Saturday, March 8, 2014

Almost-Greatness and Instrumental Inherence

By way of composer Eric Whitacre, I came across two articles on the Telegraph's musical section: Why Ravel is Almost a Great Composer and Is the Sound of the Saxophone Ugly?, both written by Ivan Hewitt, and both a little surprising in how problematically antiquated, uninteresting, and unsupported the premises and arguments are. Hewitt's articles would be a little cute and funny if they were attempts to replicate, for fun, the tones and perspectives of musical criticism from a century or two ago, with the intent that the views therein did not represent those of the author -- but, no: we are faced with sincere proposals, in 2014, on capital-g Greatness as a coherent and necessary qualitative standard (and something that can be made distinct from "almost-Greatness"), and the "inherent" properties of instruments.

Hewitt's article on Ravel suffers a little less (and causes us to suffer less, too) than the latter piece partly because there are few things more dull and headbanging than trying to turn intuitive sonic preference into a sustainable form of criticism; there's a possibility for dialogue within the topic of Greatness (even if the topic is more or less irrelevant to anyone aside from academicians with canonical concerns). But Hewitt stumbles into an intellectual mire through two big errors: turning biographical criticism into a paralleling musical criticism, and using words in a qualitative sense when there are no clear connections between the words and those qualities.

There is a popular attraction to using psychological assumptions or biographical details of composers as bolstering units for interpretations of these composers' work -- it feeds into a desire for connectedness, for relations, and it can be a way of asserting dominance over a person (as one might detect in writings that "balance" the perceived quality of Mozart's music with the claim that Mozart was forever a child) -- but such readings can take the strange shapes of kinds of hindsight biases, all the stranger when no confirmation has really taken place. Hewitt introduces a list of characterizations of Ravel's person, enumerated in a vaguely pitying tone, and then slips right into musical criticism, hoping that our subconscious biases of human behavior will put us on good terms with his psycho-aesthetic, correlative judgment. The wobbliness of this argument is blindingly apparent if one allows an alternative reading that blocks out those biographical details or the musical judgments that follow from them. What we are left with, in that case, is hardly a condemnation of any sort.

Past that, Hewitt has a strange attachment to Modernism -- to risk, danger, transgression, shocking novelty -- with which he associates creative success, at least when 19th/20th century composers are involved. It's an attachment that casts the entire article under the unflattering, ruddy light of early 20th century aesthetic criticism, when manifestos were sprouting up everywhere and sentencing anything that did not meet a quota of contemporaneousness, of a type of radicalism, to, if not damnation, at least a reduced existence or history. Hewitt never does explain what exactly a modern (Great) Ravel would be, and so again relies on the hope that our associations with "oldness" and "riskiness" will prompt us to mentally shake our heads and tsk tsk poor, stunted, anachronistic Ravel. Most subtly and importantly of all, we're never told what the problem with the proverbial mechanical birds is.

Reading Hewitt's article on the saxophone (and piano and harp) inspires that blessedly rare anxiety that comes from being assaulted by so much densely packed nonsense that one can hardly do more than attempt to rebuke it all at once via a gurgling scream. One large, tumescent problem underlines the whole article, and has already been mentioned: that the hyper-subjectivity of talking about the quality of instrumental sound itself rules out a future dialogue that can grow beyond "Nuh-uh!" and "Yuh-huh!" This is taste at its most basic and least interesting level, yet Hewitt insists on using it to construct (using, as it were, wet cardboard) a performative narrative and assign roles of suitability. Making it worse is his assertion that certain sounds can be categorized as "intrinsically beautiful" -- as if these are sounds that, were they to exist unto themselves, would carry a qualitative element (who are the people testing this out?) -- and that a "beautiful" sound is a thing separate from a "personal" sound (any guess as to what "personal" means is likely to be as good as another; Hewitt never says).

