Friday, November 24, 2017

Robert Schumann’s mental illness through the lens of three composition


(Domschke 2010) from http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/196/4/325


Robert Schumann was a romantic era composer who most likely had bipolar affective disorder and subsequently developed neurosyphilis psychosis. As shown by the above genogram with the arrow pointing at Robert Schumann, he had significant family history of mental health disorder. This post will have a look at his mental illness through the lens of three composition. Two by Robert Schumann himself and one from his friend Johannes Brahms.


Robert Schumann - Carnaval




Robert Schumann was famous for writing music portraits of other people. He would meet people and then composed music based on his interpretation of their personalities. Carnaval is a piano work where most of the movements are portraits of people he knew. For example Movement 13 Estrella (13:59) was a portrait of his then fiancée Ernestine von Fricken and Movement 11: Chiarina (11:52 mark) was a portrait of Clara Wieck which Schumann ended up ending his engagement with Fricken and marrying Clara. Apparently the music already hinted that he was more interested in Clara (although to be honest I don't quite hear it). 


However the most interesting movement from a psychiatric point of view is Eusebius (Movement 5 - 5:57) and Florestan (Movement 6 - 6:55). Robert Schumann gave names to two sides of his personality. Florestan which is the embodiment of Schumann's passionate, volatile side and Eusebius his dreamy, melancholic, introspective side. Florestan was inspired by the masculine bold and assertive hero of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio and Eusebius was a 4th Century Catholic priest who was a historian documenting the persecution of Christian and who he was subsequently persecuted and killed as well. 


He was famous as a music critic at the time to write music reviews where he would sign off his reviews with either Florestan or Eusebius depending on his current mental state at the time. One review of Frédéric Chopin’s Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” by Mozart where he structured it as a conversation between himself and the two personalities. 


Robert Schumann identified his melancholic and exaltated side of his personality to these two characters and they seemed to represent his manic and depressive phase of his bipolar affective disorder.


Robert Schumann developed depression around 1833 where his brother Julius died of tuberculosis, his sister sister in law Rosalie died of malaria and Robert Schumann contracted malaria himself. 


He fell in deep depression and anxiety and was quoted in writing “During the night of Rosalie’s death, the most terrifying thought a person can ever have suddenly occurred to me. The most terrible thought heaven can punish you with, that of losing my mind. It overwhelmed me so violently that I was inconsolable, I could not guaranteed that under that circumstances I would not raised my hand against my own life.”


His depression was severe enough to be in near catatonic state where he was kept in the bed for nearly a week where it was described ‘he resembled a statue” which occurred during his tour to Russia with his wife Clara in 1844


In between his bouts of depression he would have phases of ‘exaltation’ where he would led to impulsive behaviours such as hyper sexuality (where he’ll sleep with prostitute and ended up contracting syphilis that would ended up killing him), over-practicing on the piano (where he ended up injuring his right hand destroying his career as a pianist), poor sleep but also periods of composition binge where he would compose non-stop for several days. 


The Eusebius and Florestan movements are musical portraits of his depressive and manic side of his personality.


Robert Schumann - Geistervariationen




Although Robert Schumann remained functional throughout his life. Around 1850 (40 years old) his mental state deteriorated and he became increasingly psychotic. He most likely contracted syphilis from sex with a prostitute as a teenager that remain latent throughout most of his life and his marriage but became active during this time. He started having auditory hallucination of music where he described as “very strong and painful aural disturbances.”. Initially the auditory hallucination were restricted to a single note where Schumann was quoted in saying ‘I can’t read anymore. I keep hearing the note ‘A’”. Eventually the hallucination became full fledged themes of music that were attributed to angels and ghost of both Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Schubert.  He described the themes he heard as “Magnificent music, with instruments of splendid resonance, the like of which has never been heard on earth before”. He composed these Geistervariationens or  "Ghost Variations" of the theme he heard via his auditory hallucination.


Johannes Brahms - Piano Concerto No. 1 




Towards the end of his life, the auditory hallucination that were initially angelic in nature, became demonish in nature. He believed the variation themes to be turn into devils and took the form of hyenas and tigers. He started having paranoid delusions of being surrounded by evil spirits. He developed delusions of guilt where he was obsessing that he was a criminal and his destine to go to hell and would repeatedly read the bible in hope for salvation. He started having fears that he may harm his wife and children likely due to command hallucination. Robert Schumann was so distressed by these hallucination that he didn't feel safe around his family and believed that he was a danger to his family.


So Robert believed that he must end his life to ensure his family would be safe from him. He went to the Rhine River bridge and jumped off with the intent for suicide (his elder sister Emilie Schumann who most likely have depression or catatonic schizophrenia committed suicide by drowning at the same area earlier in his life). 


However he was rescued by a passing fisherman and he lived the rest of his life in a mental asylum where he died officially from suicide via starvation. Although in reality it wasn't suicide because he wanted to live but refused to eat due to paranoid delusions of the food he was given to be poison. He died from pneumonia after he become severely deconditioned due to his malnutrition brought on by his paranoid delusions.


Prior to his suicide attempt, Johannes Brahms became friends of Robert Schumann and Clara Schumann during his brief period of lucidity during the end of his life and also formed the most famous love triangle in classical music history. He played his Piano Sonata No. 1 and Robert Schumann briefly went back from retirement of being a music critic and wrote an article promoting Brahms to be the next Beethoven and saviour of German music. After Robert Schumann attempted suicide and admission to mental asylum, Johannes Brahms than lived with Clara Schumann and took care of her and her children and helped out with the finances for many years. There are documented letters from both Clara and Johannes that they admitted they have fallen in love with each other. It is unknown whether he hooked up with Clara during this time but he ended up not pursuing the relationship due to possible guilt of falling in love with his best friends wife while his friend was wasting away in a mental asylum.


