Tuesday, January 01, 2008

C-Right, A, C-Down

I figured I'd start this new year with a post about an almost universally beloved song that has been covered and arranged a bewildering number of times. A song that has inspired me ever since I first heard it as a child. That song, of course, is the Hyrule Overworld Theme from the Legend of Zelda series. Here is the version of the song in its original 8-bit glory:

The Hyrule Overworld Theme was originally composed by Koji Kondo in 1986 for the first game in the Zelda series, The Legend Of Zelda. Mr. Kondo is a classically trained composer who was hired by Nintendo as an in-house composer back when the company was still called Famicom. He was faced with the challenge of composing music for an 8-bit system. Instead of a whole orchestra, Kondo had only four "instruments" to work with, two monophonic pulse channels, a monophonic triangle wave channel for bass, and a noise channel for percussion. Given just those rather shitty elements, Kondo managed to create a work that has been covered and emulated in countless styles, with countless instruments (although some would call the forced minimalism of 8-bit music not a handicap but instead an aesthetic, which is the subject for another post). No matter what you think of the song itself (which bares a nearly copyright-suit-worthy resemblance to Deep Purple's "April), you have to be overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of YouTube imitators. A warning to those with dignity and pride; the dorkiness levels here are through the roof. Here's basic piano:

And orchestral:

And then the more unusual versions, such as this one on theremin:

And this one, appropriately enough, on ocarina:

And this one on 11 string bass:

So, what's to explain for this downright explosion of covers? Is it a sign of the eventual collapse of Western Civilization? Maybe, but let's not be so square. It could be kitsch or nostalgia, but I strongly suspect that kitsch is a fancy word for eating your own shit, and nostalgia is a fancy word for pretending you like to eat your own shit. To put it in the best possible light, maybe it's simply reverence. For the same reason we buy a movie soundtrack because we love a movie, we cover the Zelda theme as a tribute to a piece of art that we love. What do I feel when I hear the Hyrule Overworld theme? I remember the joy and solitary rapture - akin to what I feel when I read - of galloping across the seemingly limitless Hyrule plains on Epona. I've seen, read and heard a lot of pretty amazing and affecting things in nineteen-odd years on this earth, and I'm not ashamed to rank the awe-inspiring spectacle of the end of Majora's Mask among them. It is likely that by covering the Hyrule Overworld theme, people are participating in the same strange debasing they undergo when they play Guitar Hero: instead of directly emulating the musician by playing the guitar, they seek to emulate the mythos we construct around the guitarist. Instead of responding to the art by producing our own art, we replicate the aura erected around the art. But that's not necessarily a terrible thing. We pay tribute to things we love, and there's very little incentive to paying tribute to Zelda; little financial incentive, little social status. There's something refreshing about people participating in a work of art (no matter what the value of it ultimately is) without any irony or without saying anything except that they love this thing, this thing means something to them. It's something I'd like to see (and do) more in the coming year.


At 8:36 PM, Blogger DB said...

hear hear! My new year's resolution is to be less of a Humongous Douchebag in my judgements of people who are doing something they love, earnestly. No more irony, no more kitsch.

also, Majora's Mask? really? I never played that one. hmm.


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