What is a "polyalbum"? | Listening Tips | Credits | Composer Bio | Video | Notes

What is a "polyalbum"?

I had a crazy thought one day. I’d just bought the new Chili Peppers double album and noticed how the tracks of the album lined up perfectly on the back cover. I wondered, what if they secretly planned these two discs to be heard at the same time, thus creating one supersaturated musical mashup?

Turns out Stadium Arcadium was not designed this way at all, but it got me thinking. Maybe I could try creating a double album with two discs that could be played together...

Well, I took this idea way too seriously and actually did it. It took two years and around one hundred awesome musicians and voice actors, but my crazy dream became a reality and a "polyalbum" was born - The Mystery of Grey Matters.

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Since this was my music composition thesis project, I actually wrote quite a bit about it. If you’d like to read my scholarly take on The Mystery of Grey Matters, check out the program notes.

Listening Tips

I like to describe The Mystery of Grey Matters as “audio cinema” – a movie for your ears. You’ll hear the dream-like story of Grey Matters unfold through a mix of dialogue and music. Like a movie (or any another concept album), you’ll get much more out of it when you listen all the way through each disc.

For the full polyalbum experience:

  1. The Mystery of Grey Matters: L – 48 min
  2. The Mystery of Grey Matters: R – 48 min
  3. The Mystery of Grey Matters: L+R – 48 min

Musically, get ready for a mix of new classical, avant-pop, folk, rock, minimalist art music, ambient free improvisation, sound collage, radio drama...

Credits


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The Mystery of Grey Matters was composed, performed, and mixed by Charlie McCarron with the assistance of:

Cast (in order of appearance)

Joe Graves...........................................................Gregory “Grey” Matters
Nick Graves...................................................................................Brother
Michael Rubbelke............................................................................Doctor
Maribeth Overland.........................................................................Mother
Matt Schubbe...........................................................................Older Grey
Amy Wolf....................................................................................Hypnotist
Amanda Weis..........................................................................Older Daisy
Sam McCarron....................................................................................Pilot
Abby Judkins.....................................................................................Daisy
Kathy Cosmano................................................................................Nurse
Dr. Edward Turley..................................................................................DJ

Instrumentalists

Charlie McCarron...........................Guitar, Piano, Violin, Electronics, Vocals
Nick Syman...............................................................Trombone, Keyboard
Jon Werth..................................................................................Percussion
Matt Haider......................................................................................Piano
Jed Anderson...................................................................................Drums
Mitchell Johnson.....................................................................Guitar, Piano
Nick Graves...............................................................................Keyboard
Matt Schubbe...................................................................................Piano
Jeff Engholm..........................................................................Acoustic Bass
Tyler Tholl...........................................................................Christmas Song
Rob Carmichael................................................................................Drums
Andy Price................................................................................Bass Guitar
Joe Graves......................................................................................Guitar
Reese Mankenberg...........................................................................Guitar
Dr. David Arnott and the CSB/SJU Orchestra
Prof. Maureen Putnam and the CSB/SJU All College Choir

Special Thanks To

Dr. Brian Campbell, Project Advisor
Jeffrey Schwinghammer, Album Art
Greg Reierson, Mastering
Marcus Webster and the CSB/SJU Undergraduate Research Department

About the Composer

I grew up in Stillwater, Minnesota with a family that taught me to enjoy both nature and computers by the age of two. I’ve loved making music ever since I was able to reach up and touch the keys on my great-grandmother’s piano. But I’ve only been a true music nerd since I started taking classes at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict in 2004.

My musical life in college was divided between composing, playing violin in the orchestra, and listening to lots of new, old, beautiful and bizarre music. During my sophomore year, I composed a tone poem for orchestra that took first place in the James and Paula Nelson Young Composers Competition. Seeing it performed live by the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra was an incredible experience, to say the least.

While formulating ideas for the polyalbum, I started performing more around campus with a bunch of my music friends. I got to play everything from folk to pop to improv chance music with The Cagetones. Many of these influences found their way into The Mystery of Grey Matters, either through subconscious composition or simply mixing in some of these impromptu jam session recordings.

I finished The Mystery of Grey Matters with my sanity mostly intact, but a huge sleep debt to pay. I summoned manic energy and made it through the end of senior year to the polyalbum premiere on May 2, 2008. Luckily I got an “A” and was able to graduate.

After that, I wanted to get out of the editing room and into the sunshine. For nine months, I stayed at a monastery in Tanzania to teach English, music, and computers in the village schools. Since my return to Minnesota, I have been sound designing a feature film, blogging for a London music agency, and organizing an online Cover of the Month Club.

Feel free to get in touch. I would be happy to hear from you!