Johannes Brahms composed the Piano Concerto No. 1 about Robert Schumann attempted suicide, if you listened to the opening theme by the string instruments, you notice the sudden leap in melody which symbolises Robert Schumann leaps into the Rhine river. This concerto is a representation of his despair for his friend Schumann attempted suicide, his love for Clara Schumann (as represented by the tender 2nd movement) and the ongoing guilt this love caused him to feel. It is one of my all time favourite Piano concertos.


Sunday, March 27, 2016

Music (Over)Analysis - Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich, the condemnation of Stalin regime and vindication of Stalin's anti-formalism



While Shostakovich is nowhere near my favourite artist, he's by far has the most interesting story. Shostakovich Great Masters Lecture series by Robert Greenberg should be recommended to even people who have no interest in music in general and would be interesting for anyone just interested in history. I'm going to comment on Shostakovich assuming that the "Testimony" biography is 100% accurate (this is disputed). Robert Greenberg believes it was accurate and the Great Masters series is reliant on it's accuracy and apparently the book Shostakovich Reconsidered defended the attacks on it's credibility.Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 is probably the most interesting background story behind a composition in the history of western music.

The background was that Shostakovich who had the reputation as the leading and most talented Russian-based composer in music at that current time. However this all changed when Shostakovich written the opera "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District". Although that opera was a massive hit in Russia and internationally. One day Josef Stalin personally attended the opera and everything changed that day. Josef Stalin was offended by the sexual explicitness of the opera as well as the modernist dissonance characteristic of the opera that was considered pandering to the bourgeois. The term that was used in denouncing modernist music that doesn't glorify the state was called "formalist" music. Josef Stalin and his officials left the theatre after the first act and was quoted as calling the opera "that degenerate music!" 

Two days later on January 28, 1936, apparently Josef Stalin himself wrote an editorial called "Muddle instead of Music" denouncing the opera and giving an undisguised threat to Shostakovich himself. This is a key quote from the editorial

"From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this "music" is most difficult; to remember it, impossible.

Thus it goes, practically throughout the entire opera. The singing on the stage is replaced by shrieks. If the composer chances to come upon the path of a clear and simple melody, he throws himself back into a wilderness of musical chaos - in places becoming cacophony. The expression which the listener expects is supplanted by wild rhythm. Passion is here supposed to be expressed by noise. All this is not due to lack of talent, or lack of ability to depict strong and simple emotions in music. Here is music turned deliberately inside out in order that nothing will be reminiscent of classical opera, or have anything in common with symphonic music or with simple and popular musical language accessible to all. This music is built on the basis of rejecting opera - the same basis on which "Leftist" Art rejects in the theatre simplicity, realism, clarity of image, and the unaffected spoken word - which carries into the theatre and into music the most negative features of "Meyerholdism" infinitely multiplied. Here we have "leftist" confusion instead of natural human music. The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, "formalist" attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly."

After that article was published, Shostakovich became an "enemy of the people" and the public stopped playing his work. the performance of Symphony No. 4 was cancelled due to it's "formalist' nature. Shostakovich fully believed that he would be purged, however that purged never happen. The Russian state believed that Shostakovich could be an asset if he was rehabilitated from his "formalist mistakes". 

So Shostakovich went on composing fifth symphony that would either rehabilitate him or led him being purged. His life was actually in stake with this composition. He was instructed that the composition of music should be accessible to the masses and in the future, the submission of any proposed project was screened by the committee. Immediately before the premier, Shostakovich 5th symphony was performed to party select who would screen it for ideological suitability. Publicly Shostakovich stated that the composition was "a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism." and that the work was about "A lengthy spiritual battle, crowned by victory". 

However no matter how much Shostakovich said publicly that this was about his personal rehabilitation from the formalist composer to the person who is aligned with the doctrine of the state, the audience understood what the piece was about which was about the horror of the "great purges" by Stalin and for the audience who experienced friends and family being purged, emotionally relate to this work and afterwards gave him a standing ovation for hours. Shostakovich seemingly did the impossible, he rehabilitated himself to the state while at the same time tapping into the grief and anger of the public condemning the regime. This is essentially the subversive, underdog version of George Orwell "doublespeak". Instead of doublespeak as a way to subjugate the population, it's doublespeak to rebel against authority.

In fact I have to say it's a miracle that Shostakovich got away with the Symphony No. 5. If I was a party hack scrutinising his work for ideology suitability, I would have easily recognised that this was an attack on Stalin regime and had him executed. The first time I listened to this symphony with absolutely zero background reading, at no point did I felt this was celebratory glorification music but instead it struck me as essentially as an incredibly disturbing dark music.. Shostakovich must have been a brilliant bullshit artist for him to convinced the party hacks this was his rehabilitation.

