Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A research proposal on leitmotifs in video game music

The following is a research proposal I submitted last year as part of my course work towards my Master's in Music at the University of Victoria. I'm entering my second year now and will have to focus my time on completing my thesis, but this is still a topic that interests me. I'd like to hear from gamers and non-gamers alike to see how this topic resonates with them.

      Academic research on video game music is still very much in its infancy. Though this is partly a result of the newness of the genre, there are other problems that have restricted the growth of this field. Any music outside of the realm of art music is slow to appear in scholarly papers and faces a long and hard struggle to gain acceptance and find its place among academics. Though there are relatively few reports on game music in and of itself, there exists considerably more research on elements of video game music unique to the medium. The work of Karen Collins is an example of the kind of research being done. In 2008 she edited a collection of works into From Pac-Man to Pop Music; of the 12 chapters in the book, only the last approaches the theory of video game music. Among the other topics covered are: commercial aspects of game music, the interaction between the game and the gamer and the technology behind early game music.
      This has been my experience with how video games are treated in general. Among gamers discussion gets much closer to the actual games themselves, but whenever video games show up in other settings, there is a tendency to talk around the games. My impression is that games are being contextualised in a broader setting to legitimise them. Unfortunately, video games are still in a position where they are criticised as being for children, and therefore should not be taken seriously. Game music has progressed beyond the technical limitations of seconds-long melodies and sine waves, and the necessity to borrow from pre-composed melodies, but proponents still have to argue against game music being labelled derivative (Newcomb 2012). While there is progress in Japan, game music is still struggling in the West to catch on outside of special concerts dedicated to orchestral arrangements. Before iTunes, game soundtracks were very rarely made available in North America. In his article “Video Game Music: Not Just Kid Stuff,” Matthew Belinkie relates a story of a friend who performed a piano arrangement of the ending theme from Final Fantasy VI; the students who heard it were impressed, but once they found out it was from a video game “they started ridiculing it” (Belinkie 1999). In this case, contextualising very obviously hurts the reception of video game music.
      Discussion of game music is caught between two worlds. On the one hand there are thoroughly researched academic papers such as Guillaume Laroche's 2012 thesis on variational technique in the Super Mario Bros. series. This is an important milestone in establishing a precedent for analysis of video game music. Laroche is very clear with his intentions, and he also has a detailed introduction on the state of analysis and research on the genre, to which I would direct you for further reading. In the middle of the spectrum there are blogs, such as Game Music Theory, run by Tom Berg as a personal project. He started it in August 2013, and as of December 2, 2013 his site has over 30 pieces of annotated game music transcriptions and analyses. His work highlights two of the issues facing game music discussion: 1) the necessity of transcribing the music, and 2) the issue of the blog format tending towards short analyses for quick and easy consumption. This also means that the discussion never gets too technical, as it is still mainly geared towards people who are primarily gamers. On the end opposite academia are commercial sites, such as Destructoid that publish editorials that sometimes involve video game music. For example, someone with the username SWE3tMadness wrote a series of articles in 2009-2010 about music in some of her favourite games. While it is clear from some of her observations that she has an understanding of musical analysis, she falls short of actually analysing the music itself. She also makes some questionable statements, such as suggesting that it's possible themes from The Legend of Zelda series have been recycled out of laziness. Her extremely casual writing style, use of profanity and poor use of terminology (e.g. using the word “song” to describe instrumental pieces, and dedicating an article to dissonant pieces she calls “anti-music”) but the positive reception to her articles show that perhaps there is still a small crossover between gamers and academics.
      However, this is changing because people—such as Laroche, Matthew Thompson (see outline below) and Berg—who grew up playing video games are now in a position to generate discussion in an academic setting (or at least with an analytical point of view in Berg's case). There is still an enormous amount of work to be done in the field, including establishing categories and defining trends and terminology for the repertoire of video game music, as well as finding greater acceptance in the academic community. And while analysis may still be under-represented, the other supportive work provides a stepping stone and foundation for future discussion.
      The goal of the paper is to define and analyse the leitmotifs found in the video game Final Fantasy XIII-2 (developed and published by Square Enix in 2011 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game consoles), and examine their appearances in the music and their use as an element of the game's narrative.
      There are three important sources that establish a precedent and context for this work. The first is Guillaume Laroche's MA thesis on the variational techniques used in the Super Mario Bros. series. This is the only major academic work I have encountered that specifically deals with theoretical analysis of game music. Its focus on variation and reuse of themes also relates to my idea of analysing reoccurring themes within a game.
      There is also the Game Music Theory blog, run by Tom Berg. His work highlights one of the biggest challenges facing game music analysts; that is, it is necessary to create your own transcriptions for the vast majority of game music. There are some instances where transcriptions already exist, such as the piano collections for various Final Fantasy games, but this represents a small sample of the game music library, and even in these cases, the transcriptions account for only a fraction of the game's soundtrack.
      Finally is Matthew Thompson's personal blog, Video Game Music Nerd. Thompson currently teaches a course on video game music at the University of Michigan and his blog deals with both the analysis of game music as well as the challenges he faces teaching a new course in a new field. His video analysis of some of the leitmotifs in Final Fantasy VII was influential in guiding my approach to this topic. Previously I had intended to analyse the music from Final Fantasy XIII-2 in its relation to a traditional theme and variations, but Thompson's analytical work steered me in the direction of leitmotifs, as I believe the importance of the themes in the Final Fantasy series as part of the story should be highlighted.
      This paper would draw upon ideas from each of these sources, mainly: the analysis of game music in an academic paper; the necessity of working with your own, previously unanalysed transcriptions rather than official scores; and the treatment of the themes in Final Fantasy XIII-2 as leitmotifs and their relationships to the characters and story. This could potentially be the first academic paper to examine modern video game music and music from the Final Fantasy series, and it would be a contribution to the small pool of academic work on game music currently available.

