. It's a great and entertaining story, very ambitious, but also quite relevant to events in the world today."
"A couple weeks later I get an email from Kevin and he tells me 'I fully expected to put a couple or more of these on the shelf after a listen, but this is all I've been listening to for the last couple weeks'. We exchanged emails back and forth a bit and then one Sunday he asks if he can call me to discuss something. So he tells me about this idea he had to do a book and CD together and how he just had this book proposal accepted and it would be a perfect opportunity. I thought it was an amazing idea."
Anderson picks up: "I've always known there is a very significant connection and overlap between the readers of SF/F and the people who listen to rock music, particularly "progressive rock" -- Rush, Kansas, Pink Floyd, Dream Theatre, Styx, etc. Some of my favourite albums are really epic stories that I thought should be novels; some of my favourite music is obviously inspired by great science fiction or fantasy. I've long wanted to do a project like this -- novel and CD together, crossovers, synergy."
So Anderson and Gordon started to take their first steps towards making the CD a reality. "Initially we had to decide what story to tell," says Gordon. "My original thought was the CD should tell the back story of the book, but the reality of making that kind of a story an interesting and understandable piece of music wasn't really working.
"Since the idea to do this came with the original book proposal, we weren't sure what shape the book would exactly take, so as Kevin worked through the drafts, he thought that this was the perfect opportunity to tell the story of Adrea and Criston in more detail, which naturally brought in the characters of Captain Shay and Omra.
"At this point Kevin and I discussed how to map the thing out, I'd written a spec for something similar years ago (still unfinished) which seemed like a good template that I gave to him. Basically we created the bookends of the story and the two songs that would cover those parts, then fleshed out the middle and decided what story each song should tell and the mood it should convey."
"Of the two of us, Rebecca is really the expert in music, rhythm, and lyrics. We brainstormed the thirteen songs (eleven with lyrics, two instrumentals) and how they tell the Terra Incognita story. Each track had its specific character, its purpose in moving the story along, and we knew whether we wanted it to be a hard rocker, a sensitive romantic song, a power ballad, etc."
Meanwhile Gordon was building the band: "When Kevin and I first discussed this, I knew I could find whatever musicians I needed, so the bigger question was what vocalists to get. Initially we weren't sure how many or what gender we wanted as we were originally going to do a different part of the story that looked like it would need four male vocalists, so we had our Plan A list and our Plan B list. I knew a number of composers that had the ability to pull this off, so I started approaching people to gauge their interest level, I was also thinking initially I might use multiple composers.
"Kevin had some people he wanted to get specifically like James LaBrie, who I was already friends with and worked with on a couple albums before, so that was a no brainer. Lana Lane is Erik's wife and a favorite female vocalist of both Kevin and myself, so again a no brainer. Michael Sadler is a friend of mine and was doing vocals on my album already, so that worked out nicely and then John Payne and Erik are both in Asia, and John had that perfect quality for the Captain character.
"So now to instruments. Kurt Barabas on bass was the first musician on the project. Actually, he pre-dated everyone but me and Kevin, but he's my partner in my band and an amazing bassist. We both wanted to work with Gary Wehrkamp again on guitars after working together on [rock group] Amaran's Plight and Gary was in to it. Erik wasn't familiar with Gary at the time, but those two really hit it off.
"Chris Quirarte on drums was logical as his band Prymary is on my label and he also plays in Erik's band Rocket Scientists, so we both knew his work. When it came to acoustic guitars, I looked to Chris Brown from Ghost Circus who is also on my label and had helped me with some acoustics on my own material, so I knew he could do it, and he even ended up doing some electrics.
"The book was strongly inspired by the cover of the Kansas album Point of No Return so we wanted to have someone from Kansas on there. It was either going to be Steve Walsh or David Ragsdale or both. Steve has retired from new recording, so we couldn't get him but but Ragsdale was really into it and added a wonderful quality on violin.
"Once we had the real strings from a violin we realized we could use a real cello, and Mike Alvarez is a friend of Erik's who I also became friends with and worked with because of Erik. Finally, at the very last minute, I thought 'Hey, how about some real flute here as well?' and contacted my friend Martin Orford from IQ/Jadis, who is really known as an amazing keyboardist, but the guy plays a killer flute as well, and he graciously fit it in within the short window of time we had.
"What has probably become very apparent here is that you end up developing a network of friends over the years that you're able to pull something like this off, I probably couldn't have done it five years ago."
Of the musicians, Norlander was going to play the biggest role in the CD's evolution, working closely with Anderson and his wife who were developing the songs. "I wrote the first draft of lyrics for some of the songs," Anderson says. "Then Rebecca wrestled with them, revising and focusing them, getting them to fit with a specific rhythm and sometimes even a melody.
"We then sent them to Erik Norlander, who worked on the music. I had been a great fan of Erik's for his solo work, his band Rocket Scientists, and his wife Lana Lane's great albums; he was the one I really wanted on this project. When he finished each track, he and Lana would record a demo so we could hear what he had in mind. It was amazing how often he nailed it right away; only a very few times did we try to work out something a little different."
It all sounds so easy when it's expressed in just a few lines like that but the CD took months to pull together in the way they wanted it. Fortunately Norlander is no stranger to concept albums so he bought that experience with him. "When you're doing a Progressive Rock album, you're doing something that's a bit grand and maybe more than just regular songs," says Norlander. "It's nice to have a story to connect all the songs together and that's just a natural fit for Progressive Rock. So it wasn't a foreign idea for me -- here's a novel, would you write a CD about it!
"In fact, my wife Lana Lane and I did an album called Lady Macbeth in 2005. It's a concept album all about Shakespeare's Macbeth play from the perspective of Lady Macbeth. So we had taken someone else's story and based a CD on it. Kevin's quite a bit younger than Shakespeare of course which put it in a new light and being able to interact with the author, that made it different as well."
Norlander's first task was composing the music. "It starts with the concept for the song which is a very airy way of saying you just need to get an idea. And you want to create a mood of course. You want to put, in this case, the lyricist's words in the right settings and atmosphere. So we go into: is it a happy song or a sad song? Is it a bright song or dark song? Is it slow and atmospheric or fast and exciting? Then from there I sit down at the piano with the lyrics and just start writing melodies to the lyrics. When you have the mood, the characters and the story already, you just set it to music. For me that's very easy -- a lot of the heavy lifting had been done already by Kevin and Rebecca.
"So sitting at the piano, I'll write melodies, put chords to the melodies and then I'll create some instrumental themes and bridges, breakdowns and all that to hopefully carry on the story beyond the lyrics a little bit."
Some of the tracks were harder than others though. "There's a song on the CD called 'Call of the Sea' where Criston, our hero, is going off as a young man to explore the world on this grand sailing ship and he's facing the open sea and the sea monsters. In that case, the feel of the song, the tempo of the song was critical and I actually came up with that before writing a single melody for it because it needed to be interesting, bright and energetic. But the song has a counterpoint -- where Adrea, Criston's wife, is of course staying at home and she's very melancholy and sad and worried about the whole thing. Her husband is going off to sea and may never come back.
"So this is a very bright up-tempo high energy song, Criston is excited, he's going out to find the unexplored. Meanwhile you have Adrea standing on the shore very melancholy. I can't just step on the brakes and transition into a ballad. So that kind of thing provided a really nice challenge and contrast."
For Norlander, his involvement went much further than just composing the music and putting the demos together. "Once the demo's were done my job as a record producer began. The role is to make sure everything gets recorded properly, make sure everyone plays the right notes, plays the best parts. I would record a few of the musicians at my studios and then most of the other musicians would record themselves remotely. James Labrie, one of the vocalists lives a good 3000 miles from me -- he's in Canada I believe. So he went into a studio with an engineer he works with. Both of the guitarists live over 2000 miles away too so they all recorded themselves.
"I would send off the reference tracks for them to play against and examples of what their part should sound like, usually played on the keyboard, along with the sheet music. Then once all of those tracks were done the it was my job to mix the album. That's where I take the sixty or seventy individual tracks for each song and combine them into a stereo mix until it all sounds like music, is sonically pleasing and nice to listen to.
"That's the art of multi-track recording in the 21st Century. If you start with the drums for example -- you have a bass drum and maybe you have a microphone inside, a microphone outside, so there's two tracks. You have a snare drum, you have one microphone on the top, one on the bottom, there's two more tracks. You'll have five or six tom-toms so now we're up to at least ten tracks. Overhead microphones for cymbals, room microphones for ambience.
"So the drums alone will give you maybe sixteen to twenty tracks. Then we have the bass guitar, the rhythm guitars which are usually double tracked and panned left to right then a couple of solo guitar tracks. We have acoustic steel-stringed guitar solos and nylon string solos, the usual electric solo and then electric slide guitar solos. And don't forget the keyboard tracks too.
"And then there's the vocal parts. You'll have the main vocal, harmony parts and in the case of the song 'I Am The Point' there's a chant in there where the followers of Soldan-Shah Omra are basically chanting in support of him and his mission. We couldn't manage to get the cast of thousands to do that for us. But what we did do was we took every vocalist that was on the album and said would you please record four different parts of this chant -- the high part, the middle part, the low middle part, and the low part and could you do each one of those twice. With four vocalists, eight parts, we got thirty two voices and then with various studio wizardry we were able to make that thirty two sound like quite a few more people. If I could have thirty people in a room and just have a nice stereo recording of that, sure I would do that but we didn't have that luxury so we had to be a bit creative."
Some of the songs totalled over 100 separate tracks, recorded in several locations and merged by Norlander. The combination of this remote working and multiple tracks produced a different effect compared to recording everyone together. "It kind of creates a sound of its own and you end up with instruments in very different sounding spaces.
"You have these two great cultures in conflict with one another so in minimum you have the Eastern sound and the Western sound. And within these cultures you have all the different characters and factions and settings. So to bring in all the different elements from the different musicians serves to tell that story very well."
After all that hard work, Norlander hopes that the listeners will enjoy the end result. "I'd like them to leave the CD feeling exhilarated, just like you'd finished reading a great novel or seen a great film or had a great meal in a restaurant. You should feel elated and the world should be just a little bit bigger that it was before. That's what I wish for every album I make and for this one as well.
"I think my role on the project is to bring music to the story and I hope that listeners leave with melodies in their head and hopefully some more colour to the world that Kevin and Rebecca have created."
Shawn Gordon has a similar opinion: "For me with this project, from day one, I wanted people to have an 'ahhh' moment, where something in the book now has more depth and reality to them as we take that story and introduce it to a different sense and expand upon a story line that isn't realized the same way in the book. You can certainly have one without the other, but the two together make for a much more powerful and personal experience than you typically get from either medium."
And for Anderson: "The combination of the two should give the audience a much richer experience than just listening to the music or reading the words. Music taps into a different part of the imagination than a story; it should be a synergistic experience, giving Terra Incognita a very powerful double-punch."
Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic interviewer/reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; and a diligent interviewer/reviewer for Interzone magazine and SF Site. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. For background information, visit www.sandyauden.co.uk.
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