The first movement is essentially disturbing horror music of people hiding from a terrifying danger and in the development section it morphed into a violent terrifying marched that seems like a violent caricature of the soviet military music and the music ended in a sombre note. The second movement is like a scherzo (a joke) of a scherzo (which is essentially a joke of the minuet and trio). I mean technically it's a waltz but this time Shostakovich tendency to subvert expectation comes to a fore. Where this seemingly accessible dancing melody becomes off-balanced and gets twisted that feels dissonant. It's a grotesque parody of a dance. The third movement reduced the audience members who were suffering under Stalin rule to tears. When I first read that description, you would think this was some melodramatic "sad" music like "Adagio for Strings" by Barber that tugs on your heart string but instead of this tragic depressing sad music, unexpectedly what we get instead was this horrified shock. The music is quite brilliantly subdued that suits the message of the music. The imagery I get is an aftermath of a massacre seeing dead bodies and be in complete shock and numb unable to process what they saw rather than something really depressing. It's a far more interesting and unexpected slow movement that took me by surprised. 

The 4th movement is one the greatest concert closer I have ever heard. As a first time audience was quoted, it was the sound of "The iron tread of a monstrous power trampling man" and the music depicts a military march but portrayed it with extreme brutality. The military march then fades into quiet despair as people react to the consequences of the violence from organised state violence. The highlight of the last movement was the tense and final build up from the preceding despair via a repetitive ascending stabbing strings that initially sounds violent but resolves in a seemingly celebratory major key. It was perhaps the only thing that could have been perceived to be "optimistic" in the entire symphony and perhaps the reason why Shostakovich was able to lie to the Communist party members that this was a victorious conclusion to a lengthy spiritual battle but considering the incredibly violent and brutal build up to that ending and how the repetitive stabbing like string sounds incredibly brutal still remained when the major transition occurs and how the major key ending seems almost abrupt, I can easily dismissed this happy ending as a red-herring and quite frankly it made a hell of a lot more sense to view the rejoicing to be '"forced" as the major key ending was a result of atrocity and violence as depicted in the previous tension. As stated in Testimony by Shostakovich "The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, "Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing," and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, "Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing."

Symphony No, 5 is a great subversive "doublespeak" composition that makes a mockery of Stalin request to write optimistic music glorifying the state. However as you may notice by the heading, It's my view that despite it's subversive nature, it's as much of a vindication of Stalin's anti-formalism as it is a criticism of Stalin enforcing it.

The fact of the manner is that Symphony No. 5 is one of the most accessible works in Shostakovich career. Shostakovich was forced to tone down his modernistic tendency and create work that is emotionally direct that captures the spirit of the population instead of the bourgeois intellectuals. It's what happen when you meet the audience half-way, tempering your self-expressive values and balancing it with accessibility and the desire for the audience to listened to music that is somewhat pleasurable to listen to. The funny thing is that Shostakovich learned his lesson and exactly addressed what Stalin asked "The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, "formalist" attempt to create originality through cheap clowning." Shostakovich wrote music with this symphony that was designed to infect the masses and none of the modernist elements of the composition felt like gratuitous and is completely integrated with the emotions of the music. If Shostakovich didn't have the restriction imposed on him, I wonder whether he could have ever created a work that became a cultural milestone even if the piece had the same message as it could have never touched the hearts of the listeners, it would have never reduced the audience to tears and it would have never brought a standing ovation that last an hour. Sure it was music condemning the Stalin regime but it was music that perversely Stalin right on the fallacy of modernist attitude. Stalin may have been extremely unethical for threatening to purge Shostakovich for writing modernist work but without that restriction his work could have never flourished.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Undertale Theory on the nature of the protagonist (Spoilers)

This post is for people who have actually played this game to completion.

Don't read it if you intend to play it and haven't yet

I have been wracking my brain trying to piece together the Chara/Frisk/player connection and this is my working explanation. Feel free to tell me whether I'm on the right track here.

Most people seem to think that you are playing as Frisk and that Chara aka the first fallen child that you name at the beginning is a separate character. The obvious reasoning is the ending of the pacifist run where Asriel essentially told him that he isn't Chara and that Frisk behaved nothing like Chara. Also in the genocide run Chara became a separate entity that ended up attacking the player.

However, the curve ball is at the end of the pacifist run when you then reload Undertale. Flowey had a heart felt plead begging the player not to reset the world and erase all the achievements (and character development from Flowey/Asriel). he directed this message right at Chara not at Frisk.

Trying to fit this all together in a way that makes sense. I'm concluding that the player you are controlling a synthesis of Frisk soul and Chara's determination and this essay is my rationale.

My view is that after Chara died. His body was brought by Toriel back to ruins and buried in the bed of golden flowers. Chara was essentially a soulless being similar to Flowey his soul merged with Asriel and is presumably destroyed after Asriel died. However similar to the way Asriel lived on due to determination in the body of a flower, Chara inhabit the body of Frisk. However they differ in the source of determination as Asriel remnants was injected with determination but Chara's determination was inherent to his personality. 

If you notice the caskets at the basement of Asgore castle, Chara's soul was red as shown in the casket which was the same colour as Frisk throughout the game

If you notice in the snow-golf game. Each colour of the human soul represents different aspects of humanity and presumably the characters of the previous human


Bravery = Orange. Justice = Yellow. Integrity = Blue. Kindness = Green. Perseverance = Purple. Patience = Light Blue.

As it was established that determination was the source of the power to "save/reload" and Flowey specifically plead to Chara not to used that power. Also the primary used of the save/reload function is to escape death and whenever we die we hear Chara's memory. I'm going to infer that the colour Red represents "Determination" and this determination is from Chara and not Frisk. Frisk who had his own soul but adopted Chara determination (and hence turned his soul red to match Chara) when he fell and landed on the burial site of Chara.