      Introduction to the history of video game music research and game music analysis
      Laroche's thesis has a very thorough section on the dearth of scholarly analytical work of video game music. Here I would provide a summary on the current state of research and make some conjectures on the lack of information, but would refer the reader to Laroche's work for a more general history and to demonstrate how new this area is (his thesis being from 2012). Since this area of research is understudied in the field of music, I think it's worth providing some background information for the reader. Here I would discuss the current research on game music, namely the three important sources discussed above (Laroche's thesis, Thompson's blog and Berg's blog). Also worth discussing at this point are the issues related to this kind research; that is, lack of scholarly sources, necessity of transcribing the music yourself, lack of established language or any kind of standards for analysing game music, and the difficulty of being taken seriously by academics. One of the aims of the paper would be to show how game music can be discussed on the same level as other art forms that are discussed seriously. I understand, of course, that this is impossible to do with one paper, but it is important that there are more works produced in the vein of Laroche's thesis to show that analysis of video game music can be academic and can go beyond analysing it based on a larger context. That is, game music need not necessarily be defined by its underlying technology, or how interaction occurs between the gamer and the game, or even how it relates to film music to name but a few examples.

      History of the Final Fantasy series and the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy
      If detailed context needs to be provided for analysing the music from Final Fantasy XIII-2 (or indeed any other game) I believe this is the section for it. Here it is worth talking more about research or analysis directly related to the Final Fantasy series. Even though the first nine instalments were composed by Nobuo Uematsu, and Final Fantasy XIII was the first time Masashi Hamauzu composed for a Final Fantasy game on his own, this is much closer to the paper's topic than the general history of game music. This is where I would talk about how the series has a history of reusing themes (musical and otherwise), certain characters, and nomenclature in subsequent games despite there being no narrative connection between most games: Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a direct sequel to Final Fantasy XIII, but neither is connected to Final Fantasy XII. There exists some common elements in many games in the franchise; for example, often there will be a character named Cid (though he will differ in appearance and personality), the player will usually encounter magical creatures called moogles (original creations by Square Enix), and most games in the series contain variations on-—among others-—the victory fanfare (music that plays after the player wins a battle) and the prelude (the very first piece of music played in the original Final Fantasy for the Nintendo Entertainment System). This establishes a precedence of using variational techniques, which can support how reoccurring motives are purposeful and part of the history of the series.
      I believe a detailed analysis of reoccurring themes within and across the trilogy (Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII) would be worthwhile, but possibly too large for one paper. Among other reasons, my familiarity with the middle entry led me to single it out for the topic.

      Biographies of composers Masashi Hamauzu, Naoshi Mizuta and Mitsuto Suzuki
      The final step before the analysis is to give some insight into the histories of the three composers. Unfortunately, information on game music composers in general is meagre, and certainly the language barrier contributes to the difficulty in establishing detailed profiles for Japanese composers.
      Hamauzu's involvement in Final Fantasy XIII should be highlighted, as his score for this game necessarily influences the music in Final Fantasy XIII-2. Reoccurring characters and locations means musical themes will be reused and varied to strengthen the connection between the games.

      Presentation and analysis of main character themes
      The analysis would begin with the exposition of the main characters and their themes. Since most people reading the paper would not be familiar with the characters, some background information on their involvement in the story will be necessary. Though there are other reoccurring themes in the soundtrack, the case will be made for the analysis of only four of them, being the themes for Noel and Serah (the two characters controlled by the user), Lightning (Serah's older sister and the protagonist of Final Fantasy XIII, and sole playable character of the third instalment Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII), and Caius (the antagonist). Based on my preliminary research, these themes are the most prominent in the game and are connected to the most important characters in the game.
      Each theme will be analysed in terms of melody, harmony and orchestration and any defining characteristics that sets it apart from or relates it to other character themes. It will then be discussed in relation to the character's personality and role in the story. Each treatment of a motive will be contextualised by its placement in the game, its relationship to the character, and its purpose as an element of the narrative. For example, in the analysis of the piece An Arrow Through Time, I would note that it only plays near the beginning of the game when Noel meets Lightning for the first time. It contains elements of Lightning's theme as well as Serah's theme. This is interesting because Serah hasn't appeared in the game yet or had her theme played, but Noel and Lightning are talking about her, and she is introduced in the next scene.
      The paper would finish with some observations on the use of leitmotifs in the game. I would also include some commentary on the overall process and any issues that arose, as well as some thoughts on the future on video game music analysis. This would include my desire to see game music treated as a genre and area of research in its own right. While one can't ignore any parallels between video game music and film scores, art music and popular music, I believe research should not rely too heavily on trying to make it a subset of another field. This will allow for more growth and will create an environment where video game music can be analysed and appreciated in a more positive light.


Belinkie, Matthew. “Video Game Music: Not Just Kid Stuff.” 1999. Accessed November 21, 2013.

Berg, Tom. “Game Music Theory.” Accessed November 20, 2013.

