Video games are one of my great passions in life. I’m not kidding. I think the medium is absolutely fascinating, and have thought so since I was a child and discovered Baldur’s Gate and Final Fantasy VII. You can laugh. The debate as to whether video games count as “art” or not is ongoing, only slightly younger than the games themselves, and quite similar to whether or not we were planning to take seriously this whole “moving pictures” business that seemed exclusively under the purview of pornographers and their ilk.
I have not yet played a game that’s reached the level of great art, but the medium is young, and the first few decades of novels were probably not so good. I assure you, even in my lifetime games have come a long way from Pong and Pacman. I’ve played games that have made me laugh, cry, and question reality. Their unique qualities make things possible that other media don’t: in nine games out of ten, you’re in the protagonist’s shoes, making choices on their behalf. The illusion of control is powerful, seductive, and not always positive. But I think the possibilities of fostering empathy are present and important, too. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, I present to you the first and maybe only example of an opera in a video game! I guarantee you, this plot point introduced a generation of young people to the idea of opera. (I don’t have data to support this, but just trust me, okay?) During the first “act” of the Japanese roleplaying game Final Fantasy VI—no, none of them have yet been the final Final Fantasy—the protagonists are trying to recruit a particular ally who’s tough to pin down, but has a crush on the world’s reigning prima donna. Serendipitously, one of the characters looks just like her! So you, the player, controlling this character, einspring into a production of The Dream Oath, singing the lead role of Maria. The player is required to read the libretto, memorize the first line of each verse, and execute some simple blocking; if you make a mistake, the production goes haywire and the plot is foiled. Notwithstanding the realism (seriously, remembering the first line of a verse will take any singer a long way) and lack thereof (no mention of whether or not this character can sing), the scenario is hilarious, and justly famous among gamers for its quirky individuality.
Please enjoy this pixellated rendition of an excerpt from Nobuo Uematsu’s first and only opera, The Dream Oath. Synth and animation courtesy of the Super Nintendo, circa 1994.
I encourage all of you to explore Björk’s work. Most of us think of her as that crazy Icelandic woman who showed up to the Oscars in a swan dress—how outré! She’s actually a prolific producer, composer, and performer of her own music. Her singing really threw me at first. Later it grew on me, as strange, imperfect voices are wont to do on all of us.
It’s hard to know where to begin; her body of work is extensive. She’s been a professional musician since she was a teenager, is fifty-one now, and shows no signs of letting up. Her albums travel through the decades from punk to Europop to electronic lullabies to protest anthems to a multimedia science project about the natural history of Earth. Vespertine (source of the infamous swan dress) was my gateway drug, but I have yet to hear an album of hers I dislike.
Her experiment on this album, Medúlla, is to produce music created entirely by human voices. She distorts and instrumentalizes her samples, but ultimately every sound has roots in somebody’s larynx. Nowhere is this more evident than on the track I picked out for today. Its structure is functionally that of a choir and soloist; I think choirs have actually performed it in concert. It’s also one of the rare occasions on which Björk performs an entire song in Icelandic, her first language. Most unusual: she composed neither the music nor its lyrics. The composer is Jórunn Viðar, Icelandic pianist and composer, and the text is a setting of a poem by Jakobína Sigurðardóttir—so perhaps Vökuró is the most art-song-like of Björk’s output.
bærinn minn og þinn
sefur sæll í kyrrð
hljótt í húmi á jörð
grasið mitt og þitt
geymir mold til vors
leynt við brekkurót
vakir eins og við
kyrrlátt kalda vermsl
starir stillt um nótt
Langt í burt
vakir veröld stór
grimmum töfrum tryllt
óttast nótt og dag
óttalaus og hrein
brosa við mér björt
blessað brosið þitt
vekur ljóð úr værð
hljóð í örmum snæs
lokar augum blám
litla stúlkan mín
my farm and yours
sleeps happily at peace
silent at dusk on earth
my grass and yours
keeps the earth til spring
hid at the hill’s root
awake as are we
faith in life
quiet cold spring
eye of the depths
into the firmament
staring still in the night
wakes the great world
mad with grim enchantment
fearful of night and day
fearless and serene
smile bright at me
your blest smile
rouses verse from sleep
the earths rests
silent in arms of snow
closes her blue eyes
my little girl
One morning you wake up and a schoolmate of yours just won a Pulitzer. Another morning, you wake up and a bunch of your friends (and their friends) just won a Grammy. That second event might happen more than once if your friends are in the Grammy-award-winning-vocal-band Roomful of Teeth. I’m saying these things partially to talk about how cool my friends are, partially so that you know I’m not JUST posting this song because it’s by my friends, and partially because god I have cool friends.