Whenever Frisk died you end up getting flashbacks from Chara memories of Asgore telling him to stay determined that gave Frisk the power to go back in time. Or when Frisk had the temptation to live with Toriel at the ruins and not escape, message came to stay determine from Asgore about how Chara is the future hope between monsters and humans which prevented the player from just giving up the adventure and you get flashbacks from Chara's life with Asriel during the final boss encounter that helped Frisk "save" Asriel. To me it was Chara determination that drove the adventure of Undertale

So what was Chara's determined about? 

Well we know that Chara deliberately consumed buttercup to poison itself so that Chara can merge souls with Asriel to escape the barriers to get 6 more human souls. Depending on your playthrough this can be interpret two ways

  1. Chara was a troubled and evil person who hated humanity who poisoned Asgore and laugh about it and left the underground to kill the humans and obtain their souls and become powerful and godlike.
  2. Chara was a troubled but ultimately well-meaning person who was willing to sacrifice its own life to allow Asriel to escape the barrier and to bring back six human souls to liberate the monster kingdom. When attacked by humans, Chara wanted to kill them in self-defence. The poisoning of Asgore was a prank gone wrong rather than a deliberate attempt and the laughter was more of a nervous laugher than anything sadistic.

Both are the light side and dark side of Chara's character. However unlike Flowey who was a soulless being, Chara inhabited a being with a soul which was Frisk and hence he had the potential for good and to feel compassion for the characters (this is represented how the players felt compassion to the characters).

In the pacifist playthrough it was Chara's determination to liberate the monster that drove the game. During the final battle when interacting with Toriel's Lost Soul one of the dialogue was "You tell the Lost Soul that you have to go if you're going to free everyone. Something is stirring within her".  This reveals what Frisk actually said to Toriel (we had no way of knowing before the final boss fight with Asriel as Frisk was a silent protagonist) during the section in the ruins when Toriel was spared and Frisk left the ruins. It makes no sense for Frisk to say that as Frisk was a stranger who just fell into the ruins who never met the monster before. However this is consistent with Chara motivation who believed he was the future hope of monsters and humans as shown by the flashback either during death or sleeping in Toriel's house and was determined to exit the ruin and to free the monster kingdom. In a way this was a redemption of Chara's character. In the beginning Chara wanted to kill 6 humans to liberate the monsters but in the pacifist playthrough Chara ended up achieving the goal peacefully without anyone dying. After the pacifist run finish there was one final choice where Chara is place in a similar dilemma to Flowey. Chara can let go of Frisk and essentially rest in peace and essentially leave the mortal coil and let Frisk go or do what Flowey did and reset the world. If the reset option is chose then Chara would mimic Flowey choice as demonstrated by this quote 

"But as I left this mortal coil... I started to feel apprehensive. If you don't have a SOUL, what happens when you...? Something primal started to burn inside me. 'No,' I thought. 'I don't want to die!' ... Then I woke up. Like it was all just a bad dream"

In the genocide playthrough it was Chara hatred of humanity and lust for power that drove Chara's determination. Ultimately the end game of Chara was that it wanted to exit the monster world and destroy humanity. That's the reason why Chara asked the players to reset the game and do a (soulless) pacifist run so it can escape the monster kingdom and kill all the humans. Unlike the pacifist run, the genocide run strengthen Chara's determination as the lust for power is augmented by Frisk behaviour.

The reason why it was revealed the character was controlling was Frisk at the end of the pacifist run and not Chara was because that was the point where Chara's determination has been fulfilled. Asriel was liberated and he decided to break the barrier which liberated the monster. This completely fulfilled Chara's ultimate goal and hence Chara's determination has subsided as Chara achieved its goal. Contrast this to the genocide run where instead of resolving Chara determination we cement his determination by indulging in his anger and hatred and lust for power to an extent where he completely controls Frisk body (as shown by Chara name appearing when looking at the mirror). Once Frisk gets power, Chara becomes more determine for more power and hence reveal itself openly. In the pacifist run liberating Chara is just passively influencing Frisk to lead Frisk to liberate the monsters and to keep Frisk alive.

Now the rebuttal is how do we explain Chara becoming a separate character outside our control in the genocide ending. My view is that is part of the theme of Undertale. When you have the ability to time travel and essentially fix any mistakes you have done and have the ability to shape the world to your vision. A question pops up, is all the things we that we normally consider immoral and unethical such as murder really bad if you can just click your fingers and the consequences disappears? Flowey started to kill for that exact rationale out of curiosity knowing that Flowey was immune to consequences. However, the main theme of the game is that you can't click the fingers and erased the consequences even if you had the ability to time travel. If you were able to maliciously murder people (and to play the genocide run you simply can't argue self-defense for killing Papyrus or attempting to kill monster kid) and to commit genocide you have to irreversibly change your personality to do that. Once you cross the moral event horizon there is no going back and you simply can't go back to being a good person. This is represented in game where Chara became a separate being from the main character. We the player lost control because to kill all those monsters, we permanently lost control of our moral center and there is no going back. Chara determination in acting out his hatred goes beyond our player's control. So the player is Chara but the players determination to commit genocide cause a disconnect between the players and Chara where previously they were interconnected. 