Brame, Jason. “8-Bit Analysis.” Accessed December 2, 2013.

---. “Thematic Unity Across a Video Game Series.” Act. Zeitschrift für Musik &
issue 2 (July 2011).

Collins, Karen, ed. From Pac-Man to Pop Music: Interactive Audio in Games and New
. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2008.

“Final Fantasy VI's 'Dancing Mad', a Critical Analysis.” Destructoid. Published December 15, 2009.

“Final Fantasy XIII-2: Original Soundtrack.” Final Fantasy Wiki. Accessed December 2, 2013.

Hamauzu, Masashi, Naoshi Mizuta, and Mitsuto Suzuki. Final Fantasy XIII-2 Official Soundtrack.
Square Enix Music SQEX-10296~9, 2011. CD.

Laroche, Guillaume. "Analyzing Musical Mario-Media: Variations in the Music of Super Mario Video
Games." MA thesis, McGill University, 2012. ProQuest (MR 84768).

Newcomb, David Lawrence. “The Fundamentals of the Video Game Music Genre.” DMA diss., James
Madison University, 2012. ProQuest (3507135).

Thompson, Matthew. “Analysis: Final Fantasy VII Leitmotifs.” Video Game Music Nerd (blog).

Whalen, Zach. “Play Along – An Approach to Videogame Music.” Game Studies vol. 4, issue 1
(November 2004).

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

On the ethics of Plunderphonics

This year I'm taking a course in computer/electronic music. One of our projects is to create a piece using plunderphonics; that is, use a known piece of music and digitally edit it to create a new piece of music. This is something I did during my undergrad, but it got me thinking again about the ethical implications of plunderphonics, to which I don't believe there is a clear answer--even for someone who generally plays it by the books when it comes to ethics in music (such as myself).

To an extent we were already doing plunderphonics long before the advent of modern computers or any kind of electronic means of manipulation. At some basic level the (re)interpretation of a piece of music is a type of plunderphonics. We take the music a composer has supplied and export it as something uniquely our own. Instead of manipulating it digitally we're doing a much more primitive form of manipulation that must, necessarily, be closer to the original intent of the composer than anything we could do with the modern style of plunderphonics. There is of course a large difference (several actually): with traditional acoustic composition the idea is that the composer gives out his works willingly with the intent that the performer will reproduce it according to the score. With plunderphonics, on the other hand, it is implied that the composer releases the recording as a finished product without any further thought or intention of manipulation or appropriation (of course these ideas have changed somewhat over the years, but this is the general idea).
So whether we are playing a Chopin prelude with our own dynamics, articulations and tempo; or we're doing a rock cover of a Miles Davis tune; or we're digitally editing a Michael Jackson song, we're weaving a thread of commonality. We're creating something that was never intended to exist, and which may be at odds with what the composer wanted.

So if it doesn't belong to us, are we allowed to play with it? Gradually, it seems, the answer is shifting towards Yes. In the 1950s and 60s Glenn Gould was vilified for his interpretations of Bach and Mozart, while now his recordings are largely seen as revolutionary and refreshingly unique. (Even farther back, before recordings, baroque composers "sampled" each others' works as a sign of respect). And with the growing culture and community of remix artists, and the way artists accept--even embrace--remixes, we seem to be on the move towards a society of free-exchange art.

What is our responsibility as musicians when it comes to using someone else's music? The name 'plunderphonics' itself suggests that we know we're doing something "forbidden," and, by nomenclature, differentiates itself from a 'remix' or 'cover.' The latter two suggest "homage," while the first tends towards "parody" or "mocking." I think plunderphonics can be a useful tool for critical commentary. There is a lot you can say by re-organising someone's music vs. writing a scathing review. But if that's our goal then we need to be careful with our message. It's not constructive to write a review saying "this song is terrible" and neither is it useful or even necessary to plunder a piece of music just for the sake of destroying it without really saying anything. Panning music you find loathsome might get you a few heads nodding in consent, but it will be soon forgotten. Carefully editing someone else's work to make a point is much more effective and might draw more attention. A well-made point, even contrary to my beliefs, will keep me engaged, but someone smashing their keyboard in a YouTube comment will either make me leave or laugh.

On the other hand we have the chance to use digital editing to create something powerful and positive that is not derivative. For a plunderphonic to be 'anti' something, it must necessarily be dependent. It has to stand in opposition to the original work for it to be effective or even relevant. But positive-driven editing can stand either in support of the original or on its own as something significant.

I've been slowly writing this over several months, and every time I come back to add some more thoughts I'm still torn on how I feel about non-consented appropriation of art. However, the more I think about it, the more strongly I feel that remixes (whether they fall under the category of plunderphonics or not) should be able to stand independently and make a positive contribution. I can't make a grand conclusion to this entry because I feel this is such an open issue with potential for much more discussion. I welcome any thoughts on the matter.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

(Part 3/2) Reflecting on Reflections

I want to preface this third entry about art criticism by making a clear point of what my goal with these posts is. I want to focus on how criticism is often used poorly, and offer a different take on how we can critically analyse music (or any kind of art, or really just anything in general). Art criticism doesn't require a degree or special training. Anyone can speak his or her mind on how they perceive creative works. But I think there are good and bad ways (or perhaps useful and irrelevant ways) of talking about it, and I see and hear far too much of the latter. There are so many different ways we can talk about art, so why should we limit ourselves to such narrow views?

