In “The Music of Erich Zann,” H.P. Lovecraft depicts a mute old man who feverishly plays his viol every night to ward off some unimaginable horror. The story is told from the viewpoint of a stranger who comes to live for a short time in the same building as this musician. The narrator freely admits that he has little knowledge of music and this adds to the mystery of what exactly Erich Zann is playing and the details of his predicament. The narrator is not of the capacity to explain it in musically learned terms. In the end, the story that Erich Zamm writes down himself is lost to the winds during the narrator’s escape. We shall never truly know or understand what has happened. But, let’s go down the rabbit hole and muse anyway, shall we? How could this musician have been called to this agenda and what affect could his music have had on such an unearthly space or any entities residing there? What power could his music wield?
For the purposes of these musings, we need to simultaneously look to our human reality for explanations while balancing a healthy suspension of disbelief. I will not proclaim here that music has any mystical powers, but I will use references merely to spark the imagination of what could cause music to have powers in the setting of the story.
There are a few assumptions that we need to make about Erich Zann to consider the power of his music. Erich Zann plays in an orchestra and then returns home to play music every night. He is a skilled musician in a profession, but what he plays at night goes beyond rehearsal. He is angered and frightened when confronted about it. This is something he feels that he must do and he continues doing it because it has some kind of positive reenforcement. That positive reenforcement appears to be avoiding catastrophe. He is mute. This creates a heightened importance on music as a tool for him to communicate. He does not want anyone human to hear the music. He ensures this by acquiring the top floor to himself and insisting any other humans reside two floors below. His intended audience is clearly something other.
For centuries of our human realm, music has been used in battle to signal actions. The earliest configurations of this involved drums and some kind of horn constructed from animals. Other instruments used throughout time for this purpose have included the bagpipes, fife and trumpet. Music played on these instruments could signal attack, charge, retreat or daily actions such as chow and rest. The essential part about the effectiveness of these signals, is that the army for which they are played for is trained to recognize them and react accordingly. Erich Zann plays the viol. This is not a traditional instrument for military signals. However, if we assumed there is an army on the other side of the window, it is not earthly. If we imagine that he has somehow been designated as the deliverer of said signals to this void and its inhabitants, perhaps there is some action that is taken on the other side. I don’t think that Erich Zann is playing his music to signal an attack or impending doom. He is described as being much too agitated about needing to play and repeatedly picks up his viol and plays in reaction to something that seems to be happening on the other side. Perhaps, he is communicating, “not yet,” or “hold?” The power of his music in this case is purely as a mundane signal.
Another mundane interpretation is that he is playing the music to drown out the sounds from the other side. There is a point in the story when the narrator describes, “He was trying to make a noise; to ward something off or drown something out-…” and then later, “… I thought I heard a shriller, steadier note that was not from a viol;…” This implies that the sounds or music from the darkness have their own power that could some how influence our side. Or, to reverse our military signal idea, the army on the other side is attempting to signal an action and our hapless viol player is attempting to disrupt that signal. Hypothetically, would that work if we were talking about two groups in our human realm? Would a single viol player be able to drown out the instruments from an opposing army’s musicians? I think this could be plausible if there was enough noise or if the instruments and signal constructs were similar. If two trumpet players, for instance, were playing bugle calls at the same time and the troops could not discern the call they would indeed not be able to act upon the signal. For the purposes of our story context, the viol would have to be of an acoustic quality as to effectively disrupt the sounds from the other side. Perhaps our dear musician would not need to exactly know the signals and corresponding actions to effectively disrupt the reception of those commands. There is a point in the story where he does play an actual piece of classical music. One could argue that this achieves such a disruptive result.
What about the other times that “…none of his harmonies had relation to music I had heard before…?” This implies that our musician must have more knowledge or connection to this other place than a mere mortal who happened upon a dimensional rift. Where did he learn such music? How does he know that it will have an affect upon the darkness? To answer this, I think our setting itself has some clues.
