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Editorial Response: Everything is a Context

August 19, 2010 | | 11 Comments Share thison Facebook Editorial Response: Everything is a Contexton Twitter

(As this is a response to Gideon’s Editorial ‘Context is Everything’, I highly recommend you read (and enjoy) it first. His insights and the personal expressions of the composers are well worth your time.)

Before I begin, I want to make a confession. I have no idea what the name ‘Auld Lang Syne’ means. Worse, I can’t even tell you a single line of the lyrics. Can’t name the composer. Don’t even know what language it’s from. All I know is that it’s a song traditionally (perhaps even compulsively) sung each New Year’s Eve, or at least hummed drunkenly as the balloons fall and the fireworks go off. Until I was at least fifteen years old, it didn’t even have a name as far as I was concerned. It was just ‘The New Year’s Song.’ I still don’t care to learn the lyrics, either. They don’t really matter in the context with which I associate the tune.

What the heck does this have to do with video game music – and you know it does, right? Because the context of this site is video game, anime, chiptune and other nerdly-type music…So where exactly am I going with this?

Gideon’s piece stipulated that: ‘listening to an original score for a game without seeing/playing it is like ignoring the lyrics to a song.’ If we are to take that to heart, then what I’ve just said about ‘Auld Lang Syne’ implies I do not appreciate it all that much. I could look up the information (and did, but only out of curiosity just now), but no amount of background knowledge of the song will change the fact that, to me and so many ‘ignorant’ others, it’s the ‘New Years Song.’ In this very first example, music has been stripped of almost all original context and imbued, through cultural dissemination, with a whole new one. I’ve no idea how or why. Maybe some old Scot sang it on New Year’s once and the idea stuck. Sometimes it’s that simple. But we’ve forgotten the lyrics, most of us. It’s still a very appreciated song. And now you know why I used that image, despite it having nothing to do with video game music. I placed it in my own context and (hopefully) made it work.

I have no idea what these dudes are singing half the time, but Ensiferum seriously rock.

As well as being a game music nerd, I’m a metalhead, particularly the Scandinavian melodic stuff. I also like J-Pop and Russian folk music. The fact that you can find all three in game music is an article for another day. Regarding Gideon’s significance of lyrics, I think you can see where this is heading. Perhaps there’s a difference between ‘ignoring’ and ‘not understanding,’ but the lyrics aren’t exactly a priority when I listen to things in languages I don’t understand. I believe the music is its own language, and I know I’m not the smartest person in the world to have expressed that sentiment. But I can try to put it clearly enough, and I’ll do so using Gideon’s terms (albeit in a new context): you can ignore the lyrics to a song and still enjoy it. By extension, if that’s like ‘listening to an original score for a game without seeing/playing it,’ you can still enjoy that too. You can augment it with your own appreciation, your own ‘take.’ You can, in essence, put it into any context you like and still enjoy it. Or ruin it – if you happen to associate a certain game soundtrack with someone special who just dumped you. Extreme example, but not utterly absurd.

I could continue this piece simply by quoting Gideon and responding (which I’ve already done, obviously) but that would actually be agreeing with his editorial by moulding to its context. Certainly, I would like to quote more of it as I proceed, but I want to make clear: this is not an attempt at falsification. In fact, most of what Gideon’s article stated borders on the obvious, and the opinions of the composers themselves are pillars against which I do not intend to butt my head. After all, I’m a writer, and you’d better believe I think my intentions when I write are important. Possibly even paramount. How can I be ‘wrong’ about my own words? I might have the facts misplaced and my opinion could be logically unsound, but my intention is impossible to refute, even if I’m lying.

But that’s a mess right there. It really doesn’t tell you anything about what I’ve written other than you’re just going to have to trust me. Or don’t. You still read it, still have to make something of it. And I hope you do, because that’s the agreement we made when you started reading what I’ve written. I make it but it’s up to you to interpret it. Once I’ve clicked ‘publish,’ it’s out of my hands and onto your screen. Sure, I can edit it and add responses and clarifications, but that won’t change what you’ve read. At this very moment, what I’ve written stops being mine and becomes yours. Congratulations. And sorry.