Asriel could have been redeemed as he was soulless when he committed the evil act and we could call to his good side when he accesses to souls and compassion to redeem him. Chara couldn't be redeemed because Chara did all the activities while having access to soul (Frisk) and hence have the capacity to feel compassion. This is represented by how a lot of players felt bad for doing the genocide run and yet still went ahead with it. We had the capacity for compassion but ignored it and killed anyway. Having Chara becoming a separate entity that the player can't control represents that our own dark side once unleashed to do heinous acts can no longer be controlled. So that even if the players decided to do a pacifist run afterwards it all comes to nothing as once you unleashed your own dark side there is no return. There is no choice to be a good person again as need to become a bad person to indiscriminately kill sentient beings. Ultimately this leads to Chara stealing Frisk soul, escaping to the surface and destroying humanity.


So this is my theory on how Frisk, Chara and the players relate. Frisk was the body, Chara was the inherent determination/motivation driving the story and the player was controlling Chara until either Chara fulfilled his goal of liberating monsters or destroyed humanity. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Genocide playthrough of Undertale reveals the pitfall of self-insertion (Spoiler)

"At least we're better than those sickos that stand around and WATCH it happen...
Those pathetic people that want to see it, but are too weak to do it themselves.
I bet someone like that's watching right now, aren't they...?" - Flowey

It's interesting that the genocide playthrough take up 1/3 of the game and the story and yet it's an aspect of the story where a quite significant proportions of fans of the game refused to play, take pride in not playing it and even questions the morality, ethics and characters of people who do experience that aspect of the story.

In a way it's a testament to Toby Fox as a storyteller to elicit this kind of reaction. By creating such memorable characters where even random monster people encounter have distinct personality, why would anyone wants to go around killing them? You have to be an amoral psychopath to go through that people will understandably argue.

Also Toby Fox has mastered the integration of interactive elements of video games to the plot of the game. Saving and loading the game isn't just a video game mechanics but an intrinsic part of the story and hence maximise the immersion of having the video gamer self-insert themselves in the protagonist "Frisk "and give players the illusion that you are the protagonist not just a passive observer or an actor playing a role as alot of the video gamey elements that could potentially break the suspension of disbelief is integrated in this universe. Hence Undertale creates the illusion that you are Frisk with the power of determination to moulded the world in your vision. Any negative actions that Frisk does hit home and fills the player with guilt as you are the person creating harm not just a fictional character.

So when the reformed Flowey pleads with Frisk/the player to leave the universe alone and let the true-pacifist happy ending stand instead of resetting the universe and playing the game and erasing the triumphs of all the characters of the game. It's quite understandable that people left the game as it is and not touch the game again and not be a completionist and explore all the stories that could be told in this game. Especially when the motivation of the villain of the game is essentially a completionist who dispassionately seek to discover everything in the world. Why would you want to emulate the villain of the game?

So is that the end of the argument that the "correct" way of playing the game is to just play the game until you get the pacifist ending and then just quit leaving the game installed in the computer but untouched and imagining all the characters living happily ever after?

My answer is no and in fact this aspect reveals how "self-insertion" by the gamers is a limitation of story-telling of video games as a medium. In a way I see video games as players being an actor in a choose-your-own adventure story. You are given some degrees of agency to shape the story like most actors do but ultimately you are following the script of the author/game programmer.

Now I'm not necessarily saying that self-insertion is wrong and in fact it is a strength that gives video game it's unique qualities and in large part it is part of the reason of video game popularity. People self-insert themselves as an idealised heroic version of themselves in fiction and when they finish the story they feel they have shared the accomplishment along with the fictional character. 

Although this is a strength of video game it is also a weakness. It's the reason why video games are singled out in terms of controversy. After all, when people see people "playing" video game characters doing immoral violence, they are not just seeing a character doing violence but seeing the player themselves as an active participant in violence which does scare alot of people.

However, there is an alternative to "self-insertion" and the answer is in the name of the genre of Undertale itself which is "Role Playing". That you aren't playing an idealised version of yourself and playing a character with similar ethical standards as you. You are playing a character that you created with its own personalities, agenda that still makes sense from the universe the author creates.

The question whether people playing the genocide route are amoral psychopath could be rephrased and asked are actors who play villains in movies and not only that but enjoys playing villains in the movies, are they amoral psychopath? Is Heath Ledger a psychopath for playing the joker in Batman? For people who seriously morally object to playing the genocide route of Undertale, you have to ask yourself what makes you different to the moral crusaders like Jack Thompson who believes video games makes people violent because it's interactivity of violent behavior in video games. The inability of people to see the interactivity as anything beyond self-insertion is the reason why video game controversy exists and gamer themselves should absolutely resist this mentality as you are falling in the trapped of people who are essentially anti-video games.

The controversy of people playing the genocide route and people being question about why they want to see well-crafted characters get cruelly killed off now seems absurd if viewed from a "role playing" point of view. As the answer is that it is good storytelling. I mean it's the same reason why people write books, films, TV shows that have well-made characters be killed off. 

The genocide ending and the subsequent soul-less pacifist is great storytelling. Imagine a person with the ability to time travel to an earlier version of themselves and redo events in their lives and even avoid deaths. At first they go and do things to make the world right and to correct their own mistakes to ensure that everyone they care about get their "happy ending". However eventually their own curiosity and boredom with the power where they feel they discovered everything about the world they know within the constraints of morality. They decided to start killing people out of curiosity to see what would happen rationalising that they could always go back in time and reverse their choices. After all, from the perspective of the character, is murder really bad when murder is easily reversible with time travel and you can always undo every consequence of your choice whether it is good or bad. However, a person can't just indiscriminately killing people without affecting themselves permanently. You can't just decide to commit genocide and then just reverse with a click of a finger as no one can make that decision to do these great evils without changing yourself and turning yourself into a villain. This is reflected in-game by having Chara taking control over the body of Frisk and decided to kill Asgore and Flowey and then the rest of the monster universe without any input from the player. Once you made the step to be the villain you can no longer have the morality to reset things and make things right and have no control as a person has to become the devil or "Chara" to make that decision in the first place and that moral centre that you had is no longer in control as you unleashed your own dark side (which is represented in game as Chara). This is shown where even attempts of redemption in doing a pacifist run after a genocide playthrough resulted in the destruction of the world as once you cross the moral event horizon you are no longer in control but your own inner dark side is.