Shaw’s Pulitzer-winning composition is called Partita for Eight Voices. The voices in question are those of the members of Roomful of Teeth, an a cappella vocal band that fuses styles from all over the globe into contemporary classical music. It’s tough to describe, but seeing them live feels like going to one of the best rock concerts you’ve ever attended in a little club, except it’s also one of the best new music concerts you’ve ever attended, except they’re blending Western classical vocal technique with belting, yodeling, Tuvan throat singing, and Korean P’ansori (among others) while managing to avoid cultural appropriation and tokenization, as far as I can tell. Like I said, tough to describe. You’d better just listen.
In her suite, Shaw riffs on baroque dance forms, stripping them down to core elements and stretching them onto new frames. The spoken text in this movement, Allemande, is taken from directions for American square dancing: “allemande left,” for example. Clever, right? It’s hard to say whether it counts as a song, exactly—does it count if you need more than one singer to perform it?—but I think it does, because I put it on my headphones and sing along all the time.
In preparation for my sister’s move to Israel this year, I asked her for a list of Israeli pop music I could listen to—you know, for my own edification. “Start with Idan Raichel,” she said. I’d heard of him, I thought, vaguely, but I wasn’t prepared for what his music is actually like. More properly known as “The Idan Raichel Project”—one source puts the number of his collaborators over the years at around ninety—his band aims to unite the diverse cultural threads that make up the Middle East. His songs are performed in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Amharic; he works regularly with vocalists from Ethiopia, Yemen, and Sudan; he’s even branched out to include musicians from America, Germany (Andreas Scholl, anyone?), and—yes—Palestine. What would feel gimmicky from other artists seems here, to me, profound. Raichel and I both have doubts about the ability of music to directly create peace: “Obviously you cannot solve 150 years of Palestinian and Israeli conflict with an album,” he said in one interview. But surely every little bit helps.
This song is my favorite on his first international album. It’s called “Mi-ma’amakim,” or “Out of the depths,” as in Psalm 130. But he quickly pivots the lyrics to a plaintive love song. “Out of the depths I call to you, come to me…” Between verses, one of his Ethiopian collaborators sings “Nanu, nanu ney,” a folksong along the same lines. From all this fusion, an indelibly catchy pop song is born.
Singer-songwriter-pianist Regina Spektor is a force of nature. I am not cool enough to have heard of her before she was cool—I encountered her when I saw her music video for “Fidelity,” like everybody else. Remember that song where they were in a totally white room throwing colorful paint or Holi powder or something on each other? And she did that “hea-ah-ah-art” riff with all the glottals? Yeah, I liked that song.
So I bought the album it was on, and as much as I liked that song and the others like it, the song I fell most in love with (probably) is one of the most bizarre. She’s quoted discussing her songwriting as follows:
“It doesn’t feel natural for me to write some diary type song. I want to write a classic like Yesterday but weird songs about meatballs in refrigerators come into my head—I can’t help it.”
Like this one, for example. It’s just so strange! It starts off with this psychedelic keyboard patch (I think), then she kind of growls this line about some guy being a wounded animal who lives in a matchbox, and then goes on to talk about his daughter and gets into a grumpy riff about “navigators with their mappy maps and moldy heads,” which sounds like something my brain would think when it’s irritated and confused by something, like the character in the song is. What is it about? A girl raised by her crazy dad in the woods for twenty years, who goes to the big city and is overwhelmed by everything? Or is that just what I think it’s about?
Maybe it’s not about anything. But I love it unconditionally. Also, Regina Spektor is a great pianist.
He’s a wounded animal
He lives in a matchbox
He’s a wounded animal
And he’s been coming around here
He’s a dying breed
His daughter is twenty years of snow falling
She’s twenty years of strangers looking into each other’s eyes
She’s twenty years of clean
She never truly hated anyone or anything
She’s a dying breed
She says I’d prefer the moss
I’d prefer the mouth
A baby of the swamps
A baby of the south
I’m twenty years of clean
And I never truly hated anyone or anything
But I got to get me out of here
This place is full of dirty old men
And the navigators with their mappy maps
And moldy heads and pissing on sugar cubes
While you stare at your boots
And the words float out like holograms
They say, feel the waltz, feel the waltz
Come on, baby, baby, now feel the waltz
“Kafka Fragments” has the dubious, possibly oxymoronic distinction of being a famous piece of contemporary vocal chamber music – that is to say, people in certain circles feel it’s overdone and basically nobody else has ever heard of it. It’s an hour-long song cycle for solo female voice and solo violin, with texts from Franz Kafka’s diaries and letters. The “fragments” range in length from twenty seconds to ten minutes of music. Each is a fiendishly-notated jewel of expression. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not interested in thorny contemporary music for its own sake—I really have to like a piece to take it on. When my violinist friend Jacob Ashworth sent me this recording of Kafka-Fragmente, I got five minutes in and thought “oh crap, I’m going to have to do this, aren’t I.”
