Thursday, May 1, 2014

Musical Analysis - "An End, Once and For All"

Constructed from synthesizers, piano, and sampled instruments, “An End, Once and For All” from the video game Mass Effect 3 by Clint Mansell and Sam Hulick can be viewed as an exploration of the aftershocks of the end of the world and its subsequent rebirth.  Used during the credits and postlude of the game, the simplicity of the piece belies its depth, providing an aural capstone to one of the most renowned space operas on the Xbox 360.  The theme of the trilogy centers around the power of relationships and their place in overcoming armageddon, with this piece specifically providing closure to the trilogy.  The structure belies a deeper meaning: it is the ending of one story and the beginning of the next.

The piece begins simply. Soft piano notes float out with Mansell and Hulick evoking the first movement of Haydn’s The Creation with an organized chaos of notes appearing out of the depths of silence.  The seemingly disjointed notes paint an image of the last flickers of light after judgement.  The timbre is soft and gentle, providing a feeling of understanding in the face of insurmountable loss.  This sense of foreboding and mourning is the most obvious and explicit meaning of the music, and it fits with the theme of the story and its place at the end of a narrative trilogy.  The notes we hear are the words following judgement day.  

The double meaning though, based on the origin of the music, is evident.  These notes are not simply the dying embers of one life, but the first sparks of creation of the next. To give truth and finality to the judgement, synthesizers emulating the violin section of an orchestra swell, joining and overtaking the piano momentarily.  The synthesizers provide an interesting structural change for the piece.  The timbre of the piano notes are gentle and the attack brief.  The synthesizers, by contrast, are a wail that does not end discretely, but shifts directly from note to note.  Each note is subsequently sustained until the next note is played with little fall off.  The synthesizers crescendo and then drop away entirely, leaving the piano behind to continue the work of creation, serving as the climax of judgement, providing an exclamation point on the end.  As the piece continues, the piano progressing past this false crescendo, we understand explicitly the intent of Mansell and Hulick.  The crescendo signifies the end of the original story and events we are leaving behind as we follow the piano forward.  

As the piece progresses and the piano notes appear less chaotic and take on a clearer form.  The notes split into two registers, one high the other low.  The high notes, a lone pair, ring out in time and establish an insistent rhythm.  The resulting structural split into the two distinct registers creates a distinct musical form upon which establish the absolute boundaries within which the chaotic notes move and shift.  The melody begins to take shape, using the simple rhythm to set the stage and to prepare the listener for the new story that has supplanted what was lost in Armageddon.

The lower register resumes its place as the basis of the piece, and the higher register creates the rising emotion.  The piano, its timbre soft, grows in hardness as synthesizers are reintroduced.  The synthesizers are pitched high, driving the piano down into the lower registers and simplifying its melody as the two together clear the aural palette.  

The piano, once light and soft is now dark and full of foreboding.  The piano is joined in the lower register by strings, providing depth and gravity to the piece.  The piano establishes the rhythm, but the soul and power of the piece is now the strings, hitting hard with a keen edge to their tone.  Brass and snare drums are introduced, joining the strings, taking the piece beyond the soulful and serious business of creation and delving deep into the foul specifics of civilization.  The strings pop up a register, no longer disappearing in the mix, but joining the drums and brass in one voice, sounding like an army marching to war.  The piano disappears entirely, letting the newcomers build upon the previously hinted insistence while the march provides greater structure and tonal depth.  Here, the piece is fully realized as all of the divergent instruments come together as one in crescendo, providing proof of the rebirth of man and his defiance in the face of armageddon. 

“An End, Once and For All” by Mass Effect 3 by Clint Mansell and Sam Hulick is an expression not just musical design being influenced by the game design, but tackles hopeful and optimistic themes that far exceed the scope of the game for which it was made.  On the surface, the structure and timbre of the various instruments allude to a piece created with a very specific and limited purpose.  By embracing classic influences such as Haydn and The Creation, with its seemingly chaotic instrumental interpretation of the creation, Mansell and Hulick have taken a proven template and used it in a way not familiar to the typical audience of this piece. Mansell and Hulick show that creation is more than something from nothing.  Rather, this piece is evidence of Mikhail Bakunin’s assertion that we should “…put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life. The urge to destroy is also a creative urge” in his essay “Reaction in Germany - A Fragment by a Frenchman”(Deutsche Jahrbücher für Wissenschaft und Kunst, October 1842).  

The Music: