Friday, September 8, 2017

In the Aftermath of Charlottesville

By Bonnie Gordon

The "Unite the Right" Rally on UVa Campus.  Photo Courtesy of Richmond Times-Dispatch.
As the church service in Charlottesville ended on the night of August 11, cell phones vibrated. A local friend with whom I went to synagogue as a child texted: “Holy shit are you at the Lawn [UVa’s central grounds]? You have to get out of there, huge marches, torches as far as you can see, chanting ‘Jews will not replace us,’ ‘Fuck off commies this is our town now,’ and ‘Blood and Soil.’” She included pictures she’d gotten off of Facebook.

By now you have probably seen images of the torch march on the University of Virginia’s campus or of students guarding a statue of Thomas Jefferson. The march began in front of Old Cabell Hall, which houses the music department. Marchers stormed across the green space where music classes sometimes meet outside, where student groups perform, and where the summer camp of the one synagogue in town takes the kids, including mine, to play. My family’s car was parked on the other side of those screaming Nazis and by the time we figured out what to do the church was on lockdown. The Pastor said, “We’re going to need y’all to sit and prepare to duck and take cover.” My ten-year-old son held my hand tightly and said, “I knew it was a bad idea to go to church on Shabbat.”

We live in Charlottesville in part because of the Music Department at the University of Virginia. The department takes great pride in being home to a relatively new PhD program where students interested in non-traditional approaches to the study of sound can thrive and where our composers relish new medias and sonorities. Our programs are Critical and Comparative Studies of Music and Compositional and Computer Technologies. The undergraduate major is equally progressive, maybe even a model for departments thinking about diversifying their music major curriculum. Surreally, Richard Spencer, perhaps the most recognized music major in the country, is a 2001 graduate of the University of Virginia. And how did he use his majors in Music and English? He coined the term “alt-right” and served as an impresario for the sick operatic rally staged here in Charlottesville.

I want to dwell on Richard Spencer because he reminds me that a progressive curriculum alone does not defend against white supremacy. And his story signifies that white supremacists are staging a culture war that raises questions about transporting toxic, violent imaginings of western culture, especially opera, to the former slave-holding South. This Charlottesville event digs into the dissonances in an academic field that, in this country, was founded largely by central European and German refugees but which nonetheless often tacitly endorses the white supremacy that got us into what feels like the middle of a dystopian novel.

It’s no accident that Spencer used a college campus as the stage for the prologue to his Unite the Right rally. This past November, he made it clear that he would target college campuses and he has made good on his word. A March, 2017 report from the Anti-Defamation League identified 107 incidents of white supremacist activity on college campuses in the 2016-17 year. This targeting comes at precisely the moment that the Trump administration is doing its best to dismantle affirmative action and Title IX. 

A musical civic engagement event, held several years ago, on the same lawn where the "Unite the Right" rally occurred this past August.  Photo Courtesy of Bonnie Gordon.
Charlottesville was a major battle in this culture war. Despite what Spencer said and what the national news reported, this “Unite the Right” invasion was never about two statues of Confederate generals. Beneath the Confederate flags, Nazi symbols, and loud cries of white nationalism, music scholars of any period and place should find familiar the refrains, rhythms, and narrative arcs of our discipline. The power of linking apocalyptic narratives to racialized nationalism is not news to anyone who studies music or history. Spencer, of course, learned that linkage as both powerful and dangerous. But he knew exactly what he was deploying when he used the chant “Blood and Soil.” Although he might pretend that, in the South, this phrase could translate as “‘heritage and the land of the Confederacy,” it originated and rose in popularity just before the Nazis came to power and its racist xenophobia fueled many of their most heinous laws. When my high school friend texted me that Spencer’s torch-bearing marchers were chanting those words, they rang through my ears in German, “Blut und Boden.” I heard in them the nineteenth-century ideologies that bound German land to German blood, ideologies that I first learned about when studying Wagner in music class.

Moreover, anyone caught unaware by the attack on the lawn did not listen. It’s not just that by 3:00 pm on August 11 the interweb buzzed with the impending torch rally. Spencer’s musical and theatrical experience rendered the torchlight rally as predictable as a Rossini opera. In college, Richard Spencer created stage sets for Shakespeare on the Lawn. He took classes in the Music Department — one of the first music departments in the country to attempt to de-center the western canon. He went on to write a Master’s thesis on Wagner, Adorno, opera and anti-Semitism at the University of Chicago. Recall that in Trump Tower on election day last November, Spencer said if he couldn’t be Secretary of State he wanted to be Minister of Culture and “spend millions of dollars on Wagner.” Spencer’s words should speak volumes to those of us trained in contemporary cultural analysis. His words align with the cultural backdrop put into place by Hitler’s minions, who knew that musical overtures to fascism could fuel political overtures.

To put this in terms of a curricular challenge, it’s relatively easy to get college students to see the grotesque potential of some of the music they love, especially if it includes sounds mobilized by the likes of Stalin and Hitler. And most undergraduates who take music classes learn about sonic performances of nationalism; it’s a box or chapter in many textbooks. But it is so much more work and so much more important to make our students hear the ways that racialized nationalism played and plays out today in our own spaces — politically and musically. We need to make sure they can deconstruct current explicit and implicit fascist movements with the same critical eye that they turn on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany. In other words, if we, and our students, can’t read the signs in the current climate and can’t respond to them, then I’m not sure we are doing our jobs.

Here at the University of Virginia, as with many other institutions, such self-examination grows twisted quickly. This is a campus built by the hands of the enslaved and founded by Jefferson, who among other things truly believed that blacks were subhuman and thus not fit for citizenship or personhood. UVa and the Music Department have deep ties to eugenics through the composer John Powell. Among other things, Powell founded the Virginia Anglo-Saxon club. In 1934, a UVa student of eugenics wrote, “In Germany Hitler has decreed that about 400,000 persons be sterilized. This is a great step in eliminating the racial deficient.” Eugenics as a key part of the Biology and Medical School curricula lasted at UVa into the 1950’s, and UVa scientists shared eugenics practices with the Nazis. Not surprisingly, almost none of those central European academics who came to the United States to flee Hitler’s racism chose to come to UVa. That’s a lacuna the natural sciences here may never recover from.
Memorial to Heather Heyer.  Photo Courtesy of Bonnie Gordon.

