Beyond the Grave: The “Dies Irae” in Video Game Music
For those familiar with modern media, there are a number of short musical phrases that immediately trigger a particular emotional response. Think, for example, of the two-note theme that denotes the shark in Jaws, and see if you become just a little more tense or nervous. So too with the stabbing shriek of the violins from Psycho, or even the whirling four-note theme from The Twilight Zone. In each of these cases, the musical theme is short, memorable, and unalterably linked to one specific feeling: fear.
The first few notes of the “Dies Irae” chant, perhaps as recognizable as any of the other themes I mentioned already, are often used to provoke that same emotion.
Often, but not always. The “Dies Irae” has been associated with death since its creation in the thirteenth century, due to its use in the Requiem Mass for the dead until the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). Its text describes the Last Judgment, when all humanity will be sent to heaven or hell. But from the Renaissance to today, the “Dies Irae” has also come to symbolize everything from the medieval church and Catholic ritual to the sinister, superstitious, or supernatural, even violence and battle—and any combination of the above.
Because of its unique history not only within its original liturgical context but also within later musical genres, this chant has become largely divorced from its original purposes, at least in modern popular imagination. Instead, it now holds a multiplicity of meanings; composers manipulate these meanings by utilizing this chant in a new setting, and thus in turn continue to reinforce those meanings within modern media. Since its use within the Mass, concert music, and films has already been well documented, this blog post explores its presence in an as yet unexamined medium: video games.Chant—monophonic music of the Western Christian tradition—is the largest surviving body of music from the medieval period. Although chant was not written down until the ninth century, it has been continuously sung for over two thousand years. Before the Reformation, chant permeated the musical landscape of Western Europe. But as John Haines points out, chant’s meanings changed in the sixteenth century; to Protestants, chant was a sign of superstitious, even sinister, ritual, whereas to Catholics it was a flawed but holy tradition (112). Chant became ever more confined to the Catholic liturgy; although composers continued to use chant in new compositions, by the late nineteenth century the only chant guaranteed to be recognized by a secular audience was the “Dies Irae.”
Beginning in the late eighteenth century, the text was set in Requiems for the secular stage by composers such as Mozart, Verdi, and Britten. But due to both its evocative text and its memorable melody (often just the first sixteen, eight, or even four notes), the “Dies Irae” chant soon was incorporated into secular instrumental works, where it signified the past, the supernatural, the oppressive, the demonic, and death. No work is more responsible for this than Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, where the chant symbolizes the composer’s own death and the depravity of the demons and witches who dance at his funeral.
The history of this chant, together with its use in film, has been explored by scholars such as Linda Schubert and John Haines. Because the “Dies Irae” was already a well-known symbol of the aforementioned characteristics, and because early silent film musicians borrowed musical ideas from previously composed works, the chant segued quickly into early film, where its symbolic possibilities were reinforced. Thus, even in newly composed soundtracks, composers utilized this chant as an aural shortcut to a host of emotional and psychological reactions, especially (as James Deaville and others discuss) within horror films. It appears in scenes depicting inner anguish, fear, the occult, evil, and imminent death in films from It’s a Wonderful Life, The Seventh Seal, and The Shining to Disney’s The Lion King and Star Wars, in musicals like Sweeney Todd, and in literary works such as Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, but it also symbolizes power and even heroism, such as in this Nike shoe commercial.
The “Dies Irae” appears analogously in video game soundtracks, where it communicates the same symbolic meanings that it does in film scores and concert music. Its recognizability also lends itself to parody, as it did in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yet, unlike in film music, the evolution of its use in game music speaks also to the evolution of game music technology.
In the earlier years of video games, technology could not create continuous soundtracks. The first such was in Space Invaders (1978), although it consisted only of four descending notes looped indefinitely. Additionally, while voice synthesis was used in game soundtracks as early as 1982, reproduction of musical voices was limited even into the 1990s. William Gibbons describes how early systems had a limited number of channels (40); as a result, Baroque-style counterpoint worked well texturally, and reproducing music from earlier composers such as Bach was not only permissible by copyright but also demonstrated the capabilities of their systems (201–204). As such, earlier games were less interested in a monophonic chant, although several (such as Fatal Fury) did use Mozart’s setting of the “Dies Irae.”