The narrator somehow finds this building to live in initially, but at the end of our story, never finds it again. This implies that the building, in and of itself, is possibly not in our human realm. Therefore, the window in Erich Zann’s apartment is only a further portal where we are already outside our reality. Perhaps Erich Zann himself is from this other realm or somehow discovered this realm on his own and chose to live there for a purpose.
Our narrator describes the building as …”the third house from the top of the street and by far the tallest…”. He mentions the room he rents as being on the fifth story, which puts Erich Zann’s room on the sixth. There are a few music theory easter eggs in this setup. There is a concept called the harmonic series or overtone series. The ancient Greek, Pythagoras, first defined this concept through a series of experiments with hammers and strings. When you divide a string in half and play that, it is a higher frequency than that of playing the whole string. If you divide that half by half, you get a higher frequency yet, and so forth, to create a series of intervals. When an instrument such as the viol is played, it is the touch of the finger to the string that creates the correct length of string for the desired pitch. The intervals, or spaces between these frequencies, that are created in the harmonic series are an octave, fifth, fourth, third, third, third and second. In numerals, they are 854-3332. The harmonic series that he identified in these experiments created the basis for our concepts of harmony all the way to the present. These intervals establish acoustically what we, as a western music culture, find pleasing to the ear. The fifth, the fourth and the third are of particular importance to harmony. Our mysterious building in the story is the third house and our narrator lives on the fifth floor. Erich Zann’s room is on the sixth floor. His floor is outside the harmonic series. The sixth can also be interpreted as an inverted third. That is another music theory lesson, but the important thing to note here is that, even in musical terms, the context of where Erich Zann is, is other. It is upside down. “But, the sixth sounds beautiful!” You say. Yes, it does. Our narrator does explain that there isn’t anything “hideous” about the music Erich Zann plays. He performs in a place that is not a place and a time that is not a time.
Performing music every night is a ritual for him in both the routine and esoteric sense Again, I do not propose that one could necessarily achieve this in our modern human realm, but there are references that we can put together and consider as to how his music might have a more mystical affect upon another dimension. There are ancient references to music as a conduit to another place. The Hebrew Bible is one such reference where the Angel Gabriel is said to blow his horn to announce Judgement Day. Such a call would need to be heard in multiple realms to achieve such an announcement. It is also said that humans should “sing praises” in multiple contexts throughout the Bible. This implies that one’s voice could be heard by God in his domain. In many traditions, some sort of prayer or chanting is completed in a ritual to communicate with the deity or entity of choice. We can safely assume, then, that Erich Zann’s music can indeed be heard on the other side of his portal window in this other realm. This is where the height of the building might also come into play. The setting is one that creates a funnel of energy toward a direction. The sparseness of his chambers creates a sort of sacred space that is focused on a purpose. It would also create the possibility of reverberation whereupon the sound waves bounce off the walls and become amplified and echoed. The key aspect to a ritual’s impact is the intent of the practitioner. It is well described in the story that our musician plays with a purpose and therefore his intent would amplify the effectiveness of his melodies. Such focused intent takes a considerable amount of energy and this is also corroborated in our story by his being tired and irritated in social situations with the narrator. He simply has no more energy left for pleasantries.
With the ability to reach another dimension with his music, a sacred space and the power of intent, the next piece in the ritual is the power of the music itself. At its core, music is organized sound. Sound travels via waves through the air that are received and interpreted by the ear. The different frequencies of the sound waves determine how high or low a sound is perceived as. Sound waves themselves can have a sonic effect on matter. Every object has a frequency at which it resonates because every object is made from atoms and electrons that move. When the frequency of sound resonates the same as that object’s frequency, it will affect that object. Think of an opera singer that breaks a glass with her voice. A popular reference of this is the weirding module in Frank Herbert’s Dune that amplifies and controls sound waves to cause varying levels of damage to objects. We can therefore surmise that the pitches that Erich Zann plays could have specific effects upon the resonant frequencies of what lies beyond. If matter is different, or doesn’t exist in the same way there, it plays to reason that resonances that we are not used to listening to here would need to be achieved to affect the darkness. Since our narrator explains that he hears sounds that are not like anything he has heard before, our logic follows. It is also worth noting that our narrator does not experience pain or discomfort at the music. Our ears are able to perceive a wide range of frequencies at a wide range of volume. Though it is possible to permanently damage the ear drum with loud sounds, this is not mentioned in the story. We can only assume that it is only the other that is affected in a certain way by the music.