The Morning After
Music departments face a special challenge in the aftermath of these events. There is a collective fantasy that making music necessarily heals and unifies, but that’s simply not the case. Even setting aside examples of music-making that directly fuel fascism, collective sound isn’t the same as collective action. As the Reverend William Barber said to a packed church the week after August 12, “you can’t heal by singing ‘We Are the World.’” Healing and social progress don’t come until you understand the causes and structures of the problems. There has been a lot of “We shall overcome” at UVa in the aftermath of August 12. Too little, too late. “We shall overcome” says we shall overcome someday. For those central European refugees who came to America and helped to build the discipline of musicology, I’m quite certain that they thought 2017 was past “someday.” We have not put our songs into action. I’ve spent a good deal of time with the Kerman/Lowinsky debates, published in the 1960s, in which nationalism rose to the fore. Many in that generation fought against segregation. I’m glad most of them did not live to see young white men wielding torches and screaming Nazi slogans. 

Everyone is quoting James Baldwin these days, but it’s worth doing again here because he isolates the variable that spells the difference between a healing song and a fascist chorus: “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty... the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mark of cruelty.” To cultivate our students’ and citizens’ capacities for human decency, we need to remain vigilant about both the potential and limits of music-making and of critical reading. It is crucial to continue making creative work and to keep thinking and writing, though the regimes of violence and terror are crashing through the gates. But it’s not enough. And the faux-harmonizing language of diversity won’t be enough either. The only choice is to fight back. As Music scholars and practitioners the language and history of our discipline is a massive weapon in this culture war, but we really have to stay awake for it to work. We should know firsthand the good and the bad work music can do, we should be able to hear between the lines, and we should know about the pitfalls of nationalism.

I want to close with the two songs that comprise the soundtrack of my August 11 memory and that offer singing as a weapon in the current cultural war. As cell phones exploded with news of the alt-right torch parade, the Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou — who had trained locals in non-violent direct action in preparation for the August 12 rally — led the entire congregation singing and stomping “This Little Light of Mine.” It made the building shake. “We have some company,” he called to us, as we were singing. “Let’s show them love conquers hate.” In that moment, the song became a weapon and training: it fueled the courage that would become our armor in the hard phase ahead. Non-violent protest and staring down the face of evil are not peaceful or easy. There’s a powerful myth out there about the 60’s and it comes with a common time, consonant and diatonic musical backdrop. King warned against moderates who worked to avert tension. If you went to Reverend Sekou’s training you got trained in having your ass kicked sonically and physically just by sitting or standing there as a witness to hate.

The other song I remember so clearly from that Friday night church service was sung by the two rabbis from the synagogue which the next morning was surrounded by rifle-wielding right-wingers and was not protected by police, state troopers, or national guard. They led the congregation in “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” which translates as “the world is built through love,” although the translation that’s used as a refrain in the song is more of a proclamation, a call to action: “We will build this world with love.” The song’s folksy sound feels familiar to Jews and non-Jews alike. Our rabbis have beautiful voices, every Jewish kid who goes to religious school in this town knows it, and anyone can catch the tune. The interfaith crowd rocked it. It’s melodious, but not sweet. 

“Olam Chesed Yibaneh” has been embraced by the activist group IfNotNow, a Jewish anti-racist group that opposes the Israeli occupation. The song’s words come from David—the same David who slew the evil giant Goliath in the age-old story. Earlier that night at the church, the nationally renowned political organizer and spiritual leader Reverend Traci Blackmon had told the congregation that the small, young David did not just kill the enormous Goliath—who she equated to the poison of white supremacy—with a small pebble from his slingshot. He didn’t stop with the pebble. After David killed Goliath, he cut off his head and held it up for all to see. Now is the time, she reminded us, “Let’s show them love conquers hate.” She said, with a sound that crashed through the microphone, that, it was time to take off the head of the white supremacy giant. David’s refrain sung to the chorus of Olam Chesed Yibaneh became a conviction and fierce weapon. 

The response to hate cannot be just performing smooth, perfectly-in-tune versions of folk tunes and it can’t be just saying we stand against white Supremacy. We will have to admit that we can graduate not only the Richard Spencers, but his followers. Those of us with tenure have a special obligation to be brave in our efforts. It might mean some really uncomfortable conversations, and it might mean saying things that go against chairs, deans, provosts, and presidents; making them sit with dissonance. When real live white supremacists come to your school, implicit bias training, inclusive syllabi, and safe space statements don’t do any good without a willingness to use the musical and musicological toolkit to hear the current situation and speak or sing out against it. This is a good time to remind everyone not only of the white supremacist traditions that undergird all of our disciplines and schools, but of the tradition of progressive faculty and student activism.

Bonnie Gordon’s primary interests center on the experiences of sound in Early Modern music making and the affective potential of the human voice. Her first book, Monteverdi’s Unruly Women (Cambridge University Press, 2004), frames the composer’s madrigals and music dramas written between 1600 and 1640 as windows into contemporary notions of sound, body, voice, and sense. She uses vocal music written for sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Italian singers to illuminate our understanding of the music, science, and culture of that period. She co-edited an interdisciplinary and cross cultural volume of essays about courtesans entitled The Courtesan’s Arts, (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Lessons from the Archive: On Creativity, Process, and the Working Life of John Adams

By Alice Miller Cotter

John Adams. Photo Credit: Margaretta Mitchell
None of us is entirely sure what lures us to the creative act—or to studying it, for that matter. For some, it’s the quiet of being alone with raw materials and shaping them into something to give back to a community. For others, it’s the unknown, the chance to navigate unexplored terrain. There’s a flurry of pressure and risk, the thrill of the search, the understanding that success is uncertain. The inner noise can be chaotic. Even the physical labor of transcribing sketch after sketch can take a toll on the hand. Once a draft is completed or a premiere carried out, the mind can rest, it seems. But just as often, the messy processes that precede the product deny perfect resolution. The noise persists, the labor of writing and re-writing continues, the creative act remains unresolved. But in this restless space of revision, the best ideas evolve.

