Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Musical Analysis - "HALO Opening Suite: The Ancient and the Modern"

The opening suite of the video game Halo (2002) with a score by Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori is an aural presentation of the contrasting relationship between the modern and the ancient, as the composers use a mix of ancient and modern musical instruments to create the core elements of the piece.  One of the themes presented is the intertwined relationship between modern and the ancient. The entire score of the game exemplifies this relationship, but in no place is it more apparent than in the opening suite.  The modern is represented by synthesizers, heavy percussion and high-hat cymbals, along with string instruments such as the viola and the contrabass. The ancient is represented by men’s voices as simple tones without lyrics plus hand-driven drums.
From the outset, O’Donnell and Salvatori emphasize the dynamic between ancient and modern by evoking musical qualities not typically found within this genre of game, giving the score an unusually powerful emotional tone.  O’Donnell and Salvatori begin the piece with a rising climax of synthesizers and cymbals, followed by the introduction of a lyric-free Gregorian-style chant, using the timbre of the male voices as a rich set of instruments.  There is an interplay created between the percussion and synthesizers. The synthesizers create a low bass drone framing the chant and brings to the fore the thematic conflict presented in the game.  The electronic modern supports the analog ancient, grounding the work, while the ancient gives the modern soul and depth.
Following the choral opening, the rhythm of the piece is firmly established by the introduction of simple, primitive drums.  Here, the roles are reversed as the ancient is supporting the orchestral new.  The string instruments build in their intensity, matching the beat of the drums and evoking the rising conflict that the player will experience over the course of the game.
As the strings build through a brief intermezzo, the ancient is woven more directly back into the piece.  A lone voice becomes woven into the texture of the fabric of the piece, rising and falling as if calling the faithful to prayer in an Islamic salat. The prayer rises high, standing out, evoking the the high tones of the voice lashing out like a whip, on the verge of cracking at the upper end of the singers range. The harshness of the voice stands as a call and a challenge of the ancient voice of the past against the programmed, manufactured smoothness of the modern strings.  
The piece begins its climax as these elements are brought in with more vigor and emotion.  The piece becomes more dynamic, approaching its crescendo, the ancient and the modern becoming intertwined into a single system.  Here the intertwined nature of the themes becomes most evident as the song continues its climb through a brief bridge and to its climax.  Rather than a rousing finale, the modern falls away almost completely.  A low tone of synthesizers and the chorale remains, echoing the haunting reverie that has been a hallmark of the piece.
O’Donnell and Salvatori have done more than use the opening suite of Halo as an ear-catching, highly identifiable piece to aid in the capture of the player.   The piece perfectly captures one of the core themes of the game’s mythos - the complex and intertwined relationship between the ancient and the modern.  By weaving complex and modern instruments with two of the most basic musical implements in use by historic man, O’Donnell and Salvatori plant a musical hint whose nature is ultimately revealed over the course of play.  This hint illustrates the depth of the game itself, in a genre not known for depth or symbols, but also the attention to detail and design by the composers, creating a seminal musical piece that stands as complete beyond the scope of the game.

The piece in question:

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