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/formalist 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. Really after Stalin died, after Shostakovich did his final summary on Stalin's career with the great Symphony No. 10. Shostakovich was liberated as a composer and was under no danger of being purged again especially after he officially join the communist party. Shostakovich returned back to his formalistic bourgeois music and from my point of view, I never enjoyed a single work from him again.

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.