"Art and love are the same thing: it's the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you."
Chuck Klosterman, Killing Yourself to Live

This says as much about creating as it does about analysing. And so perhaps the reason we see poorly constructed criticisms and irrelevant commentary is because those providing it don't know who they are. If you don't know what you look like, you can't see your reflection. The more you know about yourself, the more you understand your likes and dislikes, the more you can embrace contradictions co-existing, the more self-aware you are, the better you will be able to offer analysis and commentary with depth and understanding.

I can understand how people can lose themselves in someone else's art. We do this all the time with varying degrees of attachment. Most people will have at least a song connected to some important moments in their lives (a song for falling in love, a song for a memorable summer, music for a rainy day, etc.). When we hear this music, it can feel as much a part of our lives as the actual experience it now represents. On deeper levels there are also those who are wholly dedicated to a band or musician, sewing the music directly into their lives. Music becomes a very personal thing, and sometimes we stop thinking we're a part of it and we start appropriating it. This becomes a problem for analysis when we stop hearing music as what it is, and can only see it through the filter we've imposed.

This is how we end up with people thinking they can influence artists with their personal agenda. In 2005, Nightwish fired vocalist Tarja Turunen, who also served as the frontwoman, was an original member and helped define the big sound that Holopainen aimed for. And people are still talking about it as if it's relevant. For some reason, eight years later, you can still find posts on YouTube, facebook and elsewhere where so-called fans have nothing else to say but "so sad Tarja is gone" or "this band sucks without Tarja" or even "will you do a reunion tour with her?" These people are missing the point entirely. She was fired for a reason (there was an open letter and it was very clear why she was fired and why they didn't want to work with her again). So what makes people think that by telling the band they miss the old singer that everything will be fixed? I can only imagine that those making these statements are either not artists themselves, or have never had to work with someone they don't get along with. Think about it this way: if you broke up with your significant other because you didn't get along with him or her, would you try to start the relationship again if all your friends said they missed him or her? Working with people in a creative situation is an odd cross between a working relationship and an intimate relationship.

And just as people come in go in our lives, so does music. Sometimes it seems hard to detach ourselves from period music--that is, music that represents or reflects a period in our lives that is maybe no longer relevant or identifiable. But as I've already talked about, it's hard to accept change, especially that we may have changed. We hear music from our youth and we feel young again, even though it may have been years since we last listened to it. It's a wonderful feeling to travel through time with music. But it is also ok to look at it, unbiased, and see times have changed. What's worth more is remembering where you came from and understanding how your tastes have changed and developed, than trying to cling to old memories, defending your former self.
My first real exposure to heavy metal was through Italian power metal band Rhapsody (now Rhapsody of Fire). It was a sound I'd never experienced before combining heavy guitar riffs, operatic vocals, orchestral backdrops, neo-classical licks, and a grand fantasy story. At the time it was the perfect amalgamation of my interests: it was like reading a Dragonlance book, while listening to a classical concerto with all the coolness of a rock and roll band. Once I'd set foot in that world I was only degrees away from Nightwish, Sonata Arctica and other European metal bands that would come to occupy my music collection. But as I listened to more and more metal I came to refine my taste, finding the common elements that linked the different bands I listened to and figuring out what parts of it actually appealed to me. Over the years I listened to Rhapsody less and less as I discovered I wasn't as interested in fantasy as I thought I was; I preferred the orchestral work done with Nightwish; I moved away from the bombast of power metal into the grungier aesthetic of gothic metal; I started preferring the speed and riff elements of thrash and death metal. Looking back I can see how it all got to where I am today; the progression was slow but now very obvious. At the time I almost felt bad when I realised I wasn't listening to as much Rhapsody, or when I started connecting more with Nightwish as my favourite band because I was still trying to hold on to this element that brought me into the world. I couldn't let go of my past. But I don't blame Rhapsody for any of this. I never fell into the trap of thinking the band had changed instead of me. They continued doing what they loved and what they felt was right for the band. When it stopped lining up with what I wanted I simply stepped away.

I admire most the artists who are honest with themselves. Now if we can only be honest. What of ourselves do we expect to see in their art? What do we expect of them? Are we being critical of their art or of ourselves? For years, American gamers have been extremely critical of the Final Fantasy video game series, particularly since the series' founder left and the original company merged with its competitor to form Square Enix (this happened 10 years ago, but they're still complaining). The Final Fantasy series has always been dedicated to progress and change--many games have pioneered elements that are now considered RPG standards. You can't do this by repeating yourself. I see in the complainants people unwilling to give up their pasts. They still remember Saturday mornings in front of a CRT TV with a flat grey controller in hands; top-down side-scrolling fantasy games with overworlds and chip-tune music. These aesthetics are now anachronistic, but they see the advancements as a departure, not as a progression. And who are these gamers that "stick with" a company they so dislike for 10 years? If you strictly want the 16-bit aesthetic, there are dozens of modern and classic games available on your phone, your computer, your home console and handheld. If you want a game that plays like a Western RPG, then don't go looking in Japan. It's ok that you once liked these games but no longer find them enjoyable. Art cannot please everyone, and it's truly a waste of your time to look in the wrong place for something you want. Don't go to a hamburger joint expecting them to make you a shepherd's pie.

If you are honest with yourself, you will find yourself in art, and you will find the art that best reflects you. And be prepared for change. The world moves ever onward.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Reviewing reviews (part 1: part 2, the sequel)

Before I move on to other aspects of art criticism (like fan entitlement and backwards relationships between popular and classical music), there are two more reviews I wanted to tackle in a similar vein as my previous post.