The “Dies Irae” chant is first used in game music in the late 1980s and early 1990s, by which point most systems had five or more channels, allowing for improved timbres and sound synthesis. The opening theme song to F-19 Stealth Fighter (1988–92, DOS/PC/Amiga/Atari) subtly references the first phrase of the chant. Composer Ken Lagace sets the first eight pitches evenly in the lower voice before moving them to a higher, rhythmicized register. The chant is accompanied by a consistent percussive element and several higher, chordal voices, which splinter off into fast arpeggios before restating the opening. There is as yet no action, nor is the plot either spiritual or supernatural, so the chant here actually works in a somewhat anomalous way. It heightens the player’s tension through its aural connotations of fear and death, thus setting the stage for the battles still to come in the game itself.
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992, PC) is another early instance of the “Dies Irae,” which appears at the end, when Indiana and his companion Sophia confront the malevolent Doctor. The chant again increases tension but also indicates the presence of evil. Musically, the first two phrases of the chant appear in long, low tones, accompanied by several high, sustained, dissonant pitches. New voices enter, reminiscent of the opening phrase, before the chant returns in full in all registers. The system’s capability for thicker textures allowed the composers to stack the monophonic “Dies Irae” against itself, further emphasizing the threat of imminent danger in this final encounter.
The last of the early case studies is Zombies Ate My Neighbors (1993, SNES/Genesis). These systems featured multiple channels capable of emulating a variety of acoustical settings. The game is a parody of 1950s horror films; the protagonists race through standard horror settings such as malls and castles to rescue their neighbors from demonic babies, vampires, zombies, and other stock creatures. The soundtrack also mimics the musical tropes in such films: chant itself, especially the “Dies Irae,” but also timbres such as tremolo, stingers, extreme ranges, and dissonance. The track “Curse of the Tongue,” which plays upon encountering the final boss, Dr. Tongue’s Giant Head, emulates a Gothic pipe organ. The low organ drone sustains underneath the first sixteen notes of the chant, which sound in a shrieking, vibrato-heavy register. The voices then move in parallel fifths as in medieval polyphony. The “Dies Irae” here brings to mind an entire film genre while also overtly characterizing the final battle against the otherworldly, sinister, evil Head. In this case, the chant works literally to signify the current battle and threat of death, but also parodically to indicate the absurdity of the situation.
The development of video game audio technology allowed first for voice emulation, then voice reproduction. Vocal samples were used as early as the 1980s, but were often confined to theme songs. Yet even after voices were reproduced within soundtracks, it is the “Dies Irae” melody alone that is most frequently sampled, strikingly paralleling its earlier use in film and concert music. When the “Dies Irae” text is used, it is set to newly composed music or borrowed from the Mozart or Verdi Requiems. Moreover, as in earlier media, all that is needed as an aural mnemonic is the first phrase, even just the first four notes, of the chant melody.
For example, two games released for PC in 1999—Heroes of Might & Magic III and Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned—both use just the first portion of the “Dies Irae.” In “Burying the Manuscript” from Gabriel Knight, pizzicato violins first allude to the first four or five notes of the chant (1:25); the full first phrase is then presented in parallel motion in the brass. The remainder of this theme alludes to the first few notes, making the “Dies Irae” a constant presence here and underscoring the secrecy, even the occult nature, of the manuscript in this scene.
Heroes III uses even less melodic material. In the Necropolis, composer Paul Romero uses the first four notes of the “Dies Irae” to underpin the entire theme. The bass plays the first four notes in a low register before seguing into newly composed material, but the contour of that phrase returns throughout the theme. The full chant phrases do not appear until the very end. The chant hints constantly at the overwhelming metaphor of death in this area, as well as to the presence of supernatural creatures such as vampires, zombies, and wraiths.
Unusual for many reasons, then, is the last case study: the game Dante’s Inferno (2010, PS3/Xbox360). It is the sole example here to use voices, but the text appears to be newly composed. As John Haines noted, the presence of Latin or pseudo-Latin is in and of itself a trope of the diabolical or demonic, which adds further nuance to this scene (129). The familiar melody is presented by a choir of mixed voices, accompanied by a roar of low brass, ambient noise, and a descant voice singing on open vowels, all signifiers of horror or the medieval. Moreover, the “Dies Irae” is not reserved for a final battle, as in previous examples, nor does it characterize supernatural creatures. Rather, it is the first theme heard in the game, reinforcing not only the medieval setting and the constant presence of death but also the ultimate trajectory of Dante, and the gamer, into Hell.
While the “Dies Irae” has been well studied as an aural signifier within film and concert music, its use in video games has, before now, been largely ignored. As in earlier musical genres, this chant brings to games a host of culturally accepted, musically mediated meanings that allow composers to immediately flesh out a character or scene. In so doing, game composers acknowledge that sound is not just sound, but rather it is (to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Randell Upton) “a complex interaction of experiences and expectations on the part of the audience.” These experiences are continuously shaped by new compositions, scores, and soundtracks, which in turn continuously shape the audience’s expectations for future works.
