Shall I Listen? Music and Mood Regulation

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

As is known by friends, colleagues, people following me on social media platforms like Twitter, and anyone who reads this blog when I publish a posting, music has been an integral part of my life. Although I appreciate other forms of expression, there’s something about music that can move me like no other medium. Even when a more visual medium, such as film or television, evokes strong feelings, there’s usually some non-diegetic spectre that takes me over the edge. As well, I’ve used music as a basis for my doctoral work from the perspective of Library and Information Science, with an interest in how we conceptualize musical similarity, and the degree to which genre-based categorization influences such perceptions and our tastes.

Despite my keen interest in music, there are times when I don’t listen to it as often as I normally would, or when I hardly listen at all. Although it’s gotten somewhat better, I’ve dealt with this state of mind recently; of not treating myself as often to music as I normally would. What prompted this posting was something that happened earlier this week, although this was certainly not the first time it has happened of late. I took out my iPod at the bus stop near home, all set to listen to something. And then I listened to nothing, arriving at my destination and putting my iPod away without even pressing “Play.” It’s a paradoxical state, I suppose, given that one of the reasons why people listen to music is to regulate one’s mood or emotions (Clarke, Dibben, & Pitts, 2010). Can’t I just listen to Strauss’ Heldenleben or Bowie’s “Heroes,” and feel ready to take on the world? Isn’t that exactly what I should do to give myself a boost, as it somehow usually does if I find just the right thing? This posting is a brief reflection on the role music has played in my life, which was also perhaps spurred by a lecture I heard this week by Berthold Hoeckner on “Music, Media, and Memory.” It was a fascinating and complex talk on the ways in which forms of mechanical reproduction that came to the fore in the early 20th century (in particular sound recording and cinema) tried replicating human memory, with some references to Walter Benjamin’s ideas.

Almost always, music has been able to provide me with a range of wonderful feelings, from elation to comfort (even if it’s from “sad” music). I have vague memories of hearing and enjoying some of the classical long play (LP) albums my mother would play. In some cases, as with Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, I would even run around the house, my own imaginings very different from those intended to be conveyed within the “story.”  This older music somehow made me feel something, even if I didn’t know the names of the specific pieces. For some reason, however, I at some point developed an aptly youthful coolness towards classical. That is, until my first year of high school, when I rediscovered some of those old favourites tucked away in a two-drawer chest. My mother had moved on to cassettes, some of which were recorded from the aforementioned albums. But something prompted me to look for the music that had captured my childhood imagination, even if I can’t remember exactly what. It began with an enthusiasm for Russian composers, eventually followed by an enthusiasm for Germans, with some likely spins of discs for composers from other countries as well. I finally connected names of compositions and their creators with those aural memories, and even began a collection of my own, first on cassette, then eventually on compact disc (CD), when it became clear that the classical selection for the former was becoming increasingly slim.

So there I was, listening to the likes of Prokofiev, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov, and then Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss, and then various others (such as Berlioz) who had their own appeal. Maybe it related to my childhood, or maybe they somehow reminded me of music from movies I liked, or maybe it was some of both. But then there was the reality of small rural town life in the Midwest and being an adolescent, topped off with living outside municipal limits and having parents who were older than practically everyone else’s. When it seemed like everyone else was listening to poppy synthy crap or hair metal, I felt like I would probably end up becoming the last advocate ever for classical music… an odd brew of false prestige and genuine love. Whether on bike rides or walks, in the countryside or in town (where we moved when I was 16), I would encounter others my age, who would occasionally ask what I was listening to. Maybe some of them said a good thing every so often, but I generally got (or at least remember more clearly) questions and comments wondering how I could listen to such stuff.