HIM occupies a curious space in the musical world. They've never really solidified a particular genre (beyond the self-imposed Love Metal style) and have variously been called gothic rock, gothic pop, gothic metal, alternative metal/rock and others, and have curiously become associated with Bam Margera, who is involved in a scene more likely to be linked to punk. HIM is also the first Finnish band to have a gold album in the United States, making them much more popular abroad than at home. Naturally when a band makes it this big they're bound to draw criticism for just about anything. When Screamworks: Love in Theory and Practice, Chapters 1-13 came out a few years ago everyone thought they'd "sold out" (an unfortunately overused term which can mean just about anything and is often used more now to denote music that is radio-friendly, or even just on this side of esoteric) because it had a very "pop" feel to it (see: In Venere Veritas), which was a big surprise seeing as the last album, Venus Doom was the "darkest" HIM album yet (see: Venus Doom). Again I think it's worth noting that this is a case where albums are treated as sequentially linked items, rather than separate entities. People often try to string albums together to show a progression towards "something." Sometimes it works, but the connections often tend to be artificial. It's easy to look back on a catalogue and map out how a band became more riff-oriented over their career or more progressive and then make something out of it. It may be an interesting project but it's rarely the case from the composer's perspective. Good music happens organically, not as a result of a composer with a five-year plan to make the band's music more popular with 18-25 year-olds.

And so here we delve back into the Ratings and Reviews section on iTunes for HIM's most recent release, Tears on Tape. (Once again the reviewer is neither credited or sourced). It does not start off well
There is a certain segment of rock & roll fandom that is adverse to change for any reason. Usually, it's an older generation that loves acts whose albums continue to sound the same. [...] In listening to their catalog, one or two things become self-evident: either they are happy to give their fans exactly what they desire over and over again, or they are incapable of change (or perhaps both, which is a win-win).
It's not a good sign when I'm just starting to analyse the review and I'm already seething. This type of review is so generic and bland it's beyond tired. The first two sentences are nothing more than filler (can you even start with filler?). All genres of music have musicians and fans that are adverse to change. It's something I talked about last time even--people in general are adverse to changes to anything: diet, location, friends, work, and so forth. There's a reason your grandparents listen to music from the 40s, and it's the same reason we're going to be listening to music from the 90s. It's music we grew up with and it makes us feel comfortable. It's us trying to feel like we're still relevant in a world that has moved on by listening to music of our youth.
It's also worth noting that there's a difference between a band that has a distinctive sound and a band that has no originality. One will release albums that sound similar because it's the same group of musicians playing music written by the same person; people have personalities and so do bands. Once we become adults and develop unique personalities we don't really change that much. Same thing goes for groups. A band with no originality will release albums that sound the same because they don't have the ability to move beyond their initial statement. Plus, as Valo himself put it, you have to focus on what you do best
...there's not a single person on Earth who can play Love Metal better than us. So I guess that that's our forte and we should concentrate on that
Getting back to the quotation, the reviewer is simply wrong in his assumption that HIM is incapable of change. While they are pretty firmly locked into the standard rock song form (2x verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo/interlude, chorus), there's still a lot of wiggle room. Harmony, melody, instrumentation, time and key signatures, tempo, lyrics can all make two songs in the same form sound very, very different. As for the claim that "they are happy to give their fans exactly what they desire over and over again," that's also something I have a hard time believing. There's this weird assumption that bands are very interested in only writing music that appeals to their fans. Writing music that people like should not be confused with writing music for people that they will like. You always hope that people will like what you write, but you're not doing it to make them happy.
...even in his most sinister snarl, Valo is so wistful he sounds like a jilted schoolboy, and HIM are incapable of writing songs without proper hooks
Here is another laughable case of "missing the point." What does "incapable of writing songs without proper hooks" even mean? Maybe there are some people who go into the studio thinking "I have to write a really sweet hook for this song," but I believe artists with integrity just write good music and piece it together as they see fit. Does a song need a proper hook? Does it need a hook at all? Does anything in the song even need to be defined as a hook if it doesn't serve that purpose according to the composer?
Finally we round off the piece with:
How many records does one need like this? Here HIM seem to be banking a lot; and with more than 20 years and boatloads of albums and singles, who's going to argue?
To answer your first question: as many as I want. I get a totally different experience listening to Greatest Love Songs Vol. 666 than I do listening to Venus Doom and Screamworks. Writing about love and death isn't new, but that doesn't mean we can't--you know what, I'll just let Valo say it in his own words: is very different with different people, so even if you're writing about separation or falling in love it's always different because you fall in love for different reasons [...] and that makes it interesting when it is a new combination for yourself
And to answer the second question: you, I guess? But I don't know who his review is targeted towards, so who is he arguing with anyway? And his claim that HIM has been around for more than 20 years is grossly exaggerated. They may have been jamming together since 1991, but they didn't release an album until 1997. And "boatloads" seems a tad hyperbolic for eight studio albums (with a standard number of singles per album), one live DVD and three remix compilations.

