Halloween is upon us, and maybe you’re looking for something a little spooky to get you in the mood? Well, Boston songwriter Maria Finkelmeier has exactly the trick: spooky new music she summoned to honor a famous but relatively unknown master of 19th-century ghost stories.
Finkelmeier remembers what crossed her mind two years ago when she first heard of Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904).
“Who is this person?” she wondered. “That’s a really cool name.”
Lafcadio Hearn’s great-great-great-niece Jean Laurenz – who is also a musician – told Finkelmeier everything. âLafcadio is this really wild character who was a nomad born in Greece, who traveled through England, New York, Cincinnati, Ohio – where I’m from – and New Orleans,â Finkelmeier explained, âthen s’ traveled to Japan, and he’s best known for bringing Japanese ghost stories into the English language.
Laurenz had contacted the composer to ask if she would collaborate on a music and multimedia film project inspired by Hearn’s chilling tales and in-depth reflection on Buddhism, the supernatural and spirituality. Of course, she said yes.
To prepare, Finkelmeier plunged headlong into Hearn’s life. She was taken by her troubled and tragic childhood. Hearn was blind in one eye and after his mother died, an aunt mistreated him.
âHe was locked in a closet,â Finkelmeier said. âThe Harry Potter-esque genre is what I always thought of when reading about his life. “
Before Hearn turned to broadcasting folk ghost stories in Japan, he was a reporter in the United States who wanted to shed light on the darker side of real 19th-century life.
âThere’s this juxtaposition of this haunting and beauty in the way he talks about these underrepresented parts of society,â Finkelmeier said, âand the kind of meditation he’s practiced that I really find fascinating.
She and Laurenz decided to express Hearn’s unique purpose through music.
âYes, it’s scary – and yes, it’s disturbing,â said Finkelmeier, âbut it’s also beautiful.â
Now Hearn’s words and ideas travel through a new sonic journey called “Descended”.
One track, titled “The Shadow Shaper”, provides a thematic center for the album. It opens with a chilling recitation delivered by Buzz Kemper.
“It’s not at all made of air, but of phantom …”
Kemper’s intonations mingle with Finkelmeier’s ethereal music. She has a contemporary classical background, “which means I’m really putting a lot of different rhythms and instruments together,” she said, and often uses electronics and improvisation.
âThere are pieces that sound a lot like chamber music. There are pieces that are really inspired by dance music, âadded Finkelmeier,â and I think of Lafcadio who puts all that energy into the world and tries to understand it. “
âI was really drawn to the fact that he finds the beauty within the experience of fear,â Laurenz explained.
As a trumpeter, singer, scholar and explorer, she feels a kinship with her long-lost relative. Laurenz is a professor of music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an interdisciplinary artist. To stimulate the creativity of her collaborator, she sent Hearn’s diary entries to Finkelmeier, as well as books by and about him. This line, taken from one of his many essays, grabbed them both:
“Are there ghosts adorned with ghosts, a life in the endless life?” “
âAnd it just stuck with me,â said Finkelmeier, âand I envisioned these physical spheres and orbs. “
For “Orbs of Ghostliness”, she invoked round musical forms using her main instrument, the marimba. But rather than hitting one of her wooden bars with a mallet, she played it like a cello with a bow. Finkelmeier also tried wrapping the stick in foil.
âIt makes that really rough sound,â she said, âwhich reminds me of goosebumps on your arm.â
To increase the creep factor, Finkelmeier added a simple melody by blowing in his little keyboard-like melodica and Laurenz joined in on the trumpet, which in âOrbs of Ghostlinessâ sounds something like a moan.
For her, the new album explores the fusion of two spheres, “our real physical lives in this time and this space, then our supernatural spiritual selves,” Laurenz said. “And for me, ‘Orbs of Ghostliness’ revolves around these two ideas, sort of playing with the membrane that separates them or brings them together.”
Laurenz is also linked to the way her great-great-great-uncle sympathetically portrays ghosts in his stories. She calls them “ghosts”.
âHaunter is usually a woman who’s had something unfinished in her life, and she’s coming back,â Laurenz said. “And I love that notion, and I also know that the women in Lafcadio’s life were such strong and important figures.”
âHis wife in Japan is the one we really should thank for these Japanese ghost stories,â Finnkelmeier added. “Setsuko Koizumi taught him these stories, then he translated them into English.”
On “Descended”, the collaborators brought the Japanese tale “The Arrival of Mujina” to life. The story goes that Mujina is a crying woman in the woods by a river.
“She is clearly desperate,” Laurenz said, “and a man walks up to her.”
âAnd you sort of hear that lament. You hear that sadness, âFinkelmeier continued.
The man begs Mujina to tell him what is wrong, but the woman does not look at him.
Laurenz vocalizes the two characters in the song, âAnd you feel the energy rise and rise and rise until we have a real cry of fear,â Finkelmeier said, âAnd that’s when the faceless woman appears. “
The effect is confusing. And exciting.
âI hope your back is tingling a bit,â said Finkelmeier, âand then you hear Jean going completely crazy,â with his voice and trumpet playing. For their roles, musician Greg Juke and songwriter posed funky drums, synthesizer and marimba. Finkelmeier said they wanted to replicate the panic of trying to get away – like in a dream or a horror movie – but you keep stumbling.
There is also a strange lullaby called “Moon Song” which taps into our childhood fears. Finkelmeier played a toy piano there to recall Hearn’s early years and the presence of children in many of his ghost stories. In post-production, she layered on a bed of eerie whispers and effects she achieved with sandpaper, water droplets, and stones.
âWe are rooted in goosebumps from an early age,â said Finkelmeier. “Like, what’s scary?” How do you learn to fear?
And while the album may scare some, it caught the attention of the awards committees. âDescendedâ has been submitted for a few Grammy Award categories, including Best Classical Engineering Album and Best Contemporary Composition.
Laurenz and Finkelmeier hope that those who dare to listen to their conjurations on “Descended” will come away with a mixture of terror and excitement that will inspire them to learn more about Lafcadio Hearn. And – since it’s Halloween – they also suggest adding âDescendedâ to your weekend soundtrack.