Along with my dislike of current recommender systems, which more or less draw upon genre (or, rather, algorithms that are used to interpret user behaviours), I consider the aforementioned experiences as another foundation for my research interests. More specifically, how could I have found music similar to what “everyone else” was listening to, and that I would have liked as well? Although this was quite a while before recommender systems or me knowing anything about information science, I actually did wonder how I could “fit in” more. I suppose I could have just pretended to like what I thought everyone else liked, but I wouldn’t have been me, and the ruse would’ve cracked eventually. But I did pick up on a few things that sounded reasonably good to me during high school dances; most especially some older “rock,” as well as whatever was playing when someone I liked danced with me. And, as the 1990s started to arrive, some rap.

When I arrived at university, I came with my well-established love of classical (or at least certain composers), as well as some classic rock (including The Doors, with some convincing from my much-older brother) and some rap. During my time there, I found that there were other people my age who also listened to classical… and other genres, too. That one could, for instance, encounter a music major who wears a Bach t-shirt one day, and a Metallica t-shirt the next. My first two years at university, I was lucky to share living spaces with other students who had a diverse range of tastes, including a music major from New Orleans.

After university, I’ll just say that the things I started figuring out during my time there, at least regarding musical diversity and similarity, continued to expand. Over the decade-and-a-half since obtaining my Bachelor’s Degree and beginning my PhD, I was lucky to keep finding more “non-classical” music I enjoyed. Somehow, hair metal even sounded good (although I still dislike poppy synthy stuff). I kept finding more connections, whether intended by musicians or somehow formulated in my own mind, among specific works from “very different” genres. This blog has quite a few stories about the initial thrill of such discovery. And I am definitely not the last person who will carry classical music and opera forward. Constantly coming up are younger performers and fans (and composers, too), a number of whom are even more avid about classical music than me, and who have an aptly hip sensibility to keep it dynamic and alive.

I can’t count how many snippets of musical memories, along with the circumstances in which they occurred, emerged in writing this. Many of them come from good times, whether the highs I’ve felt from the thrill of hearing something new (either a piece I’ve never heard before, or a striking interpretation of a pre-existing favourite), or events for which certain music was in the background. As described near the beginning, however, I haven’t felt as much like listening to music… or at least the usual things that help boost my mood. Typically, I can listen to something that I’m pretty sure will perk me up, make me feel motivated to get through some difficult tasks or the day, and it will work. But for the time being, I’ll just say that using music as a mood regulator doesn’t work as much as it has done typically. The possible reasons seem to vary: maybe I’ll enjoy something too much, even though I feel I don’t have the mental luxury to indulge in it; feeling overwhelmed and numbed by music that usually spurs me to feel like I can accomplish things; or not wanting to listen to anything that might break through the toughness I feel I need to maintain to keep pushing through things. In other words, based on my understanding of the lecture I mention at the beginning of this posting, might the memories and desires I associate with these pieces (or at least the interpretations of them carried in objects for listening) be too much? Certainly, being able to interact with other people has helped the most. But it’s difficult when I can’t get the usual burst from music otherwise. In any case, I’m hoping to return to some form of equilibrium.

Ich soll lauschen.

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Guest Posting on Musical Similarity

August 2, 2014 Leave a comment

Just this past week, I had a guest posting (Defining Musical Similarity: Genre and Beyond) put up on the brand-new blog for the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T). Given that blog’s intended scope, it’s of a different flavour from my usual postings here, which typically focus on specific instances of cross-genre similarity, both real and “imagined” (or, the ones I tend to perceive). The guest posting for ASIS&T is more closely related to my discipline, library and information science (LIS), and it provides an overview of my research. Although it isn’t really about specific music, anyone who’s interested in the idea of cross-genre similarity at an abstract level  might be interested in the posting’s encapsulation of the relevant research

More specifically, the posting discusses how genre has become the “best” mode for categorizing music in a variety of systems, with similar principles indirectly manifesting themselves within recommender systems. And that this continues to remain the case, despite:

  • the limitations of behaviour-based algorithms of recommender systems;
  • the lack of a definitive and immutable taxonomy of genres;
  • the individual ways we perceive similarity and preference;
  • the usage of similar musical principles across diverse genres;
  • the emergence of “omnivorous” listeners; and
  • trends in how one describes “legitimate” musical tastes (in other words, it isn’t all “classical and opera”).