So, while HIM is being berated for its apparent inability to change, other bands are being slammed for changing too much. Because change is a bad thing when you don't want change, but change is a good thing when you don't want things to stay the same.
Theatre of Tragedy is another unique band in terms of genre--people apparently like labelling things and it's very convenient for these people when they don't have to change the labels or come up with new words. Theatre of Tragedy is very interesting because they are largely credited with creating the genre gothic metal, or at least spurring it forward and giving it the shape and sound that most people would call gothic metal today. Their first three albums are the definition of early gothic metal, so when they moved to electropop gothic rock (or something) for their next two albums, people were not happy. (For those interested, compare "Cassandra" from 1998 to "Crash/Concrete" from 2000). I wasn't around to witness the fallout, but from the bits and pieces I've gathered since then, it wasn't pretty.
In the liner notes to Theatre of Tragedy's live album Carl Begal (of BW&BK) shares some of his thoughts on the band's history as a "die-hard fan, part of a legion that has enjoyed one hell of a ride over the past 16 years." He says, in part
...from coming to grips with [Raymond]'s clean vocals on Aegis and beyond; finding worth in the band's Musique/Assembly era; accepting their decision to have Nell Sigland replace Liv Kristine
This doesn't sound like a "die-hard" fan with the utmost respect for his favourite band. How did this get printed in the band's farewell to the world? There's nothing wrong with being critical of what you enjoy, but his way of describing his experiences listening to the band sounds very detached and indeed separate from the rest of his write-up about what a stellar band they are. But phrases like "coming to grips" and "finding worth" and "accepting their decision" are not at all flattering or appreciative. It's like he can't appreciate Musique on the same level as Aegis because they're different. That's creating a problem where there isn't one. Again it's outsiders imagining these unnatural separations: contiguous blocks of CD releases instead of continuous evolution of music. I think it's beautiful when you have a situation like this where two instances are incomparable and yet they're amazing works of art in their own rights. Just as we can love a parent and a sibling and a friend in different ways for who they are, we can love contrasting art for what it is.
He also finishes with another cliché that comes up again and again in art criticism. Speaking of the band's final album, Forever is the World he says, "the band that launched an entire metal genre had returned to form." The mysterious "return to form." What exactly is it? It seems to be this imaginary construct of those longing for "the good ol' days," that other tired expression. To me, calling something a "return to form" suggests that the artist has deviated from his path in a negative or deconstructive way. It calls to mind images of a lost soul who has let his worldly troubles affect his art, only to clean up his life and release a magnificent work of art that shocks and pleases the masses. Unfortunately, people usually use it to mean "this sounds a lot more like their first album, which I really liked." More on that next time.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Reviewing reviews (part 1)

"Art criticism is weird." So said my brother Alan (of Robert Flood Octet fame) recently. He's right, and I've found album reviews to be one of the stranger sides of it (even though I'm guilty of having written a few myself from time to time). It's not the criticism itself I find weird. There's nothing wrong with being critical of art, even good art. Thinking critically, analysing, breaking things down piece by piece, getting down into the fine details of what makes a piece of art good and bad and everything in between. This is all acceptable, and you don't need to be an artist to be critical of art.

However, the problem with reviews is that they tend to miss the point entirely, overuse cliché terminology ("soaring melodies," "soulful tunes," "crooner") and/or go on at length without really saying anything. One particular review has stood out in my mind for a long time. In 2007 Sonata Arctica released their fifth album, Unia. It was unlike anything they'd done before and marked a turning point in their career, as they shifted away from speedy, melodic power metal towards prog metal for the next two CDs. The review for the album on iTunes (no name or source is given) is a mess. found the group experimenting with novel songwriting techniques, and diverting from the straight-and-narrow of their career path for the first time. Problem was, these new elements mostly served to subvert the group's extremely competent and popular power metal formula with unprecedented doses of commercialism...

My first problem with this excerpt is that the author assumes that the "novel songwriting techniques" serve to "subvert" their sound and image as a band (or something). That because they're so good at doing power metal, doing something different is--in his words--a "problem." This comes up a lot in album reviews. When bands start trying something different there is an outcry from reviewers and fans. But it's never an issue of whether or not the New Thing is Bad. It's just Different. And somehow Different has become Bad. That's what the reviewer said--by doing something new, Sonata Arctica had created a problem.
Now, my second issue with this review is his ludicrous claim that Unia is somehow a "commercial" album. This is another thing that pops up a lot in analyses of popular music. Heck, this guy called post-2004 Children of Bodom commercial. Have I been using the word wrong all along? I'm not sure if they mean
a : viewed with regard to profit b : designed for a large market

b (1) : being of an average or inferior quality (2) : producing artistic work of low standards for quick market success

when they talk about commercial music in this situation. Don't confuse artists making money with selling out! And it's hard to be a huge commercial success working in metal, which is still very much a niche market. Children of Bodom is only the 35th best-selling band in Finland (including international artists), having sold roughly 240k albums (that's eight regular CDs, one live CD, one live DVD/CD, one best-of compilation, one compilation of covers and a dozen or so singles). Sonata Arctica is even further down the list at 48, with fewer than 200k sold. I'd hardly call those commercial.
And I would say Unia is far from being the pop-oriented album the reviewer seems to think it is. I offer for your consideration "The Vice", which I think is a fairly good representation of the album.

And finally the reviewer finishes with:
...first time arrivals will still want to pick up one of Sonata Arctica's earlier releases if they want a proper introduction to their prevalent power metal template.