When I arrived for the first time at John Adams’s home in the hills of Berkeley, CA, the composer greeted me with a nervous smile and introduced me to his dog, Eloise. He had spent the early part of that morning revising The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012), a work whose premiere had taken place seven months prior, but one that required some re-writing for its next performance the following month. His deadline was that day. He led me to his dining room, where several large boxes labeled “Doctor Atomic” rested on the sprawling table. He had grabbed them from his storage unit in Emeryville the day before. “Let me go through to see if there’s anything personal in here,” Adams said as he opened one of the boxes. There was virtually no order to the contents. “These are the sketchbooks, and here’s Peter Sellars’s various libretto drafts. Those are probably worth looking at. Oh, this is pretty juicy. This is classified stuff from I don’t know where. Here’s my application to the Library of Congress when I was looking for recordings for the finale.” He then flipped through one of his sketchbooks and found the first sketch for what became his celebrated setting of John Donne’s “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God.” “I don’t know how interesting this is because it’s basically the grunt work,” Adams said, referring to his scrawl: a descending chord progression and a two-note sighing figure that repeats in a rising stepwise pattern. “Take your time. Stay as long as you like. I’ll be upstairs if you have any questions.” He then disappeared to work on the Other Mary revisions, leaving me to sink or swim in a sea of disordered documents.

As an aspiring musicologist at the start of a PhD dissertation, I was in a privileged position, faced with a trove of material that not only fulfilled the requisites of a satisfactory dissertation topic, but also seemed to contain the promise of insights about Adams and his music reachable in no other way. But I was in over my head. Beyond the immediate, if formidable, task of cataloguing and making some sense of chronology were more complicated questions about the issues at stake, assumptions to evaluate, and the basic goals of this type of research. Then there were the problems of working with a living composer. Maintaining critical distance would be the big one. Moreover, sensitivities continued to surround works like The Death of Klinghoffer (1991). What was off limits? (Adams had not said whether anything in the Doctor Atomic box was in fact “personal.” How would I identify it as such?) How much would off-limits material (if I happened to see it) inform my broader view of the composer and his process? It was slippery territory. I knew I wanted to approach it carefully, with integrity and respect.

On the surface, the objectivity of philological source studies seemed like a safe entry point into Adams’s compositional life, a way to ostensibly the complications of working with a living archive. Sketch research has always been one of the most technical and esoteric subcultures of the musicological discipline. Compositional sketches are remarkable tools for establishing chronology, reconstructing manuscripts, or identifying unfinished works. They can also help us understand the complexities of the creative process and offer support for preexisting analytical insights or stimulus for new ones. The goals of modern sketch studies, developed through painstaking work on Beethoven’s sketchbooks (perhaps the most fragmented and scattered of all compositional traces), have been reexamined over the years. Technical problems of transcription and dating can be resolved (systematic analysis of watermarks and frayed edges, for example, offer one way to assess chronology). But, as Douglas Johnson admitted in the late 1970s, basic questions will always remain about the relevance of a composer’s preliminary or discarded sketches. In what way could (or should) observations about a composer’s choices, hesitations, and discoveries inform the larger view of not only a completed work but also an individual’s creative life?

In the case of Adams, the distinction between draft and completed work is particularly blurry. Klinghoffer, for instance, has seen multiple compositional revisions since its 1991 premiere. Adams, to this day, continues to adjust his scores in response to performer feedback and other internal and external pressures. Although most of his music is in print, definitive editions have not really coalesced yet, a fact that makes critical comparison of “the drafts” and “the finished work” seem premature. (How can one privilege what the Germans call die Fassung letzter Hand—the composer’s “last word”—if the composer is still around, still mulling over changes?) The positivist orientation of sketch research, while enabling a strong technical grounding, seemed to limit, if not displace, necessary discussion of politically and emotionally charged collaborations, not to mention the immense reception histories of works like Klinghoffer. This project was going to require a mode of critical reflection and analytical rigor that could speak somehow to the technical aspects of the sketches and music, as well as to the moral, political, and collaborative imperatives of Adams’s creative enterprise. The only way to uncover that mode was through determined immersion into the materials themselves.

After a period of delicate negotiation, Adams generously granted me access to his entire archive. For the rest of my graduate career, I looked at upwards of 6,000 documents: diaries, letters, research notes, sketches, autographs, revisions, and more. The materials shed light on both the creative act in the moment, as a kind of snapshot, and a broader evolution of Adams’s working habits over time. Sketches from the 1980s, for instance, find him wrestling with his academic heritage and the limits of musical minimalism. Voluminous material for each opera documents his search for informed responses to sensitive, often contentious passages of recent history. Journals and letters reveal insight into the working relationship between Adams, director Peter Sellars, and librettist Alice Goodman, and how they together sought to recover opera’s potential to meditate on living history.

John Adams, calendar charting initial progress on Nixon in China (December 1985)
Adams rarely dated his sketches or offered explicit clues about his creative motives on the page. Our conversations about specific documents or the sequence of compositional events filled in some necessary gaps. But it is within the pages of his date-stamped journals that the most vital information about chronology and the composer’s experience emerges. For example, a hand-written calendar found in one of Adams’s notebooks shows that he began composing Nixon in China on December 6, 1985. With a rigid series of milestones to hit and less than two years until the scheduled October 1987 premiere, he immediately took up a rigorous work schedule, duly logging the number of pages drafted per day with hash marks. Anyone who has ever attempted to turn the creative process into a 9-to-5 job will likely identify with this quite literally mundane document, in which the 38-year-old composer notes every sick day and then gives himself a Christmas break. But this doggedness takes on larger musicological significance when juxtaposed with circumstantial evidence gleaned from the composer’s journals. Just before Nixon, Adams had wrestled with an eighteen-month impasse, a period of wandering and lack of focus that would ultimately lead to the compositional breakthrough of Harmonielehre (1984-85). Finishing Harmonielehre, he discovered a harmonic technique and new sound that would drive the writing of Nixon; he also learned that nothing but a fixed deadline would urge him to action. “I sat down one day and wrote Nixon in China at the top of a blank page of score,” Adams recalled in 1988 to Andrew Porter in the new-music magazine Tempo. “I figured that if I didn’t I’d never be able to write the opera.”