Of course, relevant citations to all of the above points are given in the posting itself.

I also describe the scope of my proposed doctoral research, which relates to the ways in which people describe similarity as it pertains to music. It will be interesting to see the extent to which genre emerges as a factor, or if other factors also play a role as well. The posting concludes with potential applications and implications. Of course, I’m quite keen on the idea of recommendation (and even modes of categorization) that more actively breaks genre-based habits. That said, there are some potential issues with that as well. But that’s another guest posting…

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Beyond Hominids and Star Children: Strauss at 150

June 11, 2014 Leave a comment


Everyone has probably heard at least one piece by German composer Richard Strauss, born on this date in 1864. In fact, it is likely the same one. A progression of three notes that culminate in a suspenseful chord that remains unresolved, followed by a rhythmic thumping on the kettledrums. A similar theme appears again, and a third time, now evoking a sense of the sublime in a new theme. A ritual somehow sacred and profane, a worship of the sun, a feeling of the power of the universe.

Read more…

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Haunted by Poe: A 13 Year Tribute (Part II)

October 30, 2013 Leave a comment

For the first part of this posting, visit here.

My decision to listen to singer/songwriter Poe’s album Haunted (2000) after a rather long hiatus happened a few Fridays ago, following a conversation I had with someone at a coffee shop. We focused on music, politics, and the ways in which the two of them can intertwine. Somehow, I brought up Haunted, focusing on how Poe’s career became stalled for many years on account of some truly twisted legal b.s., precipitated by the merger of Atlantic Records (with whom Poe had a contract) with AOL Time Warner in 2001.

On the way home, while listening to some of the more high-octane sections of Richard Strauss’ orchestral piece Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”), I stopped it suddenly and decided to switch to the title track of Haunted instead. This was due in part to the coffee shop conversation, as well as the desire for something that still sounded as thrilling as I find Heldenleben, but somehow not as overpowering. And, with autumn finally arriving in its brisk and colourful glory, with leaves falling on yards and roads and houses, the atmosphere seemed just right. Read more…

“Haunted” by Poe: A 13 Year Tribute (Part I)

October 25, 2013 1 comment

Music recordings from practically any genre have a history, whether broad, personal, or both. Many accounts about recordings read as fairly straightforward stories, with myths that end up forming around them, whether for individual songs or entire albums.

Some recordings are even more deeply embedded within their historical contexts, whether it’s Bruno Walter’s performance of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, just before the Nazi Anschluss in 1938; Leonard Bernstein leading members of multiple orchestras in a relatively better-known Ninth Symphony, performed in Berlin with the fall of the infamous Wall in 1989; or U2 recording Achtung Baby just a year later in the same city, in some ways trying to articulate something about the then-current geopolitical situation, with decades of entrenched Cold War paranoia and posturing rapidly falling with Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe.

Of course, personal histories can go into albums as well. The Achtung Baby example also illustrates such a possibility, with U2 on the verge of breaking up during its creation, and emerging with a new sound and renewed strength to continue to the present day. Listeners might read even more personal individual histories into such recordings, depending on their contextual knowledge. For whatever reason, I do this with Bernstein’s recording of the final scene from Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, committed to disc with the Orchestre National de France and singer Montserrat Caballé in 1977.