To me that is excellent storytelling and there's a certain poetry to have the protagonist becoming the villain that they tried to stop in the initial "Pacifist" playthrough. Also the genocide playthrough reveals character insight to many characters of the game including the primary antagonist. One of the message of the game is that none of the characters are "purely evil" and they all did things with good intentions. It's their good side of their nature that comes to the fore when faced with a villain as powerful as the "Chara" corrupted Frisk and that is good storytelling. Ultimately "self-insertion" as much as it is a unique positive aspect to video game can be a pitfall that limits how much a person can get out of the medium and limits the potential story they can enjoy if people are unable to divorce themselves from the protagonist they are playing as this prevents stories that explores the dark side of humanity from being seriously appreciated.

Does this mean that in my playthrough I did the genocide ending after I finish the pacifist ending? The answer is no. After seeing the plea from Flowey to leave the game as it is and the dark music over the resetting the game option I didn't have the heart to go through with the genocide playthrough. After all not every person is capable of being an actor to be a villain in a stage or movie and will have a lot of trouble doing villainous act even in a scripted event with no real world consequences. However, I see this as my own weakness and not a strength. That my own inability to roleplay has limited my ability to fully enjoy video game as a medium of storytelling. I only have to admire people who do have the strength to go through with that and in that case I agree with Flowey that people who do the genocide run are getting more out of the game then people who are unable to go through it or is only able to watch it. I wish I had the strength to go through with it. So for all those people who are refused to play the genocide playthrough of the game, that is perfectly fine but please respect the people who are able to explore all aspects of storytelling in video games by role-playing instead of self-inserting themselves and their own personal moral standards on the characters they are playing. 


Thursday, November 26, 2015

Music (Over)Analysis - Ludwig Van Beethoven's Symphony No. 5


Mozart: "Oh, Papa, you have no education for the wide world, and you speak so few languages"
Haydn:  "But my language is understood all over the world."

Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 is a pretty generic choice for the favourite work of all time especially considering the opening motif to be the most famous line in concert music history. However just because it's a typical boring predictable choice doesn't mean it's wrong and I'll explain why out of every piece of music I've heard this is my personal number 1. Even though I have barely scratched the surface of the huge world of concert music, I seriously doubt I would ever hear a work that will eclipse it as I simply can't conceive how it's possible for a work to eclipse it.

I'm not going to do a musicologist music theory analysis as I'm simply not knowledgeable enough or qualified for it but I believe the strength of this work goes beyond the intelligence of well organised notes on the scores. To me the whole debate about absolute music vs programmatic music is answered by this symphony and the whole validity of music as a genre of the arts itself is answered by this symphony better than any other work I have heard so far.

First I'll describe the type of imagery this symphony elicits in me personally and I have put timecode which align the described section with the video link. (0:07) The opening motif aka the famous "fate motif" and that description is perfectly apt (even if it wasn't assign by Beethoven himself). To me it represents the feeling when someone broke bad news,  such as you've been diagnosed of a terminal illness, your family member has died, or you found out your deafness is incurable. In the end it doesn't matter what specific event it is but the general universal human principles that a traumatic event has occured in your life. The whole sequencing and transformation of the "fate motif" represents the immediate impact of hearing the bad news where your entire mindset is dominated by that event. No matter what you do, where you look, you can't stop thinking about this tragedy and it completely dominates your life at this point of time as that motif pops up everywhere in the first theme. The entire first theme of the movement just exudes extreme despair at the situation. 

The horn call (0:50) signals the second more lyric and beautiful theme appears and it ends in a seemingly triumphant C major key. This to me represents the person in denial and fantasising the problem away and pretending it doesn't exist and everything is ok. However no matter how much you wished the problem goes away, fate comes knocking at the door as the fate motif of theme one returns back to C minor. In the end everyone has to face the current reality of the situation.

The development section (2:50) has the horn call theme which represented hopeful denial being fragmented and torn apart leaving just a single soft chord beating (3:47) (symbolising the individual beating heart) but barely alive. This development section symbolises hope being torn apart and the protagonist feeling isolated (as shown by the single soft chord beating) leaving the person contemplating suicide before snapping out of that moment (4:00). This leads to the recapitulation (4:15) where the minor key fate motif is more subdue that represent sad reflection rather than the angst at the beginning of the movement and the section end in a more optimistic major key (5:23) that represents the protagonist rescuing themselves from the edge of suicidal despair.

However the darkness returns in the coda (5:38) which I also serves as a second development section and  I can hear (even with no words) during the match-like climax of the coda (6:05) of the protagonist saying 'it's not fair" and raging in anger at the events that surround their lives as the movement ends in a very dark note. The protagonist may well be alive but the person mind is in a dark place.