So what do we gain from looking over a composer’s shoulder in this way? Most obviously, it expands our sense of what a human can create, setbacks and all. Perhaps it confirms what we already know about work ethic: a period of tireless searching, with failed attempts along the way, can lead to clarity. It’s all about the process, and, judging by the hash marks, the process can be messy. For Adams, the process has been ongoing. In 2009, twenty-two years after the premiere of Nixon, he returned once again to the score to fix unplayable parts and update synthesizer patches. Doctor Atomic, in its turn, has undergone numerous changes since its 2005 premiere, and Adams intends to rewrite portions of the opera for future productions. His continuing revisions keep his works a part of an ever-evolving musical chronicle, one that, in a sense, shares the flux of contemporary history, with implications stretching from the present into the future. This provisional ethos is central to understanding Adams’s stage works. It’s also central to the nature of researching a living composer.

As the Bay breeze drifted in and out of Adams’s dining room that first day at his home, the blinds gently ticking against the frame of the open window, I stood over the stacks of material and hurriedly set to work. Moving through page after page, I made a detailed record of the contents and photographed, with Adams’s permission, select items: Goodman’s original Doctor Atomic synopsis, Act I sketches, post-premiere revisions, and pages from a notebook the composer had kept while writing On the Transmigration of Souls (2002). Later, back at Princeton, I spent my days absorbed in transcription, keeping a journal of reflections and my own hash marks recording pages transcribed. Over many months of observing the traces of an artist at work, an important, if humbling, observation gradually came into focus. Just as Adams’s scores and creative processes continue to evolve, so too must the critical modes and goals of this type of scholarship as it attempts to make sense of a musical life that, at least for now, defies closure. Of course, there is an explicit distinction between Adams’s creative pursuits and those of academic work. But what they share, namely the challenge of finding ways to assimilate living subjects into a larger frame, is equally stimulating, inviting us to listen to the music within the space of its possibilities.

Alice Miller Cotter completed her PhD in musicology at Princeton University in 2016. She currently teaches in the Department of Music at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Review: The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs

By Matthew Dirst

Is there drama in bytes? Or poetry in the smart phone? Only a Luddite would reject out of hand such tantalizing prospects for Santa Fe Opera’s 2017 premiere, a co-production with San Francisco Opera and Seattle Opera about the computer entrepreneur Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple Inc. On a beautiful summer evening at one of the world’s great outdoor stages, this new work by librettist Mark Campbell and composer Mason Bates held out the possibility of a useful update to opera’s venerable operating system, one inspired by our trusty devices. Notwithstanding the suggestive title, (R)Evolution steers mostly clear of Steve Jobs’ creative evolution and his transformative role in the digital revolution. Instead, it’s a series of short scenes that focus on his relational and spiritual issues. Part of clutch of contemporary operas about important events and people (from Satyagraha through Dr. Atomic), (R)Evolution is an opera about a brilliant, if testy, computer nerd. Unlike the elegant iPhone, however, Campbell and Bates’ opera makes little effort to infuse technology with artistry; instead, it’s an operatic bio of a socially awkward guy who becomes an arrogant corporate chief.

Edward Parks as Steve Jobs.  Image by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.
One wonders whether the co-commissioning entities, both in cities where the tech industry is especially powerful, had any qualms with the eventual direction of this opera’s story. Campbell’s recent collaboration with Kimberly Reed and Laura Kaminsky on Some Light Emerges, a Houston Grand Opera commission, was a beautifully nuanced meditation on that city’s Rothko Chapel and its visionary philanthropist Dominique de Menil. His libretto for (R)Evolution, while understandably less flattering, glides over Jobs’ achievements to spotlight instead his flirtation with Zen Buddhism and many character flaws. Like a modern novel or film, the opera travels back and forth in time, providing occasional motivations or connections: various scenes show him treating his girlfriend and wife badly, disavowing his own child, and behaving in a ham-handed way with colleagues. As “Steve Jobs: 1955-2011” appeared as a projection in the last scene, his wife Laurene sang directly to the audience, admonishing us to ignore the devices in our pockets for moment so that we could ponder the work’s message. I obeyed but started plotting my way to the car instead. And yet, the final notes on August 4 brought cheers from all corners of the house. I was clearly one of the few who left unsatisfied over the lack of a dramatically satisfying story.

At the very least, Kevin Newbury’s sleek production has generated considerable enthusiasm and interest, and that’s great news for the operatic community. (Santa Fe Opera has added an additional performance of the work.) Its lack of depth, humor, and meaning compares poorly, however, with more successful contemporary musical works about influential creators or world leaders: there’s none of the profound questioning of Nixon in China and little of the historical fantasy or life lessons of Sunday in the Park with George. (R)Evolution barely scratches the surface of its subject’s unique insights into technology and design, which forever changed the ways we work, play, and interact with each other. The tech wizardry Steve Jobs instigated is largely relegated to the rotating scenery, where projections of copyright-cleansed digital information (by 59 Productions) careen and buzz to great effect, alongside a well-rehearsed chorus of kinetic techies.

Vocally, the evening had many fine moments, thanks to an excellent cast that tried hard to transcend a hackneyed storyline. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (as Laurene) and tenor Garrett Sorenson (as Steve Wozniak, his long-suffering business partner) made the strongest impressions, in crucial scenes that offered glimpses of humanity and raw emotion as they tangled separately with the arrogant Jobs. Solid contributions from soprano Jessica Jones (as Chrisann, his first girlfriend) and bass Wei Wu especially (as the ghost of Kobun Chino Otagawa, Jobs’ spiritual advisor) enlivened several shorter scenes. Baritone Edward Parks, who sang the title role quite capably, inhabits Jobs visually but never ignites dramatically, perhaps because the libretto leaves him little room in which to maneuver. Seemingly immune to Laurene’s earnest encouragement and Otagawa’s oracular prayers, Jobs the operatic character remains to the end a precocious savant with few social skills.