Caballé herself is at her peak… one of the finest Salome performers, in my opinion. However, especially considering that “Bernstein does Salome” seems like a very promising listening prospect (and an object of obsessive searching in pre-Internet days, when I first heard about its existence), the result ends up sounding lackadaisical, with a sense of forced drama. I remember feeling disappointed upon hearing it the first time, expecting something akin to Bernstein’s more truly thrilling accounts of other works (as can be found in many of his Mahler recordings). But what also came to mind was the fact that Bernstein recorded this during a period of serious personal turmoil, which somehow seems to manifest itself on the recording; he wasn’t at his peak here, although the performances of five Strauss Lieder were up to Bernstein standard. Of course, my detection of such a residual personal history assumes that Bernstein somehow “embodies” the recording, or even the music, admittedly a risk considering all the people who also contributed to it (with Strauss as the original musical creator, and Oscar Wilde having providing the inspirational text).

With smaller groups of musicians, or even single ones, identifying embodied personal and historical contexts can seem much easier. Based on my engagement with it, such a tendency feels quite palpable on the album Haunted (2000), self-produced and assembled on a Macintosh 9600 by singer / songwriter Poe (née Anne Danielewski, with various sources giving 1967 or 1968 as her birth year ), and released on the very apt date of 31 October. And yet, befitting the album’s title and release date, identifying an easily graspable “essence” somehow seems elusive, too… almost like an entity we think we can see, but that manages to evaporate before we can say to ourselves, without a reasonable doubt, that we did indeed see or hear something discernible and real.

Haunted acts as a complement to the book House of Leaves (which, admittedly, I’ve yet to read), written by Poe’s brother Mark (1966 – ). Poe also makes the album a tribute to their father Tadeusz Danielewski (1921-1993), a renowned theatre director; a filmmaker; and an acting teacher whose students included such names as James Earl Jones, Martin Sheen, and Sigourney Weaver.

Some of the top search results on Google for the elder Danielewski include a Wikipedia article, an entry from Internet Movie Database (IMDB), and some obituaries in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times from around the time of his passing. Another interesting one is from a forum on the family website for a Huntington family, which has a photograph of Danielewski pointing his finger while directing something. As the forum posting states:

The gesture in this photograph fills me with nostalgia and affection. I have had that finger pointed at me in exactly that manner at some of the most meaningful, educational moments of my life as an artist.

One can gather from the photograph alone that Danielewski possessed a high level of intensity. By all accounts, it carried over into his homelife, including the way he related to his children. A 2001 Chicago Tribune joint interview with Poe and Mark describes the transient nature of their youth, given Danielewski’s keen interest in traveling the world to make his films and the financial instability that would result. Also mentioned is the toll taken on them (and, perhaps as well, determination instilled in them) by his high intellectual and artistic leanings. As Poe states:

My father was this extremely compelling artist-guy… Everything mundane was made epic by him. Could Mark have written this book without growing up with that guy? Absolutely not. He’d play us [Ingmar] Bergman films when we were 8 or 9, telling us, `Everything falls apart.’ Entropy — that was a big word for him — entropy. `Everything must rot,’ he’d say. `Trees rot, stars rot.’

Haunted likely wouldn’t have emerged without her father’s influence, either, whether intellectually or emotionally. A quote attributed to her on IMDB underscores the deleterious effect it could have as well:

I’d often find my dad’s voice echoing in my brain, paralyzing me while working. If you’re not careful, those critical voices can cut you off from doing anything.

For Haunted, the result is a meditation that centres on this complicated relationship, running the gamut of strong emotions that one could read as anger, defiance, acceptance, understanding, and love. Or, as Poe states in the joint interview with her brother, “youthful anger, if you allow it to be voiced, will mutate into a kind of respect and sadness.” This seems quite clear in the arc between the taunting “Not a Virgin” mid-album, and the almost ethereal melancholy of “If You Were Here” at the album’s conclusion (depending on which version one has; another concludes with a reprise of the seductive “Hey Pretty”).

Some of the songs have an ambiguous air. Whom exactly is Poe addressing? Her father? Other people in her life? Or, given the almost spectral nature of the album’s title and overall atmosphere, does Poe leave it deliberately vague? Whatever the case, Poe’s father himself contributes to the album as well, providing oblique or purportedly direct commentary on the songs and the ideas they express.