A viol is an instrument developed during the renaissance that has six strings and is played with a bow. We know it today by the names of its various sizes, from smallest to largest: the violin, viola, violoncello (‘cello), and bass viol (bass). Since Lovecraft uses the general term, we have to do a little more considering to know exactly what our musician is playing. A bass viol would need to be played standing or sitting on a stool. Since our musician is described as sitting in a chair while playing, he is likely playing any of the other three. He plays with a bow and sometimes achieves sounds that our narrator can’t comprehend as a single player. A professional player is adept at playing multiple notes at a time upon the strings with a bow, but since our narrator is not knowledgeable in music, he would find this more amazing. What a viol does allow that other instruments may not, is the ability to slide along the string with the fingers while simultaneously bowing and creating a smooth glide between frequencies. This technique can sound rather ethereal and has been used to great affect in many scary movie scores. There are mundane ways of achieving non-traditional sounds on a stringed instrument. You can “prepare” it by putting various objects on, under or around the strings. This would have sounded much more unusual to an audience in Lovecraft’s time as this practice didn’t become widely explored until the 1960’s. You can attach some sort of amplification or effects processor to the instrument to create unnatural sounds. Since neither of these techniques were around at the time of our story, I think it is best to assume that his instrument is unadulterated. However, if I were tasked with composing music for a film of “The Music of Erich Zann,” I would likely use some of these techniques in the off screen audio recording because what the audience sees and what they hear not matching up would add to the mystery and weirdness.
That leaves us with melody. A melody is a series of frequencies in linear time. Our narrator hears the same melody repeatedly and is even able to somewhat successfully hum it. Erich Zann bids him silent when he hears it. This implies that perhaps the melody is the most important aspect of this magical feat and it doesn’t matter upon which instrument it is performed. It is the exact series of frequencies that is important. A modern reference of this concept is Close Encounters of the Third Kind where our character dreams of a melody and learns later that this is a way to communicate with the aliens that arrive. Is there a way to determine from our story what this melody could be? Lovecraft does not leave us any solid clues and that compounds the mystery. We can guess that perhaps the intervals of the fifth, third and sixth may come into play again, maybe even to contrast with something else. Intervals that are outside the harmonic series and create what we call “dissonance” might be included. These intervals might be altered seconds, ninths, elevenths or the augmented fourth or tritone. The use of these intervals is fairly common in jazz and not unusual to our modern ears, but could be used with strategic effect mixed in with classical and romantic style melodic expectations.
Without knowing the true nature of what lies beyond and how it might be affected by specific frequencies, we are left to imagine what the melody would sound like. We know that it is in the possible realm of frequencies that can be created by the viol and the human voice. The pattern of the frequencies would differ from the classical or romantic styles known in the time period of our story, but may not sound as odd to our modern ears. But then, we need not know the pitch of the battle horn to experience the impending doom by the effect it has on the army that is listening. It seems that we can somewhat rest in the hope that his melodies are holding back the unimaginable.
We will never truly know what past circumstances led Erich Zann to carry on this nightly task of serenades to the void in this place outside of a place. We will never read his story rendered on those lost pages. However, it is clear that his music has power in the context of his chambers and the darkness beyond. May you sing your melodies with intention and purpose and perhaps take up the mantle of our dear musician in discovering how to keep the darkness at bay.
Bridgette Brenmark is Conductor, Composer and Artist. Check out her creations here!