Mason Bates’ music, by turns sensuous and driving, matches the quick pace of Campbell’s libretto and finds a champion in conductor Michael Christie, who provided a sure hand in the pit. With nineteen short scenes to set, Bates opted for maximum variety over consistency of expression. His scoring is happily eclectic, with minimalist orchestral figuration mixing with incisive guitar licks and various electronic twangs. His vocal writing aims squarely toward the middle, somewhere between the lyric and the jazzy, and with the constantly shifting scenes there’s not much opportunity for character development. Only once or twice do we get some inkling of what Bates might do with stronger material: the big confrontation scene between Jobs and Woz, for example, veers towards Italianate high drama but with a funky rhythmic edge. The seamlessness with which Bates mixes textures and styles is indeed impressive, as other reviewers have noted. Though Bates avoids overt musical allusions, Campbell’s libretto invites such things at least a few times, with Jobs invoking Bach as a musical ideal while high on acid in an apple orchard and again in the garage of his family home. (R)Evolution might usefully have indulged its namesake’s extraordinary prescience a bit more. Steve Jobs’ lasting contribution to society, after all, is his creativity—not his trail of failed relationships.

Matthew Dirst is Professor of Music at the Moores School of Music, University of Houston, and Artistic Director of Ars Lyrica Houston, with which he has made a number of acclaimed recordings, including the world première recording of J. A. Hasse’s Marc Antonio e Cleopatra, a Grammy nominee for Best Opera 2011. A prize-winning organist and harpsichordist, his publications include Engaging Bach: The Keyboard Legacy from Marpurg to Mendelssohn (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and more recently, he edited Bach and the Organ (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Quick Takes — A Double-Edged Sword: How FFXII: The Zodiac Age’s score keeps the player engaged despite the game’s heavy automation

By Lee Hartman

In Final Fantasy XII’s original 2006 PlayStation 2 release, the game’s endearing cast of six party members battled its way through the world of Ivalice using an innovative Gambit battle system that allows players to customize a series of if:then scenarios to fit their play style. In this Gambit system, the player turns over control to the game’s AI, albeit an AI of their own design (see Figure 1). With the 2017 release of the PS4’s HD version of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age the characters, world, and Gambits are still in place but a gorgeous graphic overhaul overflowing with polished details; stress-inducing, early-game, unchangeable job class decisions that greatly affect later game play; double and quadruple speed options that Stefan Greenfeld-Casas [link] describes; and more, are added. Hitoshi Sakimoto’s score, reorchestrated and re-recorded for this remastered version, plays a more important role in keeping the player engaged than it did in the original.

Figure 1: Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age Gambit System
FFXII:ZA teeters in a precarious position of being boring or engaging because of the game’s design and player behavior. 1) Many FF and JRPG[1] fans will inherently “grind” (using repeated battles with easily defeated opponents to level up in order to succeed in side quests outside of the primary storyline). 2) The game’s automated Gambit system requires limited button pressing outside of navigation, which, at certain points, is also unnecessary due to density of enemies as characters will auto-engage.[2] 3) The new turbo speed option of 2x and 4x allow for extremely fast grinding and game progression.[3] 4) Minimap options and HUD[4] character statistics are the only essential visual elements needed to “succeed” in a grind.[5]

Figure 2: FFXII:ZA In-game play screen displaying HUD in lower right, Minimap in upper right, and optional translucent world map overlay
With these added elements to the re-release, Hitoshi Sakimoto’s score becomes essential to the game’s enjoyment and player engagement because the selectively reduced areas of visual focus and automated, fast-paced grinding renders the graphic enhancements of FFXII:ZA moot. Kate Mancey’s analysis of the innovations of sonic breadth and richness to achieve a more natural synthesis between the live performers and higher-quality samples can be found here. [link] The aural difference in studio quality and advancement is astounding. In this new light, Sakimoto’s cues become more visceral.

The Dalmasca Estersands is one of two deserts surrounding the sprawling city of Rabanastre and the first large open area the player can explore and thus do a solid beginning-level grind. Instead of a grand sweeping melodic gesture akin to Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia score or a stereotypical usage of Middle eastern scales and instruments, Sakimoto’s cue and orchestration teams with vitality. This is not a dead desert infrequently dotted with oases. Instead it is alive with wolves, cockatrices, dinosaurs, sentient cacti, and evil tomatoes dotting the traversable dunes, wind-eroded canyons, and sand-strewn paths which Sakimoto manages to pack a surplus of orchestrational color into just 99 bars. The unbridled joy and wonder of the cue ties directly to the character, Vaan, and thus the player’s first experience outside of city walls. “Dalmasca Estersands” is Sakimoto’s busiest and most diverse outside of those scored for unplayable cinematics. Soak it in party and gamers; there’s a lot to see and do. Sakimoto’s score informs us there is much to hear as well.

The tempo is an unrelenting, brisk QN = 155. Though the unrepeated 9-bar introduction is in common time, the other 90% of the work is in triple meter. This triple meter helps propel the cue and player forward with its strong upbeat-into-downbeat 3|1 (and its variants 3+|1 and +|1) feel. Melodically, Sakimoto encourages this forward propulsion with frequent pickups in the melody or +3+|1 gestures as in the B theme (see below).

The introduction features an A Aeolian melody in trumpet with frequent pick-ups into or ties over the next bar. It’s playful, whimsical even with its 3-bar opening phrase and then its 2-bars of 2 different consequent answers. The orchestration, tonality, and meter changes, dramatically shift in the transition to triple meter in C-sharp and with a two-bar sequence upward by minor third, set for low, accented strings and horns. Third and sixth relationships will be common throughout the cue. It is as if the player’s world just grew by leaps and bounds. While continuing this transition for four additional bars, Sakimoto changes the orchestration midway, shifting the string to a high tremolo, with harp and horns left to dominate. This transition sets up an occasionally inflected F-sharp Aeolian of the cue’s A theme.

