Andrew Oliver was rereading The Canterbury Tales a few years ago. A musician as well as a student of literature, Oliver got inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic interlocking series of stories told by pilgrims making their way to Canterbury, entertaining themselves along the way, revealing bits about their characters, shedding light on their motivations, capturing the richness of medieval English society.
“I was thinking ‘What a fantastic story,’” said Oliver, who spoke with me by phone from his home in Greensboro recently. Oliver had graduated from UNCG with a degree in literature. So, Chaucer wasn’t new to him. What struck him this time was the possibility of making music inspired and related to the book of stories written in Middle English in the late 14th century.
Oliver decided to tackle the sizeable challenge, and he ended up writing a large batch of instrumental music based on and inspired by The Canterbury Tales — 25 pieces in total, one for each of the 24 tales and one for the general prologue. Oliver records and releases his music under the name of Chaucerian Myth. The music is tagged as “dungeon synth,” which is a genre description that was new to me. But you can dive into the genre on streaming-music sites. You can visit the Chaucerian Myth Bandcamp page, which is decorated with medieval images and designs.
Dungeon synth often draws on an aesthetic inspired by feudalism, castles, wizardry and weaponry. It’s part Game of Thrones, part King Arthur, given a sprinkling of early polyphony. Many of the artists making dungeon synth came from the world of black metal, which has a similar stock of imagery, with aspects of pre-Christian and pagan mythology. But the music tends to be much more meditative and less abrasive. Oliver said he was “a big progressive rock fan,” and that’s partly what nudged him toward his interest in a concept album.
Oliver, 25, has been making music for 10 years, but his mode of creativity had kept him from performing out live, and the expense of collaborating with other musicians and booking studio time tended to focus his efforts to laptop-based compositions.
Chaucerian Myth’s music occupies a curious spot. It’s instrumental music, drawing on timbres often associated with older styles. There are harpsichord sounds, bells, English horn tones, organ, timpani, something akin to viols or cellos. Chord progressions cycle through, in canon fashion, with a lot of melodic counterpoints. But if the sounds hint at early music, the synthetic nature of the timbres adds a strange futuristic aspect to the recordings. There aren’t a lot of backbeats, for instance. The music has a kind of new-age goth vibe to it. There are points where one might think of the ominous but somehow relaxing soundtracks to David Lynch movies made by composer Angelo Badalamenti. At other times Eno, Pink Floyd, or Emerson, Lake and Palmer might come to mind. Sometimes the music might sound like an instrumental outtake from a Beach Boys session. Or like a video game-rendition of “Carmina Burana.”
There is an impressively unrushed quality to the music, with tracks going on for 15, 20 or 30 minutes. The instrumental voices make their statements, often getting joined by another contrasting line and piling up to a dramatic mesh of harmonies. There can be tangy dissonances. And there can be grandiose climaxes.
“I’ve tended to make tracks where there’s anywhere from 10 to 30 different parts,” said Oliver about his process.
The music sounds like it’s being played by a machine, with that unwavering dynamic attack and unrelenting metronomic quality, but somehow the whiff of a phantom inhuman element is in keeping with the genre’s overall aesthetic.
Oliver has communicated with dungeon synth fans and fellow musicians from all over.
Within the world of dungeon synth, it’s not hard to find individuals who have seemingly fetishized the living conditions and social structures of serfdom, though in the early 21st century, with the unusual pressures of late capitalism, one can understand the appeal of an anachronistic fantasy of technological simplicity and dynamic cosmologies.
Oliver released his Canterbury Tales record in 2016. This fall, Chaucerian Myth came out with another musical companion to a monument of English literature, Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” from the late 16th century. Last year, Oliver focused on yet another, more obscure piece of English literature, “The Book of Margery Kempe,” a piece of early autobiographical writing recounting the religious awakening of a Christian mystic from the 14th century. Oliver’s music is suitably tormented and dark, with swirling and churning voices that might suggest the sound of assailing demons that Kempe said beset her at times. One section — from a track called “Demonic Visions”— sounds like a cacophony of car horns or murky radio static. It’s menacing stuff.
Part of Oliver’s mission involves the unlikely challenge of getting people interested in obscure works of medieval literature.
“I hope to reawaken people’s attention and at least spur them to think about these books again because they’re not in the general public consciousness,” Oliver said. It’s worth noting that Oliver is a librarian by day, so he does have a good sense of what people are reading.
Chaucerian Myth isn’t limited to using literature from the middle ages as a jumping-off point for the music. Oliver has riffed on Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and he’s essentially completed projects that are inspired by other (comparatively) more recent writers such as the 18th-century Scottish bard Robert Burns and the Victorian-era poet Christina Rossetti. As an artist, Oliver has found that, since his work involves finding a creative spur for instrumental music in pieces of literature and in narrative, he’s almost always receiving inspiration.
“Now, basically any time I watch a movie or read a book,” Oliver said, “music ideas run through my head.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.