As G-Muse got creative this week, so shall I. As music (Muse-ic?) is even more a passion with me than Magic – I’m at around 4900 songs in my collection, all legally acquired; my Magic collection’s around 15000 cards – I’ve combined it with Magic in all sorts of ways. Specifically, I have 26 hour-long compilations of music each encompassing and embodying a different color, pair, shard, or wedge (along with colorless), honed over the last two years to get the most direct correlation between musical and magical evocations.
The principles I’ve picked up along the way apply to any project you might want to undertake with Magic flavor – original art, making a gift for somebody, getting someone artsy to make a gift for you, et cetera. My examples will of course be musical; if you saw me try to draw, paint, or build anything, you’d have comedy in the making. But behind any Magic-based project – think of it as a theme project much like you’d make a theme deck – there’s a deep understanding of Magic flavor and how to transfer it across media.
So here’s my take on it:
1. This stuff can be quantified and described.
Some might find the topic a bit esoteric and undefined, but even those people know on some level that Borborygmos won’t be seeing the Boston Pops anytime soon and that Linvala would prefer keeping silence to moshing. Why? Because Magic flavor, unique as it is, is rooted in tropes and archetypes that correspond to real people and things. If green is about trees and Forests, then settings with treefolk will feel green, and music that conjures up a forest will be green music. Soundtrack composers work with these concepts all the time; why do you hear so many woodwinds on soundtracks of forest settings? Simply, these are the sounds you can make out of things in forests. It can get more complex than that, but it doesn’t have to.
2. There are tons of hints if you know where to look.
I started the project initially with color pairs, as they had the most obvious flavor, fed us by the wonderful Ravnica block (and it’s no stretch to say that its clear flavor delineations helped its legacy endure over, say, Shadowmoor). It’s easy to understand, e.g., Agrus Kos, as he’s in the “noble soldier” box we’ve encountered plenty of times. So uplifting military music or anything approximating its distinctiveness, is appropriate for him and therefore is appropriate to red-white on the whole.
But it’s a lot easier than that if you just read any dual lands, as the brevity of their names necessitates the most condensed flavor Magic can offer. The Ravnica duals are especially helpful on that front. While you may not think immediately of what a Watery Grave might sound like, you know its sounds are different than from a Temple Garden or a Sacred Foundry. The pounding of anvils you would hear in the Foundry has no comparison in a Grave. In fact, since each Ravnica dual land has one word for each color, you could lay them out by color and get reasonable descriptors of each color’s flavor:
White: Hallowed/Sacred Shrine/Temple
Blue: Watery Fountain/Pool/Vents
Black: Godless Crypt/Grave/Tomb
Red: Blood/Steam/Stomping Foundry
Green: Breeding/Overgrown Garden/Ground
In a more structured way, you can express music and other art on spectra the same way that enemy colors differ on the color pie, as expressed in Apocalypse split cards:
White v. Black: Day v. Night (Bright/cheerful v. dark/paranoid)
White v. Red: Order v. Chaos (Structured/defined v. loose/messy)
Blue v. Red: Ice v. Fire (Cold/thinking v. warm/feeling)
Blue v. Green: Illusion v. Reality (Artificial/constructed v. real/natural)
Black v. Green: Death v. Life (Dead/decaying v. alive/growing)
3. Because of its basis in existing archetypes, this information is easily translatable.
These are the fundamental tensions between Magic colors, but they’re also fundamental tensions across all art. ‘60s protest rock? Red/green; passionate pleas against “the man” (whose devotion to order is white) delivered with the natural instruments on hand combines those colors easily. It’s no great stretch to think of acoustic guitars as green and synthesizers blue, “clean” production and tight playing as white with the opposites red, and so on. After that, it’s just a matter of combining them in the ways your medium permits. A painting with clean lines and dark themes would be white-black from their respective elements, but so could a daytime scene full of decay – it’s just white-black from other spectra.
Since military music is a clear example, I’ll use it again; in particular, think of a drum-and-fife corps. If they’re regimented like soldiers, there’s an order present – order is quite the white theme. If they need the passion to go to battle and do their job well, that part of the music is red. The snare drum is white in its precision but red in how it’s being played – if the drummer sounded bored or played a slow rhythm, how would it arouse the heat of battle in anyone? That’s how it works across the board.
4. Expressions of Magic colors and philosophies exist in whatever medium – you just might need to dig.
Fully commercial music, just like an advertisement, isn’t going to have the range of expression necessary for flavor projects, but someone out there is expressing these themes. Not even all soundtrack work does this too well, largely because it’s easy to portray a standard good v. evil story (more or less white v. black) without giving the characters any more depth. You have the occasional rogue v. the government (Minority Report could be red v. white) or even the natural good guys v. the artificial bad guys (Star Wars at its broadest is red-green-white v. blue-black), but popular entertainment tends to focus on a few tensions disproportionately, whereas they’re equal in Magic. I think that’s why Lord of the Rings made for a great movie series to some (I know there are debates, but I don’t care enough about them to enter that discussion); while other popular series covered the other colors, LotR as a cinema experience was very green-oriented. Obviously, having treefolk in it gave that bit away, but it really helps when there are actual forests and mountains to tie fantasy elements to. That forest/fantasy element – the green bit – gives the trilogy a different movie feel from similar series, and that element seems to be underrepresented in modern epic films.