It would also seem that Hewitt carries a fear and/or disgust of being reminded that instruments are played by humans, as he implies when he says, "Of course there are players who make the most wonderful seductive creamy sound, like Johnny Hodges. But even with him you’re aware of the 'noise' element of the sound, the brute fact of breath passing down an airway, agitating a reed that‘s often remarkably reluctant to speak" (the metaphoric appeal of that last bit obscuring the fact that all instruments are remarkably reluctant to speak). In another part, we're fed the claim, "It’s the insinuating curves joining up Hodges’ notes that are so beautiful, rather than the sound itself." But what could this possibly mean? It's a sentence of empty specificity, counting on its vagueness to win; Hodges' notes would not exist were it not for the sound itself. Once more, Hewitt appears to refer to an ethereal zone of abstract shapes existing elsewhere, detached from the musculature of music.

Stopping here doesn't mean that this is where all critiques end. It only means that I've exhausted myself just trying to turn my mess of objections into things that can be written. Many immediate responses to Hewitt's articles will probably try to contend with them by offering statements opposite to the article' titles; but, in my opinion, trying to contend with an article that asks whether or not saxophones sound ugly by saying, "Saxophones can sound beautiful, and here are some reasons why!", or contending with another that declares that Ravel was almost-Great by saying, "Ravel was Great, and here are some reasons why!" are contentions best left alone, at least for a little while, because they play into the argumentative hands of articles whose pieces are much more ripe for critique than their headlines, and much more revealing of absurdities. Don't attack the top first -- pick at the foundations, and the rest will fall into itself.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Small Study of Theme and Motif in Hitoshi Sakimoto's Music (FFT & FFXII)

Here's a thought: in what capacity, and where, does Hitoshi Sakimoto's work realize the idea of the leitmotif? This question came to me after watching a series of lectures by Leonard Bernstein and reflecting on a passage from my review of the Piano Collections: Final Fantasy XII album, which reads:

FFXII was a step away from the motivic emphasis that characterized, for example, Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics (co-composed by Masaharu Iwata), preferring to make most of its material standalone and redistributing a couple of themes here and there in fragmentary ways...

But now I'm not so sure that this is true. Actually, it might just be the opposite -- that FFXII brought Sakimoto's music closer to a motivic emphasis. Or is the truth ambiguous? Let's step back for a moment and reiterate that a leitmotif, literally meaning "leading motif," is defined as "a short, recurring musical phrase associated with a particular person, place, or idea." So we've got three principles at work here: length, repetition, and conceptual embodiment. Of the three, length is the most (immediately) imprecise (on a deeper level, though, conceptual embodiment is tougher to parse). Is it a leitmotif if it's thirteen seconds long, but not one if it's fifteen seconds long? Well, there is no official guiding principle relating to chronology, partly because every performance will have differing stresses. But if we're to look at instances of forms that are considered to be leitmotifs, with the guiding structures of sheet note symbology, a consistency does emerge -- one that would suggest that a leitmotif is commonly limited to a couple of, or several, bars.

Further examples abound online and in texts, and are hardly limited to 19th century figures, such as Wagner, where the "concert repertoire" is concerned (the most famous modern example is probably the first Star Wars trilogy's score). The small form of a leitmotif makes sense if we think of it as a germ, a fragmented metaphor, one that can be recontextualized through techniques such as changes in key or alternations of chordal support. Such techniques become more possible with greater malleability; and greater malleability comes with a form that can be, as it were, grasped by the mind's hand.

As Sakimoto's scores have continued to accumulate, a pattern has arisen that shows a preference for thematic reinforcement. This pattern is not discernible just because there are tracks with titles such as "Algus' Theme" -- it is also discernible because these thematic designs play outside of their namesake homes in the relevant scores. Yet these repetitions are acted out in different ways. What accounts for these differences, and what are the differences? Well, first of all, I have been careful to use the word "thematic" rather than "theme." Is a leitmotif thematic? Yes. But is a leitmotif a theme?