As such, game soundtracks, along with other kinds of media, continue to transform the “Dies Irae” out of its original context and into an ever-growing set of pop culture symbols. The chant now signifies everything from the medieval to the present day, from judgment, battle, and death to demons, witches, and the occult. Within games in particular, though, it acts as a “memento mori,” a reminder of the mortality that game characters, and thus game players, seek to avoid through play. As such, it may instill fear in a player, but also suspicion, alertness, tension, even excitement, spurring the player to react in whichever manner suits the individual game.
The iconic status of the opening phrases of the “Dies Irae” chant marks it as a particularly useful polyvalent symbol for composers. Yet the utilization of this well-known trope is not without its problems. As I discuss in a forthcoming article, this chant, and indeed all plainchant, originates in a particular sacred, liturgical tradition. When a chant such as “Dies Irae” is used as a signifier of a general sense of spirituality, or of the medieval, or even of horror, then by default those characteristics are reified, if subtly, as Christian. Moreover, linking a chant such as the “Dies Irae” to the supernatural or the occult serves to perpetuate early modern stereotypes of Catholicism as nothing more than superstitious magic; see, for example, the purported origins of the phrase “hocus pocus.” Such anachronistic uses further obfuscate chant’s continuous role within Catholic (and other) liturgy; it is both a historic and a very modern practice.
Given that the “Dies Irae” is certainly not the only musical means to the aforementioned symbolic ends, perhaps these concerns are not pressing. Still, as Anita Sarkeesian points out, we can enjoy modern media while simultaneously critiquing facets that are problematic. There is no clear-cut way, at this point, to overturn hundreds of years of accumulated symbolic meaning for a musical icon such as the “Dies Irae,” but it behooves us as participants in auditory culture to become better aware of the multiple, and occasionally challenging, meanings within what we hear.
[Other games that also use the “Dies Irae” chant include Gauntlet Legends (1999, N64/PS/Dreamcast), Final Fantasy IX (2000, PS), EverQuest II (2004, MMORPG), Heroes of Might and Magic V (2006, PC), Sam & Max: Season 2 (2007–8, Wii/PC/PS3/Xbox 360), Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (2011, PS3/Xbox 360), and Diablo 3 (2012–4, PC/PS3/Xbox/PS4). My thanks go to VGMdb and Overclocked Remix for bringing several of these games to my attention, and to Ryan Thompson and Dana Plank for comments.]
Featured Image: A mashup of the first lines of the Dies Irae and the Zombies Ate My Neighbors title screen. Remixed for purposes of critique.
Dr. Karen Cook specializes in medieval and Renaissance music theory, history, and performance. She is currently working on a monograph on the development of rhythmic notation in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. She also maintains active research interests in popular and contemporary music, especially with regard to music and identity in television, film, and video games. She frequently links her areas of specialization together through a focus on medievalism, writ broadly, in contemporary culture. As such, some of her recent and forthcoming publications include articles on fourteenth-century theoretical treatises, biographies of lesser-known late medieval theorists, and the use of plainchant in video games, a book chapter on medievalist music in Harry Potter video games, and a forthcoming co-authored Oxford Bibliography on medievalism and music.
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Sculptural Dissonance: Hans Zimmer and the Composer as Engineer
Welcome to our new series Sculpting the Film Soundtrack, which brings you new perspectives on sound and filmmaking. As Guest Editor, we’re honored and delighted to have Katherine Spring, Associate Professor of Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Spring is the author of an exciting and important new book Saying it With Songs: Popular Music and the Coming of Sound to Hollywood Cinema. Read it! You’ll find an impeccably researched work that’s the definition of how the history of film sound and media convergence ought to be written.
But before rushing back to the early days, stick around here on SO! for the first of our three installments in Sculpting the Film Soundtrack.
It’s been 35 years since film editor and sound designer Walter Murch used the sounds of whirring helicopter blades in place of an orchestral string section in Apocalypse Now, in essence blurring the boundary between two core components of the movie soundtrack: music and sound effects. This blog series explores other ways in which filmmakers have treated the soundtrack as a holistic entity, one in which the traditional divisions between music, effects, and speech have been disrupted in the name of sculpting innovative sonic textures.