The second slow movement (7:00) represents behavioural activation as the protagonist picking up the pieces from the first movement. The essential day to day activities has to be attended to and life doesn't stop for any tragedy that any individual faces.  The slow beginning to me represents the protagonist going through the motions of daily activities. However as the movement goes on, each variations of the themes (such as 8:12) are presented more heroically and more trumphantly. This isn't a victory over the darkness in their mind (which will occur later in this symphony) but rather a defiant I'm enduring and surviving despite the problems in my life. The act of enduring and pushing through and maintaining daily activity is therapeutic in of itself as shown by how the C Major second theme of the variation plays the role of hope (as it does in every movement) returning, this hope itself re-energises the first theme in subsequent variations where it is portrayed more energetic. The constant soft minor key melancholy shifts in between the triumphant themes (example 8:28) as well as the rhythmic call back to the "fate motif" (9:49) by the viola represents that the darkness is still very much there but it hasn't defeated the person.

The third movement "scherzo" (15:54) is the famous confrontation between light and dark or "C Major" and "C Minor".  The bombastic "A" theme (16:12) with the rhythmic "fate motif' by the horns represents the imposing depression that dominates the mind of the protagonist that threatens to overwhelm the listener (and hence the protagonist). However the "B" the contrasting C Major theme (17:36) responds with humour and life. What defeats the internal forces of darkness was the ability to look at the problems facing in your life and laugh at it. It's really an example of cognitive restructuring where by viewing the same problems via a different lens and thought process, the problems no longer seems so big. In a way the message of this symphony is laughter/humour is the best medicine and an example of how Beethoven uses humour as a coping strategy and used that to challenge his negative thoughts. So when the "A" theme returns (18:53) it's a shadow of its former self as the protagonist no longer put fuel on his negative thoughts as shown by the theme is played softly with pizzicato strings which represents the impending defeat of the depression of the protagonist life.

The depression in the mind is defeated by the joys of life that transitions to the celebratory final movement where it's pure emotional ecstasy (20:30). C Major has triumph over C Minor. The movement documents the defeat of depression as man heroic triumph over adversity.   The rhythmic pattern of the fate motif returns (21:38)  with the horns but instead of being used to represent despair it represents triumph as not only did the protagonist endured and survive the traumatic event but that event built character and became a stronger person due to prevailing over adversity which matched how Beethoven composing flourish due to his personal battles over his fluctuating deafness. There is also a moment of nuance as there is a transition to the minor key in the modulating bridge (23:00) that leads back to the dark C Minor "A" theme from the scherzo made a brief return in the final movement (24:00). This represents that the underlying trauma and damage is still there and will always be there for the rest of the person life and there is always a risk of return or relapse back in the darkness. After all whatever traumatic event happened in the first movement (terminal illness, death in the family, chronic illness etc) is still there but it's not going to defeat the person mentally as the triumphant C Major return (24:33) movement wipes away the darkness.

Beethoven's 5th symphony is an inspirational tale of how a person can triumph over adversity. However what made this the ultimate quintessential piece of western music is that it told this story purely from the music without having to say a single word. I find this symphony as the most direct example of communication purely by music without words in western music. Now what I've written previously may be my own personal interpretation of the symphony however plenty of people out there have very similar interpretations of what I mention and that was derived purely from the music.

If someone asked to justify the validity of music as a genre of the arts. Beethoven Symphony No. 5 to me is the best example of this because it shows how music is a form of universal language of emotions that is able to communicate with people that words can't adequately portray. Sure Beethoven could say in words that he felt depressed after finding out his hearing loss is incurable but if he was alive today and told me that i wouldn't be able to understand because I can't speak German (despite doing German lessons up to Year 10). There is a language and cultural barriers that prevent verbal communication between two people. 

However listening to this Symphony not only do I understand what he was feeling, I felt the same emotions along with him. If someone told the person how they feel, they may be able to understand how they feel  in an abstract sense and they can only feel what other people feel by using their imaginations and putting themselves in other peoples shoes. Music directly transports you into the other person shoes. As the quote from Gary Oldman portrayal of Beethoven in the film "Immortal Beloved" "It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice." This type of communication crosses cultural barriers as even someone from let say Asia (judging by the popularity of Beethoven in Japan due to the annual New Years Ode To Joy) could understand the music and the message. I feel that Beethoven understood more than most that music is the "language understood all over the world" than any other composer.

Now there are plenty of examples of elaborate programmatic music that tells a story such as the brilliant Hector Berlioz "Symphonie Fantastique" where it's instrumental narrative goes beyond even what Beethoven was trying to do. However can anyone derived the plot purely from listening to the music without referring to the program notes? I really don't think so and I believe that only by reading the program notes that describe the plot of the symphony does the message of the music and it's cleverness reveals itself.  This is the reason why I rate Beethoven symphonies higher because the message from the symphony is derived purely by the music. Hell this is the reason why I rate Beethoven Symphony No. 5 higher than No. 9 (which is my second favourite piece of all time) as even though Symphony No. 9 is brilliant, it requires words to make sense of the last movement as I don't believe the utopian message could be derived from the music without lyrics.  Due to that it lacks the music purity of Symphony No. 5. Ironically Symphony No. 5 is probably more universal and more inclusive than Symphony No. 9 due to that. The message of a person struggling and overcoming adversity in their life is probably more universal theme than a utopian all men are brothers which although I agree with that message, certainly there are plenty of people who don't agree with that message.

Beethoven resolved the programmatic vs absolute music debate that was popular in the romantic era even before it even started. Symphony No. 5 is absolute music that tells a story. It has the drama as any programmatic music and represents extramusical concept without any program notes or vocal text. This is music that transcend the whole debate.