Jacob and I (and eventually our stage director, Ethan Heard) immersed ourselves in the music for the better part of a year. It was slow, hard, painful going. Kurtág himself is famously a perfectionist; he sure wasn’t going to hear about our project, but we wanted to get as close to his theoretical approval as we could. Jacob described the violin part as an etude of literally everything the instrument is capable of; the vocal part contains every note I can hit and a few I can’t. I’m pretty sure I threw my score across the room at least once.
Ultimately it was, of course, one of the most fulfilling projects I’ve ever done. What Kurtág (and Kafka) manage to cram into each fragment is unbelievably dense, rich with layers and meanings. I was most intrigued by the European Jewish angle—Kafka and Kurtág in dialogue about their status in their several countries, across the decades—but the themes the cycle takes on are universal. Dawn Upshaw and Peter Sellars famously staged it as a housewife up to her elbows in soapsuds, proclaiming things like “Coitus as punishment for the happiness of being together.” Jacob and I ended up playing two refugees, nameless and timeless. The possibilities are infinite.
The fragment I chose to highlight is the second-longest, and the last of the cycle. It begins with gorgeous, lyrical lines that disintegrate into the chirping of crickets and birds. Those transform into neo-Hassidic ornamentation for both parts, improvisatory in style but of course notated in excruciating detail, because it’s Kurtág. The text is no less astonishing:
Es blendete uns die Mondnacht.
Vögel schrien von Baum zu Baum.
In den Feldern sauste es.
Wir krochen durch den Staub, ein Schlangenpaar.
The moonlit night dazzled us.
Birds shrieked from tree to tree.
There was a rustling in the fields.
We crawled through the dust, a pair of snakes.
Kurtág dedicated this fragment to his wife, Marta; his companion in the joyful and terrible exile from Eden that I think this piece depicts. Or maybe it’s just about snakes.
Hey NYFOSians – Claire has generously allowed me to curate the Song of the Day for the next week! I’m not totally convinced she knew what she was getting into by letting this happen, but y’all are stuck with my playlist for the next seven days. Godspeed.
I flirted with a few themes, even just for my own sanity, but the overarching trend I think I stuck with is “songs unlike most of those that have appeared so far on this blog.” A conductor friend of mine (hi Lidiya!) recently told me that on road trips, she’d pick a genre on Spotify she knew nothing about and listen to its playlists for the whole trip. At best, that’s what I’m hoping these songs will do for those of you for whom they’re unfamiliar. Maybe even stretching the definition of “song.”
So, day one: we’re going to Bosnia.
I was first introduced to Eastern European folk music during my brief but treasured time as a member of the Yale Women’s Slavic Chorus, in undergrad. The internet was definitely a thing then, but not as much of one as it is now—YouTube was a few months old, for example. So the way I found more Balkan folk songs was to go to used CD stores, thumb through the World Music section, and buy whatever I found for a few bucks. This is how I ended up getting really into sevdalinka, or sevdah music—an urban Bosnian genre of folk music with roots in the 15th century. It’s characterized by elaborate minor-key melodies about heartache and unrequited love, usually from a woman’s point of view.
This particular band, Mostar Sevdah Reunion, did exactly what it says on the cover: they reunited in the city of Mostar to arrange and record sevdalinka. The band’s founder recorded his first few tracks in 1993, when Mostar was under siege during the Bosnian war. On the band’s website, he described that first recording as “just a getaway episode to forget for one single moment all atrocities and suffering.” After the war, he reunited with his musician friends to record their first self-titled album. Since then, Mostar Sevdah Reunion has become a bit of a figure on the world music scene—surely the reason this album was available to me in an American record store nearly a decade later.
Their virtuosic, jazz-inflected arrangements of traditional songs are hard to choose among, but I picked this one for its Arabic/Sephardic influences (another hallmark of the genre) and the pure catchiness of its tune. I’m very much an outsider to this tradition and I speak no Bosnian, but based on what I can find on the 2017-era internet, the lyrics concern a young woman named Biba who’s suffered for over a year because her sweetheart Ahmo is pursuing someone else, in spite of his promise to marry her. A timeless theme—just like war, its victims, and music-making in the face of it all.
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