A few years after Danielewski’s passing, Poe and her brother found cassettes with some of their father’s musings on various topics. Excerpts from them ended up on Haunted, usually between songs or occasionally embedded within them. It’s interesting to note that, when the ability to record sound emerged near the end of the death-obsessed Victorian Era, one likely had the impression of hearing disembodied voices, almost akin to spirits. In the case of Haunted, which appeared around the end of the century that followed, someone who has passed appears every so often alongside the living Poe. This trait lends an already ghostly album an even greater degree of hauntedness. Danielewski’s influence and impact on his daughter is so great that Haunted requires his actual presence, and an apparently serendipitous discovery allowed this to happen.

My own serendipitous discovery of this album happened when my former spouse and I got together over 10 years ago, and she wanted to play it for me. I remember feeling impressed by it, as it sounded like no “rock” album (for want of a better shorthand phrase) I had heard before. No album is perfect, of course, but this was way up there for me overall; a tour de force in terms of scope, ambition, range of emotion, and quite possibly personal musical resonances tying with my “classical and opera” sensibilities. Interestingly, on a Ning page for Poe, one of the first things mentioned is the appreciation both Poe and her brother developed for music as a “universal language.”

I learned at a very young age that every one speaks a different language. Even if two people are both speaking English, their personal and cultural histories come into play—and not always amicably. Music, as a means of communication, can provide a way of transcending those differences.

Whether one thinks in that manner, or in a slightly different way with musics of the world potentially sharing some kind of universal grammar, it’s interesting how this notion of “universality” appears so early on in the text of Poe’s Ning page. Indeed, the number of musical genres attributed to Haunted indicates some degree of convergence among different genres. Wikipedia’s webpage for the album lists alternative rock, electronica, pop rock, and experimental rock. The page for Poe herself also includes trip hop, hard rock, and R&B. I suppose some might detect other influences. Of course, the page for Poe lists a riot of possible genres, including (given where her father came from) “Polish hip-hop.”

As mentioned before, while I’ve found nothing that refers specifically to “classical” influences on Poe, I can detect some vague affinities with such a “sound” as well. They’re admittedly subjective, and I run the risk of being completely wrong about them, as they seem to tie in with my own musical obsessions. And yet, I somehow know the connections are there, becoming clearer to me as I decided to revisit the album through headphones and more careful listening (which included pulling the headphone jack out slightly to pick up additional nuances). The second posting will go into further analysis of such affinities, attempting to delve deeper into the album’s delights and dangers. Tying in with this posting’s initial notion of recordings’ personal and historical contexts, the second one will also explore the album’s sublime aspects; how they make us contemplate the nature and complexity of our most important relationships, and how can they tie in with broader historical contexts, even stretching back many years and generations.

Active vs. Passive Media: The False Dichotomy

October 12, 2013 Leave a comment

Author’s note: Published a month after Virtual Environments and Opera, this posting originally appeared on tl;dr (13 March 2012), a now-defunct blog that focused on videogames and information. Currently in its place is some generic webpage advertising various things. While it would’ve been nice to know from the administrators that they were no longer hosting the site, especially since it has been on my curriculum vitae, I had the foresight to save the text, and to bring it back for those who might be curious about this particular topic. Regular readers of this blog might notice a slightly different style of writing, as I probably would have made this at least twice as long on here, and would have gone into greater detail about musical similarities.

In the comments section of my previous posting [Virtual Environments and Opera on tl;dr, (not the one on this blog)], I went on a tirade about “active” vs. “passive” media. I won’t pontificate on media theorist Marshall McLuhan, but I will consider some possible reasons why this split remains a useful rhetorical tool for people who advocate the virtues of specific formats.