In three entries, Benjamin Wright, Danijela Kulezic-Wilson, and Randolph Jordan will examine the integrated soundtrack from a variety of perspectives, including technology, labor, aesthetic practice, theoretical frameworks, and suggest that the dissolution of the boundaries between soundtrack categories can prompt us to apprehend film sound in new ways. If, as Murch himself once said, “Listening to interestingly arranged sounds makes you hear differently,” then the time is ripe for considering how and what we might hear across the softening edges of the film soundtrack.
– Guest Editor Katherine Spring
Composing a sound world for Man of Steel (2013), Zack Snyder’s recent Superman reboot, had Hans Zimmer thinking about telephone wires stretching across the plains of Clark Kent’s boyhood home in Smallville. “What would that sound like,” he said in an interview last year. “That wind making those telephone wires buzz – how could I write a piece of music out of that?” The answer, as it turned out, was not blowing in the wind, but sliding up and down the scale of a pedal steel guitar, the twangy lap instruments of country music. In recording sessions, Zimmer instructed a group of pedal steel players to experiment with sustains, reverb, and pitches that, when mixed into the final track, accompany Superman leaping over tall buildings at a single bound.
His work on Man of Steel, just one of his most recent films in a long and celebrated career, exemplifies his unique take on composing for cinema. “I would have been just as happy being a recording engineer as a composer,” remarked Zimmer last year in an interview to commemorate the release of a percussion library he created in collaboration with Spitfire Audio, a British sample library developer. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to stop me from mangling sounds, engineering, and doing any of those things, and actually getting me to sit down and write the notes.” Dubbed the “HZ01 London Ensembles,” the library consists of a collection of percussion recordings featuring many of the same musicians who have performed for Zimmer’s film scores, playing everything from tamtams to taikos, buckets to bombos, timpani to anvils. According to Spitfire’s founders, the library recreates Zimmer’s approach to percussion recording by offering a “distillation of a decade’s worth of musical experimentation and innovation.”
In many ways, the collection is a reminder not just of the influence of Zimmer’s work on contemporary film, television, and video game composers but also of his distinctive approach to film scoring, one that emphasizes sonic experimentation and innovation. Having spent the early part of his career as a synth programmer and keyboardist for new wave bands such as The Buggles and Ultravox, then as a protégé of English film composer Stanley Myers, Zimmer has cultivated a hybrid electronic-orchestral aesthetic that uses a range of analog and digital oscillators, filters, and amplifiers to twist and augment solo instrument samples into a synthesized whole.
Zimmer played backup keyboards on “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
In a very short time, Zimmer has become a dominant voice in contemporary film music with a sound that blends melody with dissonance and electronic minimalism with rock and roll percussion. His early Hollywood successes, Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Days of Thunder (1990), combined catchy themes and electronic passages with propulsive rhythms, while his score for Black Rain (1989), which featured taiko drums, electronic percussion, and driving ostinatos, laid the groundwork for an altogether new kind of action film score, one that Zimmer refined over the next two decades on projects such as The Rock (1996), Gladiator (2000), and The Pirates of the Caribbean series.
What is especially intriguing about Zimmer’s sound is the way in which he combines the traditional role of the composer, who fashions scores around distinct melodies (or “leitmotifs”), with that of the recording engineer, who focuses on sculpting sounds. Zimmer may not be the first person in the film business to experiment with synthesized tones and electronic arrangements – you’d have to credit Bebe and Louis Barron (Forbidden Planet, 1956), Vangelis (Chariots of Fire, 1981), Jerry Goldsmith (Logan’s Run, 1976), and Giorgio Moroder (Midnight Express, 1981) for pushing that envelope – but he has turned modern film composing into an engineering art, something that few other film composers can claim.
One thing that separates Zimmer’s working method from that of other composers is that he does not confine himself to pen and paper, or even keyboard and computer monitor. Instead, he invites musicians to his studio or a sound stage for an impromptu jam session to find and hone the musical syntax of a project. Afterwards, he returns to his studio and uses the raw samples from the sessions to compose the rest of the score, in much the same way that a recording engineer creates the architecture of a sound mix.
“There is something about that collaborative process that happens in music all the time,” Zimmer told an interviewer in 2010. “That thing that can only happen with eye contact and when people are in the same room and they start making music and they are fiercely dependent on each other. They cannot sound good without the other person’s part.”
Zimmer facilitates the social and aesthetic contours of these off-the-cuff performances and later sculpts the samples into the larger fabric of a score. In most cases, these partnerships have provided the equivalent of a pop hook to much of Zimmer’s output: Lebo M’s opening vocal in The Lion King (1994), Johnny Marr’s reverb-heavy guitar licks in Inception, Lisa Gerrard’s ethereal vocals in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down (2002), and the recent contributions of the so-called “Magnificent Six” musicians to The Amazing Spider Man 2 (2014).