Figure 3: Hitoshi Sakimoto, FFXII:ZA “Dalmasca Estersands,” A Theme
This theme’s range is expansive at a M9, and once completed its four iterations it will have spanned a M16. Adding to the breathlessness and breadth is the first restatement is pitched a M6 lower. This unanticipated wide leap is in character with Sakimoto’s reliance on thirds and breaks with the expected tonic/dominant relations, adding to the overall zealousness of new discovery.

The B theme is narrower, with a range of a M6. However, the doubling at the third adds a richness that was absent from the A theme. Whereas the A theme’s upward M9 launch in the span of 2 beats creates forward motion, it is the metric placement of the B theme’s eighth notes that cause the indefatigable propulsion.

Figure 4: Hitoshi Sakimoto, FFXII:ZA “Dalmasca Estersands,” B Theme

In “Dalmasca Estersands,” Hitoshi Sakimoto composed music designed to keep the player engaged and moving with a propulsive drive, wide melodic contours, and expertly crafted orchestrational changes within a 99-bar sound cue. These components capture the thrill of exploring Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age’s diverse world while circumventing the game’s automation.

Figure 5: FFXII:ZA “Dalmasca Estersands” Structure[6]

Lee Hartman holds degrees from the University of Missouri-Kansas City (DMA, MM) and the University of Delaware (BM). He teaches full time at the University of Central Missouri in the areas of music theory, aural training, and composition and is the recipient of an 2016–17 Excellence in Teaching Award from the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. Hartman is the Artistic Director of the Mid America Freedom Band and performs with NorthWinds Symphonic Band. Most recently his compositions have been performed by the International Double Reed Society, New Music Delaware, UCM Wind Ensemble, William Jewell Symphonic Band, Charlotte Pride Band, Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, UCM Flute Ensemble, Midwest Chamber Ensemble, Minnesota Freedom Band, oboist Sheri Mattson, tenor Jake Sentgeorge, and mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen.

[1] A JRGP, or “Japanese Role-Playing Game,” is typically defined by a turn-based battle system of commands (cast a magic spell, attack a designated target, use an item), playable characters are in a party, leveling up, characters have job classes to fulfill a specific role in battle, and a linear plot with optional side quests. Western Role-Playing Games or WRPGs feature many of the same elements however the worlds tend to be more open, encouraging exploration, direct input battles (pull a trigger to shoot a gun, push a button to swing a sword), and a party may or may not be involved. In recent years, the line between the two styles has blurred considerably.
[2] See Figure 1. “Foe: nearest visible > Attack” will make the character auto-engage any nearby enemy.
[3] For comparison, if memory serves (because PS2 memory cards don’t), it took a little over a month to get to “pre-Bahamut,” the final stage of the 2006 release. The same benchmark has been achieved in the 2017 re-release in just over two-weeks of play time, utilizing the 2x Turbo Mode with a similar playstyle.
[4] Heads-up display. FFXII:ZA show information about character current and maximum hit points, status ailments like poison, magic points, and more.
[5] A new optional translucent, overlaid world map is also available to player, providing for up to three simultaneous layers of spatial awareness.
[6] Orchestrational analysis was done by ear and is by no means a complete representation of the full sonorities Sakimoto employs. Instruments included are meant to showcase the dominant sounds and the variety of instrumental color utilized in this short cue.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Quick Takes — The Sonic Makeover in Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age

By Kate Mancey

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is the latest HD remaster from Square Enix, and with it comes an extensive remastering of the original soundtrack. In contrast to previous Square Enix HD re-releases, such as Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD, this reorchestration uses much of the same musical material. However, when compared with the remastering in Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD, there is a vastly greater difference in sample and sound quality, changing the feel of the score without a need for drastic reorchestration. The HD release offers two main soundtrack options, the original PlayStation 2 music and a re-orchestrated version to accompany the now higher-fidelity graphics, with the ability to toggle between the two during gameplay (See fig 1). For those with a collector’s edition, there is a third ‘Original Soundtrack’ option available, this option uses the same tracks from the original soundtrack CD released alongside Final Fantasy XII in 2006 and is entirely recorded by a live orchestra, opposed to using synthesised instruments.

Figure 1. Configuration screen from Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age.
Although both the original PlayStation 2 and remastered versions are synthesised, each orchestration has a distinctive feel, perpetuated by the sound quality and timbres. To explore these differences in sound quality and timbre we can compare ‘The Dalmasca Easterland’ theme from each version, starting with the original music.

Whilst Hitoshi Sakimoto orchestrated the music for full orchestra, this piece still has a strongly synthesised feel due to both instrument sample quality and quantisation. The synthesised brass jumps out as the most un-natural timbre, as natural brass has a much larger spectral profile. The quality of the brass is better in the higher volume and higher pitched sections as there is some raspy quality to the sound which gives it a fuller, bigger feel, but it is a generally more subdued timbre than heard in live playing. The strings again sound heavily compressed and closer to a synthesised string-styled pad opposed to live strings. When the strings enter with the theme at 1’01’’ you can hear the strict quantising of the midi data which leads to a more robotic sounding melodic line as it’s missing humanised performance elements such as slightly extending and emphasising strong beats.

In isolation, the overall sound quality isn’t poor considering it was produced over a decade ago (2006), as sampling and synthesis technology has continued to develop over the years to create more sophisticated sounds. At its time of release, these synthesised orchestral timbres were cutting edge and as close to real instrument timbres as feasible in a video game, and were certainly a huge improvement on the timbral quality of previous Final Fantasy games. However, when compared with the HD remastering there is a stark difference in sound quality.

By adding humanised performance gestures and using much higher quality samples, the whole piece has a brighter and more open feel, the timbres have a richness to them and the individual lines are easier to distinguish. If we look purely at the overall sound output we can see that there is more varied frequency activity in the remastered track. The overall frequency pattern is the same, as the general orchestration is similar, but there is greater frequency response in the remastered version, especially in the upper regions, creating this more brighter, fuller sound (See fig 2.1 and 2.2). The slight change in instrumentation will also attribute to this, such as an increase in the use of strings and a lessening of brass in the remastered version. However, like the brass, the string samples in the remastered track are much better quality and greater attention has been paid to increasing the naturalness of the playing, making it more difficult to distinguish whether it has been synthesised or if it is a live recording.

Figure 2.1 Frequency analysis from ‘The Dalmasca Easterlands’ at 0’26’’ from Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XII.
Figure 2.2 Frequency analysis from ‘The Dalmasca Easterlands’ at 0’26’’ from Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age.
Although this isn’t Square Enix’s first HD remaster, it is the first remaster with such a distinct difference in audio quality. Final Fantasy X was more drastic in its reorchestration across the main musical themes, but if we compare ‘Tidus’ Theme’ from the original Final Fantasy X with its HD counterpart we see how relatively close they are in sound quality. The original track is very obviously synthesised, with the picked guitar accompaniment underpinning the main melody being both static in volume and in string attack, giving the music an obviously sequenced feel.

The synthesised instrument timbres in the HD version are marginally better than the original, but the overall sound is still heavily compressed and is missing the sparkle and musicality which The Zodiac Age remastering brings to life (See fig 3.1 and 3.2). The synthesised nature of the timbres is especially clear in the string pad and brass, with both missing some richness of timbre. Whilst the remastered track adds some vibrato to the strings it is a robotically flat vibrato across all notes, and a slower attack time without accounting for sufficient sound decay again adds to the un-natural feel of the timbres.

Figure 3.1 Frequency analysis from ‘Tidus’ Theme’ at 3’15’’ from Square Enix’s Final Fantasy X.
Figure 3.2 Frequency analysis from ‘Tidus’ Theme’ at 3’15’’ from Square Enix’s Final Fantasy X HD.
Jonathan Sterne suggests, ‘The promise of better fidelity has always been a Hegelian promise of synthesis and supersession’[1] and whilst the remastered tracks may be of higher fidelity, they don’t necessarily supersede the originals in terms of value to the player. In The Zodiac Age, the biggest difference in feel comes from the naturalness of the playing, using varying attacks and more natural decays, adding vibrato with greater musical thought. Whilst this creates more realistic stand alone pieces, the compression and quantisation of the original tracks could be advantageous to gameplay, facilitating better concentration as the music has fewer dips and peaks. The remastered tracks are arguably truer to Hitoshi Sakimoto’s compositions, as they allow the payer to hear these pieces on better quality orchestral timbres, but they lose some of the charm of the original tracks. In isolation, the remastered sound is significantly better. However, that doesn’t mean they are significantly better for the game, and it conjures up questions of authenticity.

In his discussion of re-orchestrations and authenticity, William Gibbons suggests it is easy to view these very “unreal” timbres as a problem to be fixed so fans can experience the music “how it was meant to be heard”,[2] and this has to be weighed up against the value of nostalgia for players who are familiar with the series and with the more electronic sounding timbres. It is also worth noting that whilst you can toggle between orchestrations you can only see the remastered graphics, which both adds to the nostalgic value of the PlayStation 2 music as it brings the old to the new, and adds significance to the remastered sound as it brings the scores to modern day fidelity expectations.

Regardless of the positive or negative impact of the remastered score on player enjoyment, there is an undeniably stark contrast between the sound quality of the original and remastered soundtracks, far greater than previous HD releases. A combination of better instrument samples and humanised playing, facilitated by an increase in the capabilities of music technology, has given the music of Final Fantasy XII a new lease of life.

Kate Mancey is currently completing her masters of research at the University of Liverpool. Her thesis focusses on the role of music and sound in virtual reality video games. She has presented papers on her research both in the UK and internationally, and has authored an article in the forthcoming volume of TransMissions. Outside of academia, Kate works as a composer and sound designer for video games and independent films.

[1] Sterne, J (2003). Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press. p.285
[2] Gibbons, W (2015). How It’s Meant to be Heard: Authenticity and Game Music. The Avid Listener. Available here.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Quick Takes — Playing with Time in The Zodiac Age

By Stefan Greenfield-Casas

When playing a Final Fantasy game, there are a few things that generally remain consistent between games: a character named Cid, a spectacular world with a crystal-centric mythos, and an epic storyline that (depending on players’ agendas) can span anywhere from 10-100+ hours to complete. Final Fantasy XII (Square Enix, 2006; hereafter FFXII), originally released for the PlayStation 2, was no different in this regard. Now eleven years later, the game has been remastered and rereleased for the PlayStation 4 under the title Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (Square Enix, 2017; hereafter The Zodiac Age).

While many players of The Zodiac Age are likely to focus their attention on the game’s revamped job system and its newly remastered HD graphics, the game also boasts a number of other noteworthy changes from the original release of FFXII.[1] These changes include a reorchestrated and rerecorded version of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s musical score (a selling point since it was first announced at E3 in 2016) and the ability to play the game in “Turbo Mode” (i.e. at either 2x or 4x the game’s normative speed).[2] It is on the (musical) experience of playing the game in this Turbo Mode that I wish to focus on for the duration of this essay.

The decision to add the Turbo Mode feature was made in order to help facilitate traversing the game’s sprawling world of Ivalice, however it is also a useful tool for quick level grinding (the act of continually battling weaker foes in a set area to quickly raise characters’ levels).[3] While all diegetic events (inclusive of footsteps, the sounds of battle, and other sound effects) that players control are sped up in Turbo Mode, the game’s (nondiegetic) score continues at the same speed. In many ways, this makes perfect sense: not only is the music nondiegetic (and thus unaffected by the speed change within the diegesis), but the inclusion of a sped-up score would more than likely create too cheesy and gimmicky a tone for the high fantasy world of the game.