Final Fantasy Tactics, released in 1997, is where the aforementioned thematic pattern began. Take a listen to its "Hero's Theme" (a reference to the game's protagonist, Ramza); and, after that, listen to "Memories" (played during a moment wherein (as the title suggests) Ramza reflects on his past). What's happening here? The latter is a derivation of the former -- in fact, it's following the former note for note for much of its span with compositional differences in accompaniment and rubato (in fact, it really only makes a significant divergence in its concluding bars, going from a near-ubiquitous Lydian C scale to a dominant thirteenth). If we're reviewing the definition of a leitmotif, the requirements of repetition and conceptual embodiment are met; but the requirement of length is not. Rather than being a new composition with a fragments of "Hero's Theme" thrown in, "Memories" is an almost exact surface replication. Sakimoto's own handiwork shows us that we're dealing with a piece that can be fully relocated and, thus, a theme. It would be possible to break apart the constituents of "Hero's Theme" and reapply them elsewhere to diversely abbreviated degrees, and we could call these fragments, in such a context, motifs -- and this is in fact what happens in "Enemy Attack" (twenty-five seconds in); but this is not what is happening in the emphasized comparison. The point here is that the native idea, if we could call it that, in "Hero's Theme" has a form that stretches beyond fragmentation, even while it can be fragmented (just as any composition can be fragmented).

Pardon me if I'm being redundant; I only want to be thorough. Now, listen to the melody that appears fifteen seconds into "Bland Logo~Title Back." For about fifteen more seconds, Sakimoto develops the piece out of permutations from an isolated idea (G, D, A, G, F#, G); and at the forty-eight-second mark, he reintroduces it with a burst of triumphant elaboration and realization. I have notated this "realized" melody in a basic form (heard in the first of two soon-to-be-named tracks) below, set in its inceptive key, for two reasons: 1) to illustrate its length, and 2) to show that the final two bars partly repeat the prior two in their mission of bolstering the final A note that we heard an octave higher in bar two. To continue, listen to "Alma's Theme" and "Random Waltz." Although the transcribed melody returns from "Bland Logo~Title Back," it remains a fragment, content to let the mingling cello, pulsating strings, and key changes recontextualize it; and in "Random Waltz," it's the same as it was in that burst from "Bland Logo~Title Back" -- only, now, it's in a different key, and it acts as a framing device from which a bundle of discrete units follow after fourteen seconds.

I feel that a fitting way to close off this part of analysis is by way of listening to "Antipyretic," since it contains both of the subjects we've been narrowing in on and reinforces the argument I've been making about their essential characters. At the thirty-eight-seconds mark, that form from "Bland Logo~Title Back" appears again, and -- crucially -- remains true to its fragmentedness, developing just by way of transpositions (as it did when we first heard it), and then fading away with a brief, unique elaboration and a chain of descending notes. Then arrives "Hero's Theme," just as crucially following its original layout with (as in "Memories") its only significant, but still vaguely corroborating, divergence near its conclusion. After, the Bland Logo fragment reappears, modulated, voices itself twice, then yields to a couple of six-note descents borrowed from "Bland Logo~Title Back." Once more, the evidence points to the primary theme-role of "Hero's Theme" and to the primary motif-role of the "Bland Logo~Title Back" melody. To reiterate: the argument here is not that "Hero's Theme" cannot be used motivically (because it certainly is in the aforementioned "Enemy Attack" or "Battle on the Bridge"), but that its -- to reuse a phrase -- native idea is non-fragmented; whereas the "Bland Logo~Title Back" melody is inherently a fragment and is only ever used as such.

For the moment, we'll be skipping ahead to Final Fantasy XII's soundtrack. Rather than trying to distinguish between "theme" and "leitmotif," I'd like to call into question whether or not the most prevalent leitmotif (we will call it this for now) in the score is anything at all -- but what could this mean? The melody we're examining first appears at the fifty-two-seconds mark of "Opening Movie," ending at a minute-and-two-seconds. Excuse the cutoff of the slur on the fourth bar: it led to a note untied to the core melody.

This melody plays when, during FFXII's opening cinematic, we first get a glimpse at a principal character, princess Ashe; however, we must not mistake this for her motif, as she does have a full theme, and it has nothing to do with that melody. Nor is this the motif of Rasler, Ashe's husband and the man seen at her side -- he dies shortly afterwards and his minor subsequent plot involvement (yes, the game believes in ghosts) is never attached to the melody. Listening on, we hear the melody, tweaked a bit, at 2:23, and then a reprise of its original form at 2:34. In-game, the narrative is showing a call to arms, and we are meant to identify with the war-ready characters and their allegiances. Perhaps, then, this is a nationalistic motif that is tied to the introductory setting of the kingdom of Dalmasca.

Let's run with that hypothesis. It seems to be substantiated by the melody's presence in "Clan Headquarters" (00:15), the theme of a building's interior in the city of Rabanastre, Dalmasca's capital (and where players assume control), and also in "The Dalmasca Estersand" (00:24), the first natural location visited. We run into snags, though, with tracks such as "The Mosphoran Highwaste" or "The Sandsea" (00:54 (this is a particularly subtle reprise)), themes for environments outside of the Dalmascan region; or "The Strike of a Blade" (00:07), a non-specific theme for boss battles; or "Nap," the catch-all ditty played whenever players have the characters go to sleep. In these cases, the melody seems to be guided by a narrative that is freed from nationalism, perhaps having evolved to encompass the journey at large or the fellowship of the protagonists. The repetition conveys that the melody is an agent of familiarization, but what is it familiarizing us with? Conceptual embodiment has become hazy, or outright dissolved. What do we have on our hands?

Part of the problem here is that none of these track titles give us immovable grounding: although the melody has a pivotal role in "The Dalmasca Estersand," the Estersand is a specific locale among many others in Dalmasca (in fact, there is a Dalmasca Westersand (notably, its theme makes no references to the discussed melody)). But if track titles are a factor, this summons a possible problem with Final Fantasy Tactics and that "Bland Logo~Title Back" melody we harped on -- that is, if, by taking center stage in "Alma's Theme," the melody thereby suggests that the motif involves some facet of Alma, why is it such a prevalent (perhaps the most prevalent) motif when Alma is not even the main character, and why is it present when she is neither conceptually or physically involved in the scenario? It's even the first motif we hear in the credits music!

Could it be the case that any of the problems above are not really problems? that, where these examples are concerned, a remolding of definition, a better understanding of what "conceptual embodiment" may mean, or a keener sonic eye are required to bring resolve? It seems to me that following these thoughts have led us to that potential ambiguity mentioned near the essay's start -- only to a greater degree than imagined. Of course, this being a small study reduces the scope of analysis, and so the questions are somewhat born from that scope. As with so many other studies, more time, more listening, and more thinking will be our friends.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Notes on Bach 2

J. S. Bach is the Greatest Composer of All Time, a maker of timeless music, we say, even though he died only a small handful of healthy lifetimes ago and even though he wasn't rediscovered until the 1800s -- and, some argue, not authentically rediscovered until the 1900s. What utility does the Greatest [x] of All Time designation have? And if the comment about rediscovery confuses: how embedded is the idea of posthumous appreciation in our modern conception of genius/greatness? We like the archaeology of Bach's music not just because it is interesting (it is interesting) but also because it romances a greatness that takes decades, centuries to be "properly appreciated."

Bestowing the designation of ultimate greatness upon any composer carries with it the thought that So-and-so (if I may use boring metaphor) swam the depths and hiked the heights of emotional-imaginative invocation and performative possibilities so thoroughly that all or most efforts since have fallen short. Regardless of the level of his craftwork, Bach lived in his time and was variously affected by the limits of that time. It is a mistake to say that because Bach so thoroughly explored the architecture of his musical language that he somehow charted the entire affective potential of music. Bach's music cannot specifically express whatever it is that Debussy's, Reich's, Metheny's, Coltrane's music so specifically express: it is bound to its own language and rhetoric, and the social and personal attachments which that language and rhetoric brings to each of our dispositions. To say that Bach takes us to the "pinnacle of joy" is a misdirected claim because it assumes that "joy" can be brought under a singular house. Yet there are species of joy, just as there are species of every other emotion.

If Bach is the greatest composer to have ever lived, what does that mean when it comes to the question of what (kind of) music could surpass or equal it? Would one need to continue Bach's compositional means and somehow improve upon them; and, if so, would one be able to escape accusations of anachronism, of all-pervading indebtedness, of non-genuine effort? Bach's musical language was particular, and it is important to remember that historians have marked the death of Bach as the end of the so-called baroque era and the start of the so-called classical era. This boundary-making does more than create categorical ease: it effectively shuts us off from Bach, makes him even more untouchable. The Master Passed Away, and with his death a spirited Greatness was relinquished unto the universe, its empty host committed to the Earth -- and thus was the temple built and its doors closed and its perimeters surrounded by the bowed heads of adulators. Of course, these constructs were posthumous, for Bach was unfashionable by the time of his death, and still only mostly known for his improvisational abilities.