Now this is a curious quotation. It seems to suggest that to properly enjoy this album one must be familiar with the band's back catalogue, as if the albums are sequential. On the one hand I think it's worth saying that to get a deep understanding of Unia one should experience Sonata Arctica to see the progression from Ecliptica up to this point. But there is a difference between hearing a progression and hearing a sequence. A band's history is more than a list of its CD releases, just as a person is more than her list of accomplishments on her resume. But what I think the reviewer is trying to say--and I assume this because this is so often the case--is that "this CD is ok but man did you miss out on their first CDs, they used to be so good." And this only serves to perpetuate this idea that artists should not deviate with what fans are used to and that change is Bad and not up for debate.

"Art criticism is weird."

Friday, December 21, 2012


This has been an amazing year for concerts. I'm quite fortunate to have been in Montreal, where all the action happens. In February I saw Children of Bodom for the first time; September brought Kamelot and my fourth Nightwish concert (second time meeting the band, and, as fate would have it, one of the last concerts with their now ex-singer); last weekend I saw Wintersun, whom I never thought I would see; Tangerine Dream in June was a throwback to my childhood (and some of my first exposure to electronic music); I got to see the Robert Flood Octet throw down their debut show in November; and two of my favourite gaming franchises came to town with Symphony of the Goddesses (Legend of Zelda) and Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy.

They were all unique experiences, and it got me thinking about a lot of different things. One aspect of the concert experience stuck out in particular: the role of the audience. It sounds a bit odd at first, as one does not usually think about the listeners having a "role" at a live performance. Now, the role of the audience has shifted a lot over time, and perhaps it seems odd that the audience might be considered in a concert setting because many of us have now grown up with our primary role as listeners being simply The Observer. It's much cheaper and easier to listen to an album at home (and geographical location has a huge influence on who you'll be able to see in concert). In fact, if you have your headphones on, you are literally the only audience member at that point. We have no interaction with a live setting: we can't see the performer(s), we aren't affected by sitting right in front of the orchestra/speaker or by being too far away/in a dead zone, and this particular listening is now an artifact--it has been months or years since it happened, in another room (or rooms), another country, the artist could be dead, there might be five layers that were recorded on different days.

This type of listening experience differs greatly from the days gone by. Before recorded audio, when you went to a concert you were probably hearing the music for the first time, and there's a good chance you wouldn't hear it again. Now--particularly with rock music--there'a an album release often several months before touring so that fans have a chance to get to know the music before the show. And even then, bands rarely play more than three new songs on tour because everyone wants to hear what they're familiar with. That's an interesting idea to me. Why are we so uncomfortable listening to new music? Are we afraid it's going to be bad? How does it differ from going to a concert where they play something you've heard before that you don't like?

Though I generally like processing new music on my own, I'm not opposed to hearing it in a concert setting. However, I have noticed that I tend to receive it in different ways depending on what it is. For instance, both the Tangerine Dream and Robert Flood Octet shows were about 90% music I'd never heard before. But there was something about the setting where I felt like I didn't need to know it, and I was okay just sitting back and hearing it, knowing I probably wouldn't be able to hum the tunes after the show. In those cases, I really felt like it was more the experience of being at a live show that was important. The Wintersun concert was a little different. It was about half old material and half from their new album, which, unfortunately, I have not had the chance to hear yet. I won't say that I wasn't there for the experience (I was), but I felt a big shift in the way I experienced the concert as they played songs I knew and those that I didn't. As it was a rock concert, I was free to sing along and move about in time with the music. But when they started playing something I didn't know, it was like shifting from rehearsal to improvisation. I had to take cues from the audience members who knew the songs and the band (can I cheer on every beat for this section, or is the feeling really on every other beat?). I could "rock out" to the new music, but I had to pay constant attention to where the music was going.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with rock concerts. My main purpose is to go and experience the show, and hear the music. So far, Nightwish has provided me with the best concert-going experience. I can sing and dance and let the music flow through me, without the insanity of mosh pits that are often found at metal concerts. Nothing takes me out of the moment more than being pushed around, kicked in the back of the head and having wild hair whipped in my face. Some people really love going to concerts to mosh and crowd surf, or drink or get high, and I will never understand that because the music is always the most important thing about the concert to me.

The two video game-based concerts I went to were very interesting. At their base, they are already a hybrid, a meeting between the symphony and "high art," and "popular" multi-media entertainment. This creates a curious atmosphere because the setting to an unknowing observer would appear to be that of a typical symphonic concert, but the audience's energy level is so much higher. Classical musicians are often frustrated by the lay community clapping between movements or making any kind of sound above and beyond polite applause. I understand why you would want to maintain silence between movements, but I can also appreciate that some people are very excited and moved by the music and want to show their support and approval. However, I think we can draw the line clearly on some points. For instance, it felt very obtrusive when during the opening notes of Aerith's Theme applause broke out. During the final piece, credits rolled on the screen behind the orchestra, and people clapped and whistled on and off as various names came up. I can't say it's wrong to do this because I know I'm excited to be there and be a part of it, but when it interferes with the music, I find it hard to reconcile.

I suppose the question should be asked: Does the audience need to know what's going on? In any given concert setting, very few listeners will be professional or educated musicians. So if most of the audience is made up of non-musicians, who may or may not attend many concerts, can they be expected to know the "rules?" Can they be blamed if they can't clap in time? Will they even know where the end of the piece is? I went to a concert this year where they played the Kyrie from Mozart's Requiem. Near the end, the chorus builds to a high point and climaxes on a diminished seventh chord (for reference, see this clip which starts at 2:10; the chord of interest is at 2:25). Now, it was probably Mozart's intention to lead everyone to this climax, thinking it's the end. But once you hear the chord, even without musical training it's likely you will find it uncharacteristic on an ending. However, at this particular show, as soon as they hit that chord, the audience broke out into thunderous applause, and it was all I could do keep from laughing aloud at the absurdity. It wasn't so much "haha, I know about music, and this isn't the tonic chord" as it was "these people have stopped being active listening participants." I think it's unlikely many of them were actually listening to the piece at that point, but were responding to the stimulus that a big, loud, held chord means the end of the piece, and now I applaud. If people aren't listening to the music anymore, that worries me.

And maybe that's why new music isn't played as often. If no one's listening, it's not really worth it, is it? So I think in one way, active participation as an audience is a good way to keep people engaged and listening. That was something I really noticed at the RFO gig, and most of the rock concerts I attend. Especially with solos, you can see and feel an immediate reaction. I don't see this trend being passed into "classical" music settings for various reasons, but mostly because of the difference in sound levels. No matter how many people are at a rock concert, you're not really going to drown out the band if you cheer after a solo; at a jazz show, the setting is much more intimate, so there are fewer people, and chances are the instruments will be amplified anyway.

One final thought about my experience at the Symphony of the Goddesses and Distant Worlds concerts. Both shows used a large screen behind the orchestra to synchronise game footage with the music. I think the Zelda show did a much better job with creating a real harmony between the music and video, but in both cases I found myself spending far more time looking at the screen than at the musicians. In that respect I was a bit disappointed because I felt I lost some of the experience by spending time with the screen rather than sharing that interaction with the performers. On the other hand, having the display helped to ease some of the discomfort I experience watching a live performance--my own fear of screwing up in a public concert manifests itself physically, and I have to constantly remind myself they're professionals and much better at a) not screwing up, and b) dealing with unexpected mishaps than me.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Vox pop

I've heard some strange criticisms of popular music over the years, usually from people trying to claim (or at least trying to imply) classical music is somehow inherently better. One of the most common complaints I've heard is that popular music abuses the song structure. I admit that it is ubiquitous. I think it would be fair to say 9 out of every 10 songs you hear on the radio are written thusly: verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus, with the possibility for minor variants, such as an intro or an extro (if it doesn't get cut for the radio edit), or a pre-chorus/extra bridge. Unless you listen to very progressive music, it's unlikely there will be a lot of variety on any given CD.

Alright, that's a little strange then, isn't it? And it must get boring to listen to songs written in the same structure over and over again! After all, people keep complaining about all these songs with "catchy choruses" and "sweet hooks." On paper, it looks like they all sound the same.

Except. Except. Except. Classical musicians are totally hipsters and were doing it way before it was cool. Remember the sonata-allegro form? I have never heard anyone complain that composers relied too much on the sonata. Why is that? After all, it can be quite simply broken down into three sections (exposition, development, recapitulation), and more often than not has a plain overarching structure of I-V-I. Why would composers keep coming back to this same form for sonatas, songs, symphonies and movements of suites? What could possibly make the sonata interesting after Beethoven and Schubert and Haydn wrote so many of them?

Content. It's all about content. And structure has no bearing on it. I could write a sonata that sounds just like any other sonata, the same as I could write a song that sounds just like any other song. But I don't because /that/ would be boring. Structure helps give me a guideline for organising the music I write, but does not dictate what the music is.

Of course content is subjective. That's the whole point of music. Music is a universal language, and everyone understands it, but not everyone speaks or understands the same dialect. After Nightwish's Once came out I often used "Nemo" as a way of getting people familiar with Nightwish. It embodies a lot of their qualities, it's short and straightforward, it's catchy, and I think a very nice piece of music. I once played it for someone who I thought might appreciate its beauty and who should know better than to say to me, "Well, it's just circle of fifths, isn't it?" This person is a highly educated musician, and I think that's a very basic way of talking about music. I don't care if they didn't like the song, but to debase it like that is unacceptable because if "Nemo" is "just circle of fifths" then what are all the sonatas written during the classical and early romantic period? And the worst part is that "Nemo" isn't even based on circle of fifths. Taken from the official Once Notebook, the verse is: ||: Dm, C/D, Bb/D, Dm, Dm, C/E, Gm, Csus, C :|| (or i, VIIadd9, VI6, i, i, VII6, iv, VII) and the chorus is ||: Dm, Csus, C, Dm, F, C :|| (or i, VII, VII, i, III, VII). And when it does modulate during the second verse and at the end of the song, it goes to Fm. That is not the circle of fifths that I learned about.
Also, I once heard someone complain that Nightwish never changes the tempo in their songs. That's a ridiculous complaint because there are hardly any tempo changes in any single piece of music in any style of any time period. Sonatas will change tempo from movement to movement, but rarely during.

So why do educated people persist in talking about "popular music" as if it can't be taken seriously? For all the times in school I was told to keep an open mind about serial and 20th-century music, I think I should be allowed to say at least once that you should keep an open mind about any type of music. No one genre is the be-all end-all of music. I never want to restrict myself to listening to or composing one style because there are too many emotions, and too many things to be said. Sometimes I need to listen to Sibelius, and sometimes I need Andy Moor, and sometimes I need to listen to Ryu Kyu Freestyle. Some days I want to write piano quartets because I feel that's the best way to express myself, and other days I want to write a heavy metal song because that's the only way I can tell my story.