Music for the Apocalypse

February 6, 2017 at 4:28 pm

Thanks to current events and to a certain person who has recently come to power, the Doomsday Clock has been set forward thirty seconds. What will you do when the end comes? And more importantly, what tracks do you have on your phone for the occasion?

The idea of the world ending is certainly not new; there are loads of artwork devoted to the idea, from ancient through modern times. We’ve all thought about “what if” at some point in our lives. I hadn’t really connected the end of the world and music until very recently – the inspiration for this post came to me in the middle of a video game: Fallout 4. To oversimplify, it’s a game where you shoot baddies in post-apocalyptic setting.

What happened was this: I had turned on a radio in the game to the “classical music station”, when I was attacked by a horde of zombies. As I exterminated this crowd of undead enemies, I laughed because the radio was playing the dulcet tones of Edward Elgar‘s “Salut d’Amour“. The juxtaposition of murdering horrific humanoid mutations and sweet, lovely music was perfect irony, and completely opposite of the typical battle music of video games.

This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this sort of irony. The most glorious moment in the 1989 film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V comes when Henry (who by this point is barking mad) orders all his soldiers to sing a Te Deum and a Non Nobis in praise of God, who helped them slaughter the French in a bloody battle. The magnificent music plays during a single, four minute long shot of the battlefield, covered with mangled bodies and limbs: Not unto us, Lord, but to thy name be glory.

But let’s be realistic, we can accept the beautiful music coupled with bloody scenes because we’re removed from the situation. To have to face these horrors in real life is very unsettling. A more appropriate response would be the music in the 2011 film, Melancholia. To sum it up: people live screwed up lives, but it doesn’t matter in the end because a giant planet crashes into earth and destroys everything. This sort of despair is perfect for accompaniment by Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde (tragically, edited to fit the footage.)

Why so serious? If the world is going to end in flames, you may as well have fun while doing it, like in Dr. Strangelove! Don’t just drop that atomic bomb, ride it like a cowboy!

Did you know there’s an opera about the atomic bomb? Check it out!

So, nuclear war might end the world. If it did, would humanity descend into tribal warfare, fighting over food, water, and fuel? Brian May‘s killer soundtrack to Mad Max 2 will help you prepare for that.

But it turns out nuclear war is only one of many possible doomsday scenarios that threaten us. Climate change could turn our planet into a Waterworld.

Did you know there is a symphony about climate change? Check it out!

So, what are we to do? Well, on one hand, we could go into a panicked frenzy of despair:

or, we can stand up and do something about it:


Music and Warfare

May 29, 2016 at 10:00 am

Nowadays we usually associate music-making with peace. In modern combat, listening to music is frowned upon and considered a distraction – but listening to music in this case might be more to steady the nerves. After all, orders can be given, instantaneously, from practically any commander to any soldier, anywhere, thanks to radio and digital communication.

This is a relatively modern phenomenon. Before radio, there were a very limited number of ways to communicate with troops over large distances, while the noise of battle raged: visuals like flags and of course, music!

Thanks to baseball and horseracing, you probably know the bugle call that means “charge!” If you’ve seen Barry Lyndon, the 4-measure piccolo melody might be burned into your memory. And of course, there’s the loud beat of marching drums. Now imagine it’s 1778, and you’re on the battlefield. In the distance you hear “Yankee Doodle” on the piccolo – you know who is on their way. Your commander is so far away you can’t hear his voice – but the drummer plays a drumroll, and so you prepare your rifle and aim; a loud rim shot, and you fire. The bugle signals a charge and the cavalry ride ahead. The piccolo in the distance changes its melody, and you know those Yanks are up to something.

Although the music in warfare might be more function than art, you can’t deny that there is often art in function. Here is a renaissance piece by Tielman Susato, inspired by battle, complete with bomb sounds (way before Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture …)

This guy is so amazing I just had to feature him again.