You’ve probably heard advocates of reading describe how television, videogames, and other visual media are passive because they’re “preprocessed” (like fast food and TV dinners). Books, on the other hand, force you to translate text into the five senses, and are therefore more nourishing (like organic vegetables, but only if they’re locally grown and in-season). These are the people who proudly proclaim that they haven’t watched television since 1972.

Steve Johnson’s pro-popular culture book Everything Bad Is Good for You, whose title derives from ironic observations made in the Woody Allen films Annie Hall and Sleeper, makes the opposite claim. Books are actually a passive medium, because the author generally tells you “what to do.” On the other hand, among other things, videogames enable you to create your own story and to develop such abilities as hand-eye coordination.

So, if books are a more active medium than videogames, except when videogames are a more active medium than books, where does that leave us? Definitions of “activity” and “passivity” are little more than moving targets. Nonetheless, advocates of the former can resort to tortuous arguments to “prove” a specific point, while sidestepping the differences in quality that exist within all media. Text materials may have traditionally held a venerated status, but I’m sure we can all think of television shows and videogames that are more substantive than certain books [about sparkly vampires].

[And now, for a tangentially relevant history and theatre lesson, along with bathroom humour, a most excellent clip from Wayne’s World, and musical references that tie together SWTOR (Star Wars: The Old Republic) and Blazing Saddles…]

For nearly a century, certain interests have hyped up the differences between audience activity and passivity. Some visual artists and playwrights have focused on fostering “active” audience engagement with their works, with the stated goal of bringing about political change. They set their works in opposition to those that, at least for them, aid in maintaining the status quo by ignoring harsh social realities. The latter may range from novels and films about sparkly vampires to “masterworks” of art, all of which are “passively” appreciated or (to get Marxist here) consumed as commodities.

One could trace these concerns at least as far back as World War I (1914-1918). For the first time in history, mechanized death obliterated millions of young men. After the war, economic sanctions imposed on a defeated Germany set the stage for the eventual rise of a Mephistophelian monster who promised to restore that country’s pride. With the so-called civilized world in shambles, as well as the recent victory of “the workers” in formerly Tsarist Russia, the time seemed ripe to question “bourgeois capitalist” values. One such value was the elevated status of “art for art’s sake,” which holds that great art rises above everyday concerns. To counter that ideal, the Dadaists used absurdism to confront viewers with the futility of simply appreciating art in a world gone mad. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) is one of the most iconic examples.

Of more specific importance to this posting is the emergence of politically-committed theatre in the period after World War I. Although actors and spectators share the same space, they inhabit two separate realms: the auditorium and the stage. Some playwrights, including the German Marxist Bertolt Brecht, attempted to bridge that gap by taking advantage of live theatre’s relative intimacy. Brecht expressed the belief that it had the potential to dissolve the boundary between actors and spectators, and spur collective political activity. Brecht’s plays draw upon a number of techniques that fall under the broad term alienation, designed to remind spectators that they’re only watching a play [that makes an “important point”]. It’s supposed to prevent them from investing too much emotionally in the characters, usually the dregs of society in Brecht, and to pay more attention to the socio-political implications of the play. One of the best-known alienating techniques is “breaking the fourth wall,” where a character directly addresses the audience. Although they don’t possess the same readily-apparent political agenda as Brecht, the Annie Hall clip near the beginning of this posting and at least one scene from Wayne’s World are examples.

Ironically, it’s hard to escape the sense that live political theatre invests some of its potential transformative power in the notion of spectator passivity; it’s supposed to make you active… in a manner that conforms to the intentions of the author. Furthermore, like educational games whose developers forget elements like “fun” and “enjoyment,” politically-committed works can do too well with alienating their audiences through didactic heavy-handedness. Luckily for Brecht, he at least possessed a sardonic wit, and had composer Kurt Weill along to write delightfully dissolute songs for some of his plays. Similar songs include certain tunes heard in the Imperial cantinas of SWTOR, as well as Lili von Shtup’s I’m Tired in Blazing Saddles. (No stranger to Brecht himself, Mel Brooks even mentions the influence.) Weill himself shouldn’t be too obscure, though: for Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, he wrote the oft-covered Mackie Messer.

With so much at stake, is it any wonder that serious advocates of active media can have an unshakeable faith in its fine distinction from passive media? More recently, however, French philosopher Jacques Rancière has questioned such received wisdom. “The Emancipated Spectator,” based on a talk given by Rancière in 2004, addresses the agenda-based usage of the terms under discussion. His questions about the distinction, which focuses specifically on actors and spectators in live theatre, are relevant to any medium. As he asks at one point, “What is more interactive, more communitarian, about [live theatre] spectators than a mass of individuals watching the same television show at the same hour?” (Rancière 2011, p. 16)

Questioning the active/passive actor/spectator dichotomy is very relevant here. In fact, what Rancière says about television shows could extend to MMO games. You participate in the action in real time, albeit from a safe distance via your avatar. On the other hand, gamers might have a soft spot for books as well, despite what Johnson says about them. (In fact, I suspect that many of you reading this probably don’t fit the old stereotype of gamer “passivity,” sitting in your parents’ basement, mollified by pressing buttons and staring at shiny, eyes glazed over as you mindlessly munch on chips.) As much as I disagree with Johnson’s assessment of books, the antiquated stereotypes about gamers probably necessitated a rhetorical pushback against book worship. At the very least, it can get people to talk more seriously about the positive aspects of videogames, and (even more broadly) to move away from the compulsion to pit one medium against another.

In addition to the elitist aspect of spectator “passivity,” which Rancière deconstructs towards the end of his 2007 paper “The Misadventures of Critical Thought” (Rancière 2011, pp. 25-49), the term remains insufficient for describing how individuals actually engage with specific media on their own terms. Why can’t we just define “activity” as the complex array of emotional, intellectual, and physiological responses we have to all media, whether political or not, and leave passivity out of the equation?


Notions of “active” and “passive” media are driven by individuals with specific agendas. They advocate for specific media that they perceive as active, while discounting the importance of others identified as passive. Books and videogames are two media that have been juxtaposed against each other in this manner. In reality, they provide complementary modes of cognitive, intellectual, and emotional engagement, which varies among individuals.

Ding! You’ve leveled up! Please see your local librarian for training.

Categories: Uncategorized

Virtual Environments and Opera: What’s the Connection?

October 9, 2013 1 comment

Author’s note: Published on 14 February 2012, this posting originally appeared on tl;dr (derived from the techie colloquialism “too long, didn’t read”), a now-defunct blog that focused on video games and information. If you don’t believe me, here’s proof of its existence. Currently in its place is some generic webpage advertising various things. While it would’ve been nice to know from the tl;dr administrators that they were no longer hosting the site, especially since it has been on my curriculum vitae, I had the foresight to save it, and to bring it back for those who might be curious about this particular topic. Regular readers of this blog might notice a slightly different style of writing, as I probably would have made this at least twice as long on here, and would have gone into greater detail about musical similarities.

A few years ago, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross wrote a post on his blog about the performance of video game music at orchestra concerts. He included a trailer for a PBS special called Video Games Live, which features an orchestra playing music from video games. Orchestras strapped for cash in already economically dire times have used this strategy to appeal to a broader audience. The concert in the trailer provides an immersive experience, complete with visuals to remind the audience what the music is portraying. Speaking for myself, it dictates too much what one might be better off imagining. After all, the target audience is presumably well-versed in some of the action that occurs in various games, and they might prefer to reflect on personal memories and experiences; the times they defeated a particularly challenging boss, or bonding with comrades in an MMO environment.