Monday, August 19, 2013


Triptunes, composed by David Harris, a.k.a. Blitz Lunar, feels like it should be more interesting than it is. It has hyper-detailed basslines, fragmentary rhythms, and chords that kaleidoscopically bloom. In the abstract, it's a dreamland for instrumental enthusiasts with a taste for the abnormal and audacious. Such would-be attractions are brought down by an absent completing musical architecture. While it's obvious that Harris has a love for fierce, fusion- and videogame-music-derived chromaticism, he expresses this love in a manner that feels arbitrary in emotive consequence, as if all that matters is a bald expression of harmonic juxtaposition. Very nearly every composition is like an extended modulation-centric session that pulls the rest of its parts along. Often, these parts are linear bleep-bloops that double up on chords and barely come across as more than flimsy obligations to make the music more than blocks of chords. One is left asking for at least some melodic lyricism to give these things an anchor, to distinguish a given track from the next. And even among the chromaticism, Harris subjecting listeners to parades of easy parallelisms that appear to venerate the tedious, predictable, almost automatic battle themes of Jun Ishikawa.

My thoughts may read quaintly, as if I'm an anachronistic critic whining about the new kids on the block and their barbaric inability to stay in key, to stay fixed on Art's True Ideals, etc. What I'm really after, though, is music that pushes harder into eccentricities and harnesses a guiding craft, a formal ground, that beats out the reading of "modulation porn." In a strange way, Triptunes comes across as desperate, as if it can't figure out how to come to terms with pleasure without pushing itself to the very edge and, accidentally, breaking back into dullness. Perhaps we are meant to take the album's title as a prompt and listen to its contents while influenced by hallucinogenics; if that's the case, I'm sorry to say that I'm not equipped to oblige that prompt. Harris already has the benefit of a thumbprinted sound. No one else in the so-called chiptune community (so full of regurgitated Mega Man -isms, drained rock ideas, and lite-funk) who I'm aware of shares his approach. Yes, this is related to his limitations; it's also related to a taste that Harris has, no doubt, spent years building up and figuring out. If he can continue to develop, there will be some exciting projects ahead.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Notes on Bach

Bach's music was seldom appreciated in his lifetime; and it seems an opinion of 20th/21st century musicologists that his pieces, even once they began to be posthumously performed, did not receive admiration in a manner relative to, as it were, an original performative character until arguably the late-19th/20th century. This topic interests me, because I think the popular consciousness often assumes that, based on his current standing, Bach was a contemporary star, or that, upon his death, the European world suddenly wept for its own ignorance and maltreatment of a treasure and inserted Bach into the musical canon. A weak, although doable, parallel to this in the visual arts may be the person and work of Leonardo da Vinci. Today, Leonardo stands upright among culture as a legend, yet when alive he completed very few projects (rather than his art, I think the more impressive legacy is his observational writings), and even fewer of those projects remain for us now. We understand Leonardo to be a legend because his personhood has been branded as such through a vox populi loop: he is "a legend because he is a legend." This is the real parallel between the two -- only, with Bach, the loop of legend-status erroneously folds back hundreds of years.

Bach was an anachronism in his own time. Although he was respected as an organ player, his music, an elaboration on the blending of North-European/German music & Italianate elements, was treated with condescension and hand-waving. After Bach died, his music lived on only through his sons and fringe musical groups or single persons with deviant taste. The most well-known of Bach's sons, C. P. E. Bach, did not play his father's music, outside of borrowing parts for a Mass. C. P. E. subscribed to the style of the day, and was critical of his father's material. As Glenn Gould put it, Rationalistic music took pleasure in the cadence, in termination. Bach's music was tirelessly unfolding and unresolved, too "irrational" and "complex" for the Age of Reason. Its time came upon the advent of the Romantic sentiment, one that prized the ineffable and the sublime. Exposure started with vocal music and motets; then, cantatas, Masses, and Passion music. Note, though, that Goethe was one of the first and few people in this period to try and come to terms with Bach's art in a way that did not judge it for not being "modern" -- even the so-called romantics tried to remove Bach's pieces from the astringent rigidity of the clavier, coupling them instead with the lush emotionality of strings and making "palatable" compositional adjustments.