The topic of temporality within ludomusicological discourse has not gone unexplored. Julianne Grasso has discussed the matter of temporality vis-à-vis Final Fantasy IV’s (Square Enix, 1991) Active Time Battle (ATB) system and Nobuo Uematsu’s score, arguing that the music “projects its own affective temporality, steeping the player if not in ‘the flow of time of the game,’ then in some sort of musically mediated experience of it.”[4] Following Grasso’s discussion of this musical flow of time, Jesse Kinne recently extended her analysis to a turn-based game series, Heroes of Might and Magic (various, 1995-present), rooting his analysis in theories of groove to suggest that “the music is comprised of numerous overlapping rhythms, and players will experience any given series of ludic or diegetic events as falling into alignment with the meter and nestling into that dense network of musical rhythms.”[5]

The Zodiac Age, however, employs an Active Dimensional Battle (ADB) system wherein players preemptively prescribe actions characters will carry out under a variety of circumstances (akin to a quasi-“if-then” code; see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Example of The Zodiac Age’s gambit system. Screen capture by author.
While there is no shortage of strategy needed to piece together the correct gambits to take on varying foes, utilizing them essentially removes players’ direct control over characters when in the thick of battle (arguably the main reason it is possible to partake in these battles at 4x speed). In the case of level grinding, this may be a welcome relief—battling dozens (or even hundreds!) of easily-beaten foes is a menial task at best.[6] In contrast to Grasso’s “flow of time” and Kinne’s groove networks—both of which account for players participation in the battle during the battle—then, the game’s ADB system creates a temporal space where players can sit back, relax, and enjoy the game’s soundtrack during battles, listening to the accompanying music in its entirety without worrying about the battle taking place. While this is all well and good whilst grinding or traversing Ivalice, there is one particular scenario that musically suffers in Turbo Mode: boss battles.

These plot-advancing battles that occur in the narrative, what Mikhail Bakhtin might identify as the “then suddenly” encounter chronotope, have their own epic battle music.[7]

Yet in turbo-time the music associated with these encounters is lost amidst the sounds of battle within the diegesis. While grinding, players will intermittently hear the battle cries of their party and the sounds of various attacks connecting with foes. Because these battles against weaker adversaries pass by as quickly as they do when in Turbo Mode, the game’s score remains relatively unaffected—at least in the grand scheme of things.[8] However, because bosses are considerably stronger and have more stamina than normal foes, the battle cries that normally take only a second or two are instead littered across the entirety of the sound track, obscuring the marked boss battle music.[9]

If we as players or scholars (or both) are to assume that the music for boss battles should have a similar level of importance to the game as these narrative encounters, then toying with the game’s temporal landscape seems disingenuous to the previously prescribed phenomenological and narrative experience of the game as set by the original FFXII—even if Turbo Mode is a perfectly valid ludic option in The Zodiac Age. Especially with the remaster’s attention to the musical score (going so far as to offer a copy of the soundtrack as incentive for players to buy the collector’s edition of the game), diminishing the importance of the epic boss battle music by way of a newly added feature to The Zodiac Age seems counterintuitive at best and counterproductive at worst: counterintuitive in that this advertised soundtrack is potentially glossed over in the context of the game itself; counterproductive in that, without the the epic music to elevate these crucial battles, the experience of the boss battle is reduced down to nothing more than the sounds of battle. This latter point is troubling in that it musico-narratively prioritizes unmarked battles over marked ones.

As I hope to have shown, meddling with time in The Zodiac Age (the Time Battlemage job class aside) has unusual and perhaps unexpected consequences for the game’s musical soundtrack. While unaffected in terms of tempi, playing the game in Turbo Mode reduces the prominence of what should be the marked “then suddenly” music (such as the Boss Battle music) in favor of the diegetic sounds of battle. In direct contrast to this, unmarked “normal” battles over the course of the game pass by quickly enough that the accompanying music is comparatively uninterrupted by the party’s battle cries. This is particularly true when players are grinding in a set area with its own distinct musical territory. While the entirety of the game was not necessarily intended to be played in Turbo Mode, accounting for the musical consequences that do occur when playing in it offers an interesting musico-narrative reasoning as to why players should avoid abusing their newfound mastery over time in The Zodiac Age.

Stefan Greenfield-Casas recently completed his MM in music theory at The University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include the relationship between music and epics, ludomusicology, and critical theory. He has presented on these topics and others at a number of conferences, including meetings of the Texas Society for Music Theory, Music and the Moving Image, and the North American Conference on Video Game Music. Stefan will begin his PhD in music theory and cognition at Northwestern this fall.

[1] “Jobs” in ludic discourse refer to a class a character belongs to, as well as the abilities and equipment that are associated with this class (e.g., an archer would be able to use a bow and arrow and might have an ability to raise their accuracy while a mage might instead equip robes and use various magics).
[2] See Kate Mancey’s frequency analysis of FFXII’s original score versus The Zodiac Age’s remastered version of the score in her forthcoming contribution to this series.
[3] See Ryan Thompson’s recent take on why Ivalice is as large as it is in his post and Lee Hartman’s extended discussion of grinding in his forthcoming essay.
[4] Julianne Grasso, “Music in the Time of Video Games,” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Society for Music Theory, St. Louis, Missouri, October, 2015).
[5] Jesse Kinne, “Groove Mediates Ludo and Diegetic Temporalities in Heroes of Might,” (paper presented at the twelfth Music and the Moving Image Conference, New York University, New York, May, 2017).
[6] For instance, in my own playthrough I spent one two-hour (plus) gaming session level grinding in a region called the Dalmasca Westersand.
[7] Mikhail Bakhtin, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 92.
[8] Other sounds, such as items being picked up-post battle, may further (briefly) distract from the game’s score, however I maintain that because each area’s music is looped, players that spend any extended period in an area will hear the track in its entirety.
[9] For reference, most of the boss battles I have played through in Turbo Mode were over in less than 30 seconds; normal battles are generally completed within 1-5 seconds depending on the number of foes the party is engaging. It should also be noted that one strategy for defeating bosses relies on “Quickening Chains,” a series of special attacks that can be linked together to deal massive amounts of damage to enemies (and thus particularly conductive to boss battles). While these Quickenings are not performed in turbo-time, they are driven by players’ reaction times to selecting a series of onscreen prompts within a four-second timespan (thus still forcing players’ attention away from the score). Furthermore, with each successive Quickening there is a corresponding explosion that further obscures the score, thus still redirecting players’ attention away from the music.