How I Combined Poetry, Numerology & Jazz to Compose an 'Epic' Valentine Gift

Adaptation vs Sonic Translation

When I look at letters and words I can’t help but see music. I don’t hear music; I just see it hiding inside waiting to be heard. I’m not talking here about the metaphorical sense of hearing music but the exact one. When people describe hearing music in a poetic text, they’d be talking about the tonal inclinations and the sense of rhythm of the person delivering the text, which of course could or could not have music in it. When composers adapt a piece of poetry or prose into a musical composition, what happens is that they compose melodies based on the imagery that the text instills in them, which makes this an adaptation and not a literal translation. What has always intrigued me, however, was something beyond this: What if letters were replaced by a pitch using a specific system that matches each letter of the alphabet to a note on the piano using numerology? Each letter then will have a specific sound and consequently, the music will no longer be an adaptation. It will become a sonic translation with a distinguished musical personality.
 

Have a listen to my take at sonic translation before we proceed with the story and science behind this composition.

 

Alpha Numeric Music

An extremely important trait that distinguishes this system of composition which I call Alpha Numeric Music from the traditional music-inspired-by-the-imagery-of-the-poem system is that in the latter the music that flows out of the composer's imagination will most likely resemble his style much more than the poem's style. Even if the words or the energy of the poet instill different feelings in the way the composition will be structured, the composer will use those feelings as new energy but the notes he will most likely draw from will be from his own pool of musical knowledge. 
With the Alpha Numeric Music system, on the other hand, the process takes a different turn. The composer will find himself with a set of predetermined notes that are unique to the sequential order of the poem's letters and therefore this will trigger the composer to tap into new layers of inspiration which will most definitely break the habitual compositional approach and develop a new one.
In translating texts from one language to another, the translator has the liberty to choose from whether a specific passage needs a word-to-word translation or a completely different set of words if the latter conveys the meaning better. In the Alpha Numeric Music system, the composer has a different kind of liberty; as long as the sequential order of the letters and words is not to be changed, the composer can repeat certain words/melodies, elongate them, shrink them, apply metric modulations to them, and if the music requires it, compose a supporting line to act as bridge between a set of letters and another. 
 

What's With Valentine?

At the turn of the year 2011, a new relationship with a very special person was only a few months old at the time but it was flourishing in a magical way that was promising to become an everlasting one.

Her name is Darine and we became each other’s half, officially, a year later. We had a tremendous whole lot in common in every aspect of life one of which was that we both never cared about anniversaries and “special” days, ever. For us each day of the year was as special as New Year’s or any other “special” day that was proclaimed to be. 

Valentine was no exception. The valentine of 2011 was going to be our first but we both confirmed to each other that we truly didn’t care and it was just going to be a normal day.

A couple of months earlier while we were still getting to know each other, Darine had shared with me a collection of her poems and I remember the moment I received the poems I felt I would like to do something unexpected with them as a way to impress her. The question of “How Would a Poem Sound Like if Translated to Music” had occurred to me before as I’m a person who’s constantly thinking about combining music with different elements in life from a scientific point of view. I thought that would be a perfect time to try this out and if I succeed to make a reasonable piece of music out of one of her poems, I would gift it to her and there’s no doubt how special of a gift it will turn out to be. I think it was January when I decided to give this a shot. I have to be honest though, I didn’t choose my favorite poem of the collection, I had to go with the shortest as I had no idea where this was going. I chose a poem called “Epic” which consisted of 104 letters.  After one month of intense laboratory work, an interesting piece of music was starting to unravel from the verses of “Epic” so I knew that the gift was going to happen. Soon I was done with the composition, I made sure it was recorded and inked down on paper and it was only few days before February 14th. As much as I disliked the idea of Valentine’s Day, it was too tempting not to choose it as the day to present the gift. In the end, I needed to create my own special day but the 14th was already considered “special” and it was coming up in few days and my gift was ready. After a small battle with my frontal lobe, I finally surrendered to the mighty saint of love and decide to use her to impress my lady.

Even though I was breaking a promise concerning giving gifts on “special” days, that gift was no flower, candlelight dinner or a bottle of perfume. That was a piece of music whose melodies were letters in a previous life.


Translation Tactics

I’m fascinated with numbers. I used to get a kick out of solving math problems in school and during my unfortunate obligatory military service, I used to save my mind from collapsing by inventing mathematical formulas and assigning notes to one side and chords to another and then match them out so in the end I would get a random chord progression. When I go home in the weekend I would play it on the piano and finally hear what it sounded like. If I liked it, I would compose a melody over it.

fig. 1 (click to enlarge)

fig. 2 (click to enlarge)

fig. 3 (click to enlarge)

What I did for the poem experiment however, is entirely different. In the Arabic system of numerology, also known as the Abjad numerals (see fig. 1), each letter of the alphabet has a numerical value and the values go from 1 to 10 followed by increments of 10 (i.e. 20, 30, 40, etc…) and once 100 is reached, increments of 100 applies (i.e. 200, 300, etc…) until 1000.

I decided to use the same system for the English alphabet and therefore letters would go from A to Z and the corresponding numbers would go from 1 to 10, 20 to 100 and 200 to 800 (see fig. 2). Now the last step would be to decide what each number meant in terms of notes.
I decided to make the numbers represent the distance in half steps from C (Do).
So if letter A = 1, it means it is 1 half-step from C so A (the letter) becomes C#.
W for instance equals 500 and 500 half-steps from C is Ab (fig. 3).

fig. 4 (click to enlarge)

A few characteristics of this method of translation:

1- The only note that doesn't get a chance is B
2- The notes we get from letters A to I are chromatic
3- The notes we get from J to R form the whole tone scale
4- The notes we get from S to Z form an augmented triad
5- Letter G coincidentally transforms to note G (fun fact, no scientific significance, yet)

Now that every letter corresponded to a specific note on the piano, I matched each of the 89 letters of the poem to its corresponding note, and I started making sense of what I have by adding harmony, rhythmic displacement, bass ostinatos and finally my own musical taste.

Of course that's just one of the million ways to assign letters to numbers to pitches. I decided to have the numbers 1 to 800 denote the distance in half steps from C but the numbers could denote anything and in each case there will be a different set of 89 letters. Moreover, even with the 89 fixed notes I got through this system, there is an infinite number of ways to place each of those notes in time. For me Sonic Translation resembles more adapting a novel into a film. No matter how exact every filmmaker approaches the story, characters, events, locations, etc... a hundred filmmaker will make a hundred unique films. It's impossible that two films will look alike even if 100% of the elements that make the story are exactly the same. 

One of the tricks I used to compose "Epic" was to not only depend on the melody which is usually the most obvious route. I explored ways to make a conversation between the melody and the bass line which would in fact imply that if we translate the music back to a poem, certain verses would sound "high" and others would sound "low".
This interplay also gave another depth to the composition by adding more room to harmonic explorations.

It was really impressive how each word had a specific feel to it and in some places reflected the meaning. The most striking of all for me personally was “The myth of my time”. The corresponding music sounds like it could be a score for a mythical story and moreover, it coincidentally has the Arabic hijaz scale which gives it this distant vibe. I took the liberty for musical purposes to repeat a certain word or letter more than once (while always keeping the original order of the words) which was something that could also be done while reciting the poem so it still followed the natural flow.

Another interesting observation was the word “Disperse” which notes are all spread across the staff. I did not intentionally compose the bass line dispersed as such, I just happened to hear it like this and looking at it later made so much sense.

 

If you read the poem and you watch the video carefully you will notice that the verse “You king by sadism” is left out from the music (which is why there are 89 notes and the poem is 104 letters). Truth is that I had the corresponding notes written out but only this phrase escaped me, probably because of the large amount of notes I was dealing with and as I only consulted the poem after I was done composing, I discovered this too late. The composition seemed already complete anyway. What if this verse wasn’t numerologically compatible with everything else and therefore wasn’t left out by mistake? Anything is possible with numbers.
 

Get Creative

fig. 5 click to hear "Subscribe"

fig. 5
click to hear "Subscribe"

If you're a curious person you'd probably be wondering by now how does your name (or your lover's name for valentine's sake) sound like. You never know, it might sound like a hit. With basic musical skills you can find out; simply match the letters with the notes and compose your very personal melody. Be creative with TIME, cause time makes musical wonders.
In fact, time is what made a very simple SUBSCRIBE word sound like a dance tune. I simply placed SUBS on every 16th note and CRIBE on every other 16th note (i.e. syncopated; fig. 5).   

 

Will We Ever Run Out of New Music?

On Everything2, Ferrous Lepidoptera looked at the total number of possible different melodies you could create within one octave. Given a single measure containing any combination of whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth or thirty-second notes, she calculated that there would be this many possible unique measures: 123,511,210,975,209,861,511,554,928,715,787,036.
To put it in perspective, this is how many seconds old the universe is: 423,329,886,000,000,000
— Vsauce

Michael Stevens from Vsauce discusses in his video "Will We Ever Run Out of New Music" whether there will come a day in the distant future where humans exhaust all possible combinations of musical notes. He suggested that if we were to calculate how many possible different 5-minute audio files there will ever be, the number will equal to 2 to the 211,000,000th power. That's a number that is 63 million digits long, "it's so huge that we can't even pretend to understand".
So it seems that the sun will run out of heat before we run out of new music and that's wonderful news for composers (bad news for solar panels). As much as I have blind belief in the traditional way of composing which mostly relies on that sudden strike of inspiration followed by an out-of-body experience during which the composer writes something so special that seems to be written by somebody else, I also trust in inventing our own alternate methods of composition. Invent it, experiment with it, blend it. Constantly inventing new tricks for composition will not only trigger uncovered layers of inspiration but will also invoke random melodic combinations that would otherwise never occur to us; so many times we're limited by what we know while the unknown is what holds unexplored beauty.
After all, no matter how creative we would get in inventing different tricks,  eventually we will have to rely on the strike of inspiration as it is only then we will be able to sew the pieces together into a fine tapestry.