As the 18th century came to a close, the bourgeoisie started to become the bearer of culture. Here, the citizen was the interpreter of their art, assuming the roles of the musician and singer. One such example would be the Berliner Singakademie, founded by Carl Friedrich Christian Fasch. This development illustrates music's evolution from an occasional and privatized existence to something that increases in dissemination. Looking at history, one notes that art of every kind detaches more and more from its marriage to religion. Bach's music was written as church music, and Bach was a dogmatic Lutheran, lending the angle that Bach's music was to be for the glory of God, and that Bach wished for this glory to be filtered through a Lutheran perspective. But the religious standards changed, and so too did the musical practices. Bach's music, in part, was passed down through amateur enthusiasts. Today, as far as church is concerned, Bach's music is performed in a variety of denominational settings. Past the religious housing, our most popular conception of Bach's music is as concert music, where it takes the shape of a secularized (and, in a way, museum-ified) music of the cultured.

To form a fuller picture of where Bach's music was taken, and to really substantiate my claim of others' claims re: the arrival of an "original performative character" in pieces' renderings/playings, more reading and thought on my part is required.
Until then, these notes (yes, brisk) are incomplete.

Thursday, May 23, 2013


Stephen Hemstritch-Johnston's greatest success on his album, Motorway (released under his alias, Fearofdark), is a breathtaking ability to make happy music that is profound. Very often, I think our go-to emotional or descriptive pairings for aesthetic depth lean toward the problematic, the furrowed brow, the shattered pane of glass; and while these reflexes and expressions are fine and admirable, it seems that types of luminous joy are underrepresented. In the most powerful of Motorway's pieces and moments, joy is made more joyful by a melancholic silver lining -- there is a narrative of transience (and what better medium for that than the most transient one of all?), and an understanding of the strange, unexpected joy that can develop out of one's understanding of what is temporary. Melodies at once sing out enthusiasm for their ability to simply be alive and also contemplate, welcome, as if with hot tears, their own tender, fading substances. And even with all that the music invents, it yearns for an expression, a state of unnamed happiness that's extra-unknown. Motorway is an album of sensucht. 

Motorway has become one of my favorite albums -- all categories be damned -- since its November, 2012 release, and has allowed me to develop a brand of relationship with it that I'm realizing is all too rare -- yet, all the more wonderful for it. If you haven't, check it out.

A quick look back at Vurgon

Vurgon’s tracks were mostly not written under the idea that such-and-such a piece would be alongside another. The idea did come up, but only near the end as I refined pieces that were basically complete, or close to being such. Selecting the tracks was a matter of finding the material I felt happiest with and which, when brought together, could create some sort of emotional arc. My method of composing tracks followed a fairly standard personal method. I usually start by figuring out a chordal pattern that interests me as an isolated form and as a thing ripe with developmental suggestions. I also tend to treat chords percussively, prioritizing rhythm and voicing over vertical movement (e.g., the nineteen-second mark in “Glaustarr”). I think that this a result both of my own physical limitations and a fondness for Steve Reich’s music. I treat these chords as a bed of implications that can be danced upon by a melody and additionally motored by a bassline. This produces a somewhat fractured effect, since I’m often conceiving of and applying elements in layers.

The mixture of my habit of keeping my hands close together when playing and my love of frictional, dense utterances leads to tone clusters and, sometimes, block chords. It’s almost as if I perceive the chord as a sort of fruit, and the relative closeness of notes is a way of squeezing out the ripest juice and fragrance. Tetrads, historically, have been the minimum for me. More recently, around the time I submitted Vurgon, I realized that frequent clustering may stifle ideas’ expressions, as a huddled voicing can degrade the touchier parts whose context needs finer definition; and also that it’s not right for every situation.