It’s easy movie technique to put the good guys in the light and the bad guys in darkness; see, e.g., basically every Disney cartoon. It’s a lot harder to build characters with depth and nuance, making some of the color pie underrepresented in well-known movies. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there at all; search a little bit harder and you’ll find them.
It’s the same in music as well. All the Magic themes are covered in music, just not in equally popular doses, which is another reason why some might think this exercise impractical.
So what does this sound/look like?
I can write volumes on this – I did in an old blog – and will write more on Muse Vessel if you in the comments ask for it. But for now, here are the basics for colors and pairings, followed by a YouTube link as an example for each. (Many of these songs are long; if you’re not in the mood for total color immersion, go to the middle of the song to get an idea of what I’m talking about.)
W Clean production, chords erring on the uncomplicated side (why do you need all those extra bits?), and sunny days are the idea here. You know where everything is in the piece; it’s all out in the open. High strings go here; cavernous bass does not, as you’re looking to the sky and not the ground (green) or below (black). Just as themes of the sacred and the righteous permeate white, so does the ethereal (it’s why Angels are white), and there’s plenty of ethereal music out there.
U The artificial, insular Wizards of the world are just where you’d expect them: behind synthesizers making esoterica. Rock is a strange concept for blue; why would you limit yourselves to a few instruments when man has the technology for any sound you can imagine? Watery sounds help here too.
B Black and green are the easiest colors to identify by themselves. Here, take anything focused entirely on darkness and you’ve got the idea. Black loves it some low bass to take over the productions; it creates that sense of menace and doom crucial to the angst of the color.
R Does the whole song sound like it was hammered out in one go? Is it faster than you can talk? Then it’s red. I’ve bored red already with how much I’m talking about it.
G Acoustic, natural, alive, and real – these are the aesthetics of green. Green wants to host an outdoor festival and sing Kum Ba Yah. It doesn’t mind being passionate about it, but it’s not red’s passion which is largely for its own sake; green really wants you to know what it’s about.
Azorius (WU): The cold taskmasters of Ravnica are as austere in their art, yet there’s an angelic character about it. That cold is as light as Dimir’s is dark; it comes from a sense of purpose and order. Minimal trance covers this area well. If I had to explain this whole flavor-as-art concept with no words, I’d show Azorius artwork and play this song:
Dimir (UB): The artifice of blue with the darkness of black. Just as the Dimir were secretive, so should their music sound like it doesn’t understand the outside or daylight. Dark, paranoid, and artificial, there’s plenty of great electronica for this:
Rakdos (BR): Dark, yes, but also passionate from red; this creates a frenzied insanity matched by no other color pair. Ideally, art or music of this type sounds like it wants to pummel you.
Gruul (RG): The Gruul wish to pummel you too, but outdoors – they don’t use a Stomping Ground for nothing. They don’t need artificial sounds to get there; they have all the natural tools they need to do it. Any sort of fast world music or jazz fusion will bring Gruul to the party.
Selesnya (GW): If the Gruul jam frantically to see what awesomeness comes out, the Selesnya are the ones pensively writing some sheet music and bringing it with them to a carefully planned concert. Natural stuff is great, but give it some order, people.
Orzhov (WB): The dark angel character shows up in enough Magic and art that it’s easy to imagine what that sounds like musically – just like the Godless Shrine the Orzhov are known for: a sense of the ethereal when darkness is there instead. Haunting is a term both for songs like the one below and Blind Hunter. It works.
Izzet (UR): Of all the guilds, I think the Izzet’s the least understood (their dual land name, Steam Vents, doesn’t help). They weren’t totally crazy; they were just passionate about their experiments and gained knowledge unbounded and unfettered, which scared the other guilds. But the guilds still used Izzet inventions for their own purposes without being completely afraid of them. There’s also that misunderstanding with art and music. Not everything freakishly weird is blue-red; what you’re looking for here on the spectra is either messy thinking or passionate artifice. If “Better Living Through Chemistry” is a white-blue sentiment, “Life is Chemistry” is blue-red. It’s a key difference that keeps a blue-red mix CD or art from going completely off its hinges into weirdness.
Golgari (BG): Just as dark angels are well-known, a dark, foreboding forest full of mushroom-hoarding witches has its fantasy niche. The Legend of Zelda franchise alternates between its green-white and green-black moments; think of the dark parts of any of those games and you’re here.
Boros (RW): Passionate regiments have real-life and fantasy components, making this one easy. Just as in military music, loud, propulsive snares help with the order and focus, though anything allowing a march can get there.
Simic (GU): Artificial life that isn’t automatically robotic is a difficult subject, but Magic nailed the guild flavor perfectly, and although there isn’t loads of music in this area, what music there is covers it perfectly. I find it hard to put it into words, so the song and Simic artwork will help. It was this song that got me thinking about this entire project, as it said green-blue from the first second I heard of it:
Hopefully this discussion has helped you appreciate the depth of Magic flavor. How nuts is it that every year we get about 650 new paintings, several new stories and subplots, and other related content? Magic gives us tons of flavor every year; we might as well see how it applies to other things.