Charlie McCarron

Video from the Premiere

The Mystery of Grey Matters was unveiled at my senior recital on May 2nd, 2008. The first half featured (mostly) improvised music from The Cagetones - Nick Syman on trombone and electonics, Jon Werth on percussion, and me using a laptop, toy keyboard, and Nintendo Wiimote:

After intermission, I came out and started playing the piano introduction to The Mystery of Grey Matters. While the spotlight faded down, the first disc (L) faded up in the front speakers, and the second disc (R) faded up in the rear speakers. Jeff Schwinghammer and I created the video, which slowly evolved over the course of 48 minutes.

The choir piece you hear at the end of both L and R was sung by the CSB/SJU All College Choir a week before the premeire. Skip ahead 2 minutes if you don't want to hear me rambling on about the theory behind this piece...

Program Notes

The dreamer never knows he is asleep.

From one state of consciousness to the next, he slips easily down a continuous stream of thoughts and emotions. Because the present world seems so vividly real, he can never imagine a world beyond it.

Young Gregory "Grey"” Matters develops the opposite problem. A second, equally vivid world begins to peek through, in the form of dream-like hallucinations. This “double consciousness” threatens to overwhelm Grey’s mind to the point where he can no longer distinguish reality from dream. Grey must decide: will he struggle to maintain a normal life, or will he embrace his condition as a gift and journey inward to a world unbound by time and place?

In The Mystery of Grey Matters, we experience the mind of a man split between two realities. The music, sound, and dialogue provide glimpses into Grey’s life throughout the course of two discs, L and R. However, a new perspective on his story emerges when both L and R are heard simultaneously on the third disc, L+R. The Mystery of Grey Matters is thus a “polyalbum.”

From a compositional standpoint, a polyalbum must be cleverly crafted so that two discs stand on their own as individual pieces of music. At the same time, their combination must remain cohesive as a rich new piece of art. This compositional process is a balancing act between simplicity and complexity. Since the human mind can only attend to a limited amount of audio information at once, the listener’s focus naturally shifts back and forth between discs. In this way, the traditional compositional technique of musical dialogue plays out on a grand scale, with one disc “soloing” and the other “accompanying” at various times.

In The Mystery of Grey Matters, the added element of spoken dialogue creates a different form of interplay than that found in an ordinary musical duet. At times during the polyalbum, we hear one character saying two different things simultaneously, further blurring the line between Grey’s realistic external and dreamlike internal experiences. Part of a scene’s “realism” depends on how we interpret its soundscape. While some sounds are perceived as originating from an external environment, such as a rock concert, other sounds seem more internal, such as an ethereal-sounding heartbeat. Still others have ambiguous origins, such as the doctor’s distorted voice. Like Grey, we are challenged to comprehend these multiple layers of reality.

Much of what we hear actually occurs outside Grey’s consciousness, including the sung narration and most of the music. Like a film score, these sounds occupy another realm heard only by the audience. Yet they play an integral role in understanding Grey’s experience. For example, Grey’s psychological tension reveals itself during moments of musical tension. Because music possesses this unique ability to convey emotion, the mood of a scene may be dramatically redefined by the polyalbum effect. What was once a lighthearted love song can become a deeply romantic ballad or a mentally disturbed dirge, depending on the accompanying soundscape. The polyalbum’s musical dichotomy in many ways represents Grey’s own condition. Just as each disc affects how we perceive the other, Grey’s life is intrinsically shaped by each state of consciousness he experiences.

This double world established by the dialogue and music may lead listeners to wonder: is Grey suffering from schizophrenia? We are presented with only a few snapshots of his life, perhaps not enough to draw conclusions. From what we do hear, however, it is apparent that Grey and the people around him have come to associate schizophrenia with “insanity.” Even as a child, Grey seems to become quickly aware of this disorder’s negative connotations. His own mother is afraid to confront the term, and diagnoses him with an “active imagination.”

Grey suggests two other possible causes for his condition alongside schizophrenia: radioactivity and the devil. These reflect the stigma often attached to mental health problems. Imagine that Grey suffers instead from a physical disorder, such as leukemia. He will likely be viewed as a normal person with an unfortunate physical condition. However, when diagnosed with a mental disorder, Grey is labeled “crazy” and judged by others to be a very different person. What if Grey does just have an overactive imagination, and he’s dreaming the whole thing? Would he still be called insane? Or would we, as listeners, consider his character more “normal”?

Despite any dehumanizing labels placed on Grey, we can ultimately relate to him as a character. He yearns for companionship. He skips homework to write love songs. He gets his car stuck in the snow. His heart beats time until, like each of us, he must leave this world. What happens after that? Perhaps it’s best left a mystery.

The dreamer will only know upon waking.