I never wrote any of Vurgon’s pieces with a general structure in mind, although I’m aware of patterns that developed. Composing was pretty much a matter of following each idea into the next and finally reaching that indefensible and temporary (as in, when I listen to the tracks now, I hear all sorts of new possibilities (a common thing among composers?)) point of exhaustion that constitutes the end. The bulk of the pieces have a modest motivic thrust. In “Vurgon”, for example, the melodic “head” that appears at the 1:28 mark continues to return in fragmented ways until its final, most crazed formation – which also includes the hilly motif from 30 seconds – at the 3:00 mark (and is thereafter, at 3:26, usurped by a strange newcomer that adopts and warps a couple of the preceding motivic traits).

Motivic compositions particularly interest me because they seem to bring me closer to perceiving the music as an aural character. By this I don’t mean that I hear such-and-such and have a mental image of a person or creature; rather, that I hear such-and-such and its characteristics contribute to a sense of a being’s, an entity’s presence and unfolding existence. I might also hear a piece of music and interpret it as a gathering of characters in conversation or in the flow of narrative. It’s hard to tell just what exactly produces these phenomena, though my guess is that it involves linguistic corollaries. Let me take this opportunity to say that Final Fantasy Tactics is one of my favorite videogame soundtracks.

As far as writing the melodies went, it was usually a case of improvising, making a false final decision, and then treating that decision as a base that I built off of through mental additions or humming. As a terrible musician, I’ve found humming/wordlessly singing very useful in writing music, especially when it comes to discrete accompaniment, as it’s a way of idealizing content and bypassing the technical constraints of performing on an instrument. Luckily, I’m a decent singer. The challenge upon getting an idea via humming is to hold onto it long enough to insert it into the actual piece (very tough when you’re out and an hour away from home!). Now and then, around, say, thirty-seconds’ worth of material – maybe broadly or exactly – would lay itself out in my head, and all I had to do was transcribe it and fill in the gaps that my head glossed over. This was, for example, how I developed the introductory melody in “Tuulu.”

I meant the idea for the cover art (thanks again to Jason) to be representative of Vurgon’s attributes and general ideas I have about instrumental music. Vurgon’s tracks strike me as having a rigidity to their architecture, and an often mysterious attitude; ergo, the odd façade. More generally, the cover appeals to my belief that instrumental music tells no tales – that it’s a language, a system of ideas, unto itself. In a sense, as Edward Said wrote, all music is really only about music. This is probably why it’s the hardest art form to write about. The cover’s façade is clearly the result of some sort of effort at aesthetic organization, but its window-mouths only offer blackness, the hint of a dark, spacious life within that awaits, yet resists, exploration.

Below are the pronunciations of the track titles, in case anyone was interested and/or having trouble saying them. The phonetics arose in accordance to what their own sound and surrounding sounds implied to me, so you could say that my method was a dribble-free adult version of “baby talk.” “Clankendrung” is a pretty explicable example, I think. That track felt the most metallic and hardy of the pieces, so I led with “clank” (an English onomatopoeia or noun designating a hard, metallic sound), and ended with “drung”, which to me feels like a submerged stressing of the words “drag” or “drug” (not proper past tense, but whatever), implying blunt power or labor. The “en” is a sort of medial connective tissue for rhythm, and also a fun little link to the German term, “Sturm un Drang.” “Mahanambulov” is harder to unpack and perhaps impossible to justify. The reduplication present in “mahanam” connotes to me extensiveness, tying into the spacier arena of the track, and the wide softness of the syllables therein bring out a touch of empathy and embryonic comfort. “Bulov”, for whatever reason, sounds like a circle to me, and – also for whatever reason – ”Mahanambulov” appears (if that is the right word) to me as a circular piece of music. Perhaps it’s the preponderance of that five-note pattern that embeds a cyclical, and then circular, notion.

Vurgon: Vur (R having a retroflex flap) gawn 

Glaustarr: Glau (AU sounding like the exclamation of pain “ow) star (R having an alveolar trill)

Fallaloopavan: Fah lah loo pah vahn 

Terevigliar: Tair (like the ripping action “tear”; R having a retroflex flap) uh vig lee ahr (R having a retroflex flap)

Tuulu: Too (T having a voiced dental fricative) loo 

Clankendrung: Clahn (like the first syllable in “Klondike”) ken droong (R having a retroflex flap)

Mahanambulov: Mah hah nahm byoo (like the first syllable of “beautiful”) lohv (like “loaves”, as in bread)