As the trailer points out several times, the audience consists of young people who might not have dreamed of going to an orchestra concert. I agree in principle (if not with the execution featured in the clip) with the idea of video game music acting as a way to expand the musical interests of those who might otherwise remain unexposed to “classical music” Note that I say “expand the interests” instead of “improve the tastes,” because the latter is a loaded judgment. (I’ll spare you from a digression into the ideas of cultural theorists like Adorno and Bourdieu.) Also, I place classical music in scare quotes because it is a highly problematic term. As much as I love the music itself, I dislike the term for reasons that would constitute several essays. (Ross’ 2004 essay Listen to This does an exemplary take-down of the term, which he describes as a “tour de force of anti-hype.”)

Video games share a number of similarities with film, such as the accompaniment of music to pre-crafted sequences, as opposed to the stage-based experience of live opera. Furthermore, both forms may incorporate music from any genre; this brings into question the parameters of both film music and video game music. Since much of what appears in the Video Games Live trailer sounds firmly rooted in the “classical” realm, it brings to mind the ideal of the “total art work,” or Gesamtkunstwerk.

And now, for a brief lesson in opera history. To paraphrase Dante, I assure you that it relates to video games…

You’ve probably heard at least a few snippets from operas by German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), such as the ever-ubiquitous Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, as well as Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre. Although he did not originate the term Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner has become most commonly associated with it. He coined it to describe his aesthetic ideal, an “artwork of the future” that incorporates all art forms: design, literature, performance, and practically anything else you can imagine. The Festspielhaus (festival theatre) he had built in Bayreuth for the performance of his own “music dramas” aided in realizing this vision. The hidden orchestra pit was designed to compel audiences to focus on the stage, ensuring that their eyes wouldn’t wander to the musicians. Boston-based Unitarian minister and music critic John Sullivan Dwight referred to the intended effect as a “wall of sound,” a phrase recycled over 80 years later to describe the Wagnerian ambience that record producer Phil Spector wanted to achieve in his pop music recordings. Completed in 1876, the principles of Bayreuth presaged those that gradually emerged in cinema. Audiences have now become accustomed to watching premade “total artworks” in theatres with hidden sources of sound. A compilation of essays in Wagner and Cinema (2010) delves into these connections further.

A century after Wagner launched Bayreuth with his multi-part mythical epic Der Ring des Nibelungen (of which Die Walküre is a part), George Lucas brought home the connections between cinema and the “total artwork” with one of his own. Right down to a Wagner-influenced soundtrack by John Williams.

In some ways, video games are yet another extension of the aesthetic ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk. The difference, of course, is that their audiences actively participate in guiding the action… at least insofar as designers allow them to do so. When George Lucas made the first Star Wars film, the video game experience was limited to things like Pong. Now, video games have become substantially more immersive, making them more and more similar to the theatrical ideas promulgated by Wagner. (By the way, how’s SWTOR going for you?) As more immersive “total artworks” emerge, and if gamers of all ages (a notion the video game concert clip sidesteps) can learn more about the complex genealogy of the music that accompanies the games they play, perhaps the process begun by Wagner will come full circle.

It is up to us whether future immersive gaming environments are as relatively benign as the holodeck, or as malignant as a self-centred and intolerant dystopia. We must remember that Wagnerian aesthetics has its own dark side as well, most infamously embodied in the idolization of the composer and his anti-Semitism by one of history’s most infamous monsters. Similar considerations could apply as well to increasingly dynamic information environments, with the promise of immersiveness connecting us with many configurations of various modes of information, or Balkanizing us into highly specialized clusters of users.

Still think that these ideas about the similarities between opera and video games (or, more specifically, Wagner and virtual reality) are a bit “out there?” Others are actually way ahead of me in that respect. An entire book and a related website have already considered them together.

[Below is a convention for tl;dr, which appeared at the end of each posting.]

The affinities between immersive virtual environments and opera are more powerful than you could possibly imagine. Wagner established the foundation, embodying both its light and dark sides.

Ding! You’ve leveled up! Please see your local librarian for training.


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