Naturally, this transference applies to music as well. I have the utmost respect for composers; I wouldn’t be writing for this site if I didn’t. Some are virtually heroes to me, or at least the fan in me, who isn’t having a good time right now. But something needs to be said regarding authorial (or compositional) intention: it is not the end of the story. As I said above, once you hear a piece of music, it’s yours. Do with it what you will. Allow the composer to influence that, certainly, and any other context from which it came (for example, a particularly annoying boss fight), but you are not obliged to leave it there.

I understand that is not what Gideon was arguing either, but the article ‘Context is Everything’ hints very strongly that he means the original context, and that’s an absolute with which I must take exception.

Not only is authorial intention not the end of the story, it doesn’t even have to be the beginning. It’s a good start, but just as good is you hearing the music and liking it even if you haven’t played the game. If anything, that might sell one more copy of the game. Composer’s happy, company’s happy, you’re happy. And even if not, if you like that music, you’ll keep listening to it. One way or another, from one start or another.

Wait, where's that big katana? The long silver hair? That's not Sephiroth!

Perfect example: One. Winged. Angel. Oh man, what RPG gamer doesn’t have something to say about good old Sephy’s penultimate battle and its chorus in Final Fantasy VII? In its original context, ‘One-Winged Angel’ started playing as Sephiroth, now transformed into something like a God and ready to destroy your plans for tomorrow permanently, descended from the heavens sporting seven wings and a whole heck of a lot of hit points. Awe-inspiring stuff. No argument whatsoever. But that sense of awe conveyed by the music is not limited to a single fight in one game. It is now “Sephiroth’s Theme,” and people are still performing “One-Winged Angel” live, arranged and rearranged, and you can be assured a good number of the audience members have only the vaguest idea what ‘Safer Sephiroth’ might be. Personal anecdote time: to test the power of that particular tune (and certain other game music), I like to drag non-gamers along to orchestral performances to watch their reactions. I am sure you can imagine the looks on their faces when the choir hits stride. It’s a game music cliché by now, but “One-Winged Angel” does ‘stand as tall out of context.’ And were it the exception to the rule, we wouldn’t have game concerts at all. And this site would be a game review site with some focus on the music as it functions within the game context. I, for one, am very thankful it is not. I don’t even play many games.

That might seem a blasphemy of sorts, particularly if you subscribe to Gideon’s apparent school of thought. Personally I think a musically-inept writer such as myself thinking he has the right to talk about music at all is worse, but I do love this music. Passionately. I come to it as a fan, occasionally informed, often happy to just listen and comment. I also come to it as a writer, or more specifically, a critical reader, who believes that the artistic creative process never actually stops. An academic word for this is ‘dialogue’ – the creator, the creation and the appreciator are constantly working together to form ‘the experience.’ In that light, the original context (a video game) is an important but not pivotal component in the triangle – it stimulates the creator (composer), saturates the creation (original sound track) and situates the appreciator (you and me).

Lofty stuff, and I feel a bit dirty just saying it. After all, as Gideon pointed out: “With amazingly few exceptions, scores are written for their subjects after – at the very least – the basic concept is fleshed out.” In other words, the context came first, and the score conforms to it. We need a soundtrack, it has X themes, Y settings, Z characters. Scenarios. Battles. Events. Get to it or you’re fired. At heart, composing (and most art creation these days) is a business. The context for the composer is almost always the most significant influence on the work at hand, and the composer will generally believe that the work is best appreciated in that context. This makes sense! That’s the ‘stimulate and saturate’ part. But we’re not the composer of the piece, nor are we the director. We’re the listeners. That’s all we can really do with this original piece of music – to do any more (arrangement, for example) is to make it ours, and thus not the original anymore. As listeners, our appreciation is situated by not only the context (the game) but also the creation (the music). Both can play that role, and the impact of either is often dependent upon how well one functions isolated from the other. At the risk of mutilating a mummified horse, I’ll point out that the Ys series has had some shockingly bad games and almost polar opposite (in terms of quality) soundtracks. That music continues to be a part of my life; the games from which they come are best left to nostalgia and maybe a heavily-reimagined remake. Conversely, I love Mortal Kombat, but I can’t really say I care much for the game’s soundtrack. (Even if we all love the now-iconic MOOOOORTAAAL KOMBAT techno song.)

"Kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit...kill da wabbit?" ("What's Opera, Doc?", 1957)

Put another way: the music can become its own context. I’m not saying it’s happened all that much with video game music, and I’m not saying it will. Most game scores ‘do the job,’ especially those influenced by the haven of uninspired soundtracks, Hollywood. The derivative tendency of video game and movie music is also a debate for another day; suffice to say I find the majority of Hollywood movie soundtracks and game soundtracks that aspire to be ‘cinematic’ dull and repetitive. But on the matter of music becoming its own context: “Ride of the Valkyries.” Oh, I love the smell of Wagner taken out of context. Bugs Bunny went there when Elmer Fudd wanted to ‘kill da wabbit’; Dynamo from The Running Man used it as his theme. Most recently, it featured in Watchmen, arguably paying homage to the most well-known ‘new’ context, Apocalypse Now. “Ride of the Valkyries” belongs to all of these and yet none of them. When we hear it now, it’s used to convey a triumphant arrival of ‘the cavalry’ – not entirely unlike its original usage in Der Ring Des Nibelungen, but only thematically. We don’t need to know that to get it. And while I have my fears for the disposability of current culture, I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to see something similar happening to a tune we cannot, at the moment, completely dissociate from its context. Something from Star Wars, maybe. Sure, how about ‘The Imperial March’ someday coming to represent all things tyrannical and oppressive? If we consider this video, then it may have already begun.

But it won’t happen if we adhere to the belief that [original] ‘Context is Everything.’ I’m going to be very blunt here, even more so than usual. Context is a cage. Call that cage a cell or a crib, a room or a reservation, it’s still a cage. The original context might accommodate things made for it that have absolutely no intention otherwise, no higher aspirations, but I refuse to believe any self-respecting composer would be so myopic and unartistic with every single composition (even if a paycheck is a paycheck and eating ramen all the time sucks). But it is not up to the creator to let the creation out of that cage; he or she worked very hard to find that fit, to hide the fact that it is a cage. Sometimes, as with Bear McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica music, the creator is allowed to explore the creation’s potential and you get CD releases and live concerts; so much more than “Eddie [James Olmos] banging s%#! off stage,” to quote Katee Sackhoff’s (Starbuck) mock-ignorance. Here is a composer whose actions outright contradict the sentiment of ‘Context is Everything,’ and bless him for doing so. Bless those who made music so intrinsic to the series’ success. Now we have reciprocation: the Battlestar Orchestra – affiliated with the original context’s success but far from a mere extension of it. Were overwhelming popularity a sole reason for a TV show getting its own concerts, we’d have live performances for the music from Lost or 24…not that I can actually recall any of it right now.

And just as not every musical creation deserves that level of isolation, quite a few go unappreciated by their creators, particular the financially-minded company. Here’s where we come into play, we lovers of the creation. We who find it, take it home, give it a whole new environment and treat it in a way not even its creator could imagine. Without fan appreciation and feedback to indicate there is such a market, you wouldn’t have live concerts of video game music in the first place. Does that make the composer who composed the music for the original context wrong? Of course not. It just means that what has been composed deserves more than what it was composed for. And if there’s one thing a creator truly longs for, it’s the appreciator finding their own way to love the creation. And like I said, music composed for a specific context doesn’t always go there, but when it does, when we find a soundtrack that stands on its own, when we hear something great and wonder where it came from, and when music of any genre for any purpose stops being ‘BGM,’ it is our duty to recognise that and to take it out of the original context and bring it into a new one. Our own. And there we have almost unlimited choice, because everything is potentially a context.

[Associate Editor’s Note: Please tune in to the OriginalSoundCast, the official podcast of OSV, as we discuss this issue in further depth!]

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