The melodic hooks are simple but infectious – even Zimmer admits he writes “stupidly simple music” that can often be played with one finger on the piano. But what matters most are the colors that frame those notes and the performances that imbue those simple melodies with a personality. Zimmer’s work on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy revolves around a deceptively simple rising two-note motif that often signifies the presence of the caped crusader, but the pounding taiko hits and bleeding brass figures that surround it do as much to conjure up images of Gotham City as cinematographer Wally Pfister’s neo-noir photography. The heroic aspects of the Batman character are muted in Zimmer’s score except for the presence of the expansive brass figures and taiko hits, which reach an operatic crescendo in the finale, where the image of Batman escaping into the blinding light of the city is accompanied by a grand statement of the two-note figure backed by a driving string ostinato. Throughout the series, a string ostinato and taikos set the pace for action sequences and hint at the presence of Batman who lies somewhere in the shadows of Gotham.
Zimmer’s expressive treatment of musical colors also characterizes his engineering practices, which are more commonly used in the recording industry. Music scholar Paul Théberge has noted that the recording engineer’s interest in an aesthetic of recorded musical “sound” led to an increased demand for control over the recording process, especially in the early days of multitrack rock recording where overdubbing created a separate, hierarchical space for solo instruments. Likewise for Zimmer, it’s not just about capturing individual sounds from an orchestra but also layering them into a synthesized product. Zimmer is also interested in experimenting with acoustic performances, pushing musicians to play their instruments in unconventional ways or playing his notes “the wrong way,” as he demonstrates here in the making of the Joker’s theme from The Dark Knight:
The significance of the cooperative aspects of these musical performances and their treatment as musical “colors” to be modulated, tweaked, and polished rests on a paradoxical treatment of sound. While he often finds his sound world among the wrong notes, mistakes, and impromptu performances of world musicians, Zimmer is also often criticized for removing traces of an original performance by obscuring it with synth drones and distortion. In some cases, like in The Peacemaker (1997), the orchestration is mushy and sounds overly processed. But in other cases, the trace of a solo performance can constitute a thematic motif in the same way that a melody serves to identify place, space, or character in classical film music. Compare, for instance, Danny Elfman’s opening title theme for Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Zimmer’s opening title music for The Dark Knight. While Elfman creates a suite of themes around a central Batman motif, Zimmer builds a sparse sound world that introduces a sustained note on the electric cello that will eventually be identified with the Joker. It’s the timbre of the cello, not its melody, that carries its identifying features.
To texture the sounds in Man of Steel, Zimmer also commissioned Chas Smith, a Los Angeles-based composer, performer, and exotic instrument designer to construct instruments from “junk” objects Smith found around the city that could be played with a bow or by hand while also functioning as metal art works. The highly abstract designs carry names that give some hint to their origins – “Bertoia 718” named after modern sculptor and furniture designer Harry Bertoia; “Copper Box” named for the copper rods that comprise its design; and “Tin Sheet” that, when prodded, sounds like futuristic thunderclaps.
Smith’s performances of his exotic instruments are woven into the fabric of the score, providing it with a sort of musical sound design. Consider General Zod’s suite of themes and motifs, titled “Arcade” on the 2-disc version of the soundtrack. The motif is built around a call-and-answer ostinato for strings and brass that is interrupted by Smith’s sculptural dissonance. It’s the sound of an otherworldly menace, organic but processed, sculpted into a conventional motif-driven sound world.
Zimmer remains a fixture in contemporary film music partly because, as music critic Jon Burlingame has pointed out, he has a relentless desire to search for fresh approaches to a film’s musical landscape. This pursuit begins with his extracting of sounds and colors from live performances and electronically engineering them during the scoring process. Such heightened attention to sound texture and color motivated the creation of the Spitfire percussion library, but can only hint at the experimentation and improvisational nature that goes into Zimmer’s work. In each of his film scores, the music tells a story that is tailored to the demands of the narrative, but the sounds reveal Zimmer’s urge to manipulate sound samples until they are, in his own words, “polished like a diamond.”
Ben Wright holds a Provost Postdoctoral Fellowship from the University of Southern California in the School of Cinematic Arts. In 2011, he received his Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture at Carleton University. His research focuses on the study of production cultures, especially exploring the industrial, social, and technological effects of labor structures within the American film industry. His work on production culture, film sound and music, and screen comedy has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He is currently completing a manuscript on the history of contemporary sound production, titled Hearing Hollywood: Art, Industry, and Labor in Hollywood Film Sound.
All images creative commons.
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