Now I'm first to admit that I'm not familiar with the massive repertoire of concert music to make definitive statements about what is the greatest work of all time. However I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can topped that work but I'm open to suggestions. Can anyone tell me a piece of work that is able to communicate an emotional journey purely by the music as good as what Beethoven achieved in Symphony No. 5? 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Live Performances (Over)Analysis - Sunday Bloody Sunday (Rattle And Hum DVD Version) by U2

The performance that U2 gave in the DVD is my personal all-time favourite live performance I have seen. To explain why I see things that way, I’ll go through what the song Sunday Bloody Sunday represents to me personally first.

To me the song is essentially a militaristic rallying call. Although instead of call for arms, it’s a call to drop their weapons. If we see in a military action movie where the hero makes a rousing inspirational speech to their soldiers that inspires them before they march out to battle. Sunday Bloody Sunday is a music representation of that phenomenon but with an opposite message.

Songs that call for peace are fairly common in rock music but what I feel is unique about Sunday Bloody Sunday is that it is taking the anger, feelings of injustice that could have potentially inspired people to take up arms and used that same emotions tho fuel peace. Essentially the same emotions that could cause people to pick up weapons could also cause people to drop it.  

The way the song achieves this was done with my personal favourite drumming moment in rock music, which is the military band drum intro. Sure there’s nothing technically difficult and there’s nothing particularly special about it in isolation but to me it’s the most emotionally resonant drum beat in context of the song due to what it represents and how integral it is to the message of the song. The idea of pacifist marching in the same discipline unity as any soldier marching to battle is quite a powerful message. It’s much as part of the DNA of the song as Edge guitar riff or a Bono vocal melody.

Due to the unique nature and message of the song, I don’t believe a studio version can possibly be the definitive version of the song. What is a rallying call without a crowd? Sure perhaps an individual could be emotionally move listening to the song on headphones but the only way the message of the song can be maximised if there is a large audience responding to it because that is consistent with the artistic direction of the song.

Now the popular definitive live version of the song is generally the Under The Blood Red Sky Red Rocks performance. It was considered by Rolling Stones magazine as one of the “Moments that Changed the History of Rock and Roll” particularly due to the iconic imagery of Bono marching with the white flag . However as brilliant as that live version, I believe that the Rattle and Hum version tops that.

What makes the Rattle and Hum version special and elevates this above every other version of the song in my opinion is that there is a character arc in this song due to it’s rearrangement. Using the “heroes inspirational speech to the soldiers before marching to battle” analogy that I mention before, instead of heading straight to the speech and then the march. The songs starts with a preceding trigger that made the march necessary and shows the steps that led to the marching to battle. It begin with Bono talking about the Enniskillen massacre and when the song begins, it’s not with a marching band but it’s a stripped down arrangement with just Edge on a guitar and Bono singing on top of that. The meaning behind  “I can’t believe the news today, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away” with a marching band on top and one with a strip down arrangement is completely different as the former is a display of righteous indignation but the latter is someone with utter shock and sorrow which is the natural reaction that everyone has to a tragedy like that. Of course the band eventually did kick in and the righteous indignation came in but having the sorrow preceding the indignation follows the reaction to a terrorist attack in a more realistic manner. People mourn the dead first before focusing on the perpetrator. Then what happens after the guitar solo is where the song combines the symbolic rallying call of the music with a literal rallying call. Bono goes on a passionate speech denouncing the terrorist attack. What happens in the movie when a leader makes an inspiration speech to their soldiers, well the soldier cheers. Well in this song when Bono shouted out “Fuck the Revolution” the crowd cheers along with him. When Bono screams out “No More” the crowd responds and shouts along with him buying into Bono rallying call for peace. At the end the iconic drum intro that was absent at the beginning returns symbolising that the crowd that Bono won over during the speech is now marching along with him to the battle lines with discipline unity in calling for peace. There’s now an arc to the song with the shock and sorrow at the beginning that turned to righteous indignation that inspired the protagonist of the song to make a rousing speech denouncing the attack that inspired the crowd to march with him for peace. It’s a story with the beginning, middle and end while the studio version really only focus on the last part of the story.

Now there are two common complaints to this live version. The first is the absence of the marching band drum intro at the beginning who some people claim that the absence of the iconic drum lines at the beginning defeat the purpose of the song and remove a lot of the power. However I will argue that by delaying that intro and turning it into an outro, it makes the drum line even more powerful. As in this arrangement it is the culmination of every preceding event of the song. The second complaint is that people hate it when Bono goes on a speech in the middle of the song which I can somewhat sympathise with. However I will argue that in contrast to every other time Bono goes on a speech, this time it compositionally fits. As I already explained, the events naturally led up to that speech, the speech naturally led to the conclusion and the speech is simply an extension of the call to arm atmosphere of the music.

So this arrangement is my all—time favourite live performance because I believe it’s the most emotionally resonant live performance I have heard. It’s a live performance where the fact that the song is played live is critical to the message of the song as in my opinion the song is composed specifically. It’s the performance where the audience interaction is perfectly well placed and critical to the message of the song that it sounds like the song was composed with the interaction was meticulously scored out in the arrangement. Other great live performance that improve over the original  song occurs because the band is inspired by the crowd that elevate their performance or a change in arrangement. However in those circumstances, I feel that if the identical performance or arrangement was captured in studio the song would be just as good but with Sunday Bloody Sunday if the same arrangement was played with the same spectacular performance it wouldn’t be the same as the spirit of the song in my opinion is intrinsically linked to being played live.