After thinking on this for decades, I ultimately think that isn't completely possible. Humans, while the same in many ways, differ a bunch when it comes to experiences. Experiences and culture, together, are what form who a human ultimately becomes. And depending on the set of experiences they have, the effect of the surrounding culture can be drastically different.
That said, I do enjoy the thought of sharing our experiences and culture to better understand each other, even if a complete understanding is nigh impossible. One of the biggest influences on my personality comes from music. I absolutely love sharing music that has moved me with others with the hope that their impact on me may have an impact on them as well. While I can't say what kind of impact these bits of culture will have, they may very well open up new avenues of thought, understanding, and analysis for someone.
So, without much further ado, I'd like to share some of the music that has impacted me from when I started consuming music to now. These are in chronological order, and there are so many others like these that I could include, but these particular ones were the first to shape my mind in new ways when I first listened to them.
River of Dreams was the first album that I'd say I "actually listened to." I would often hear music on the radio, when out with my family, or playing with friends, but this was the first time I actively looked into listening to an album once I heard it the first time. I think I was about 9-10 years old when I first heard a song on this CD when my mom was playing it, and it's what encouraged me to ask for my first CD player.
This is probably a weird album for a kid to listen to, in all honesty. I listen to the lyrics now, and the themes still resonate today as an acknowledgement of issues that plague the world and how humans just don't seem to care. Songs about potential, but never realizing it. Songs about relentless contentment. Songs about love and death. Pretty heavy stuff.
Listening to these topics as a kid helped me understand that my world isn't the whole world. Even at that age, I would question my place in the world. Whether the things I experience are worth complaining about. These songs encouraged me to think outside myself, which is something I've carried with me since then. I still go back to this album to see if the issues raised are still relevant. For better or worse, these seem like topics that never go out of style.
Tigerlily – Natalie Merchant
Tigerlily is another example of finding music just rummaging through my parents' albums. Interestingly, this was one of my dad's, which always surprised me since he was way more into rock music. Natalie Merchant is certainly capable of rock-ish moments, but her most alluring sounds were gentle and more in country territory. In any case, I heard her voice once, and needed to listen to more.
Unlike River of Dreams, I think I was more captivated by the artist when I started listening to this album. I love Billy Joel's voice, but Natalie's was so much more, I don't know...normal? She reminded me of a normal person when I'd hear her sing. Her music, while commenting on the world and culture around her, felt more like a layman's commentary. And her songs felt much more personal. Like she's right there singing with you. The album is full of songs of the earth, of miracles, of hope, of love, and of remembrance. They still want to call attention to issues, but in a much more inwardly reflective way.
When I'd listen to these songs, I'd always look to myself. I realize that I don't need to just look to the world outside my own, but accept that my own world has its own share of beauty and problems. While internal conflict is one of the hardest to face, having a soft, yet powerful, voice accompanying my thoughts helped me find that I'm not the only person who reflects, learns, accepts, and moves on.
Californication – Red Hot Chili Peppers
A bit of a shift from the previous brain-changers is Californication. This was one of the first albums I picked up on my own in my pre-teen years. One song I really liked on the radio, at the time, was Under the Bridge by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, so I decided to give their latest music a shot. Bear in mind, these decisions carried a ton of weight since I was working on kid money (i.e. birthday and holiday money) and everything was a major purchase. I was in for a bit of a surprise when I first listened to the album.
Californication is full of really raunchy stuff! Sex, drugs, scandals, you name it. And it was perfect for where I was in life. I generally lead a secluded life as a child. It wasn't until high school that I really talked to people. I thought a lot about the world and life, and struggled with my place in it. This brought me to a lot of self-doubt and feelings of worthlessness. My world was full of trying to meet high expectations and dealing with people who bullied me day in and day out. I'd hide myself in music and video games. Californication, oddly, created a platform that showed me what others turn to when their life is out of control, and had the effect of me thinking about these topics, but never actually turning to them myself.
The album showed me some of the dirtier sides of the world outside my own. Stories of these band members' struggles and experiences with these things helped me cope with my own experiences. Sharing stories through music isn't something I'd completely understand until high school, but this started me down the path of understanding that stories help others understand they're not alone. Telling these dirtier, raunchier stories connected with my own darker thoughts and helped pull me through.
Cowboy Bebop OST – Yoko Kanno
We now enter my phase of music guiding some important upcoming decisions in my life (mostly college-related). For reference, Cowboy Bebop is an anime about space bounty hunters just trying to make a living. The anime tells little stories over the course of the series to develop the four major characters in the show. The soundtrack is almost entirely jazz. Beyond that, it was my first realization that music and storytelling are one of the best combinations in this universe.
Almost every episode of Cowboy Bebop is named for a genre or sub-genre of music or dance. In that episode, the music that plays also matches what it is named for. And Yoko Kanno does a simply amazing job of putting a scene to music. Gateway Shuffle, Ballad of Fallen Angels, Waltz for Venus, Ganymede Elegy, Jupiter Jazz, The Real Folk Blues...all of these use the sounds and idiosyncrasies of those genres to help tell the story. And, somehow, the marriage of music and storytelling makes me go back to watch this series at least once a year.
When I hear one of the songs from this soundtrack, I'm immediately placed in the action that was going on during that part of the show, even if it's been months since I watched it last. I'm typically really bad at remembering the names of episodes, but Cowboy Bebop is an odd exception. That I can tie the melody, the instrumentation, and the style to one or two episodes, it's really easy to make the connection and relive a memory by hearing that music. From the point I first picked up this soundtrack, and even today, I learn more that music is a fantastic catalyst for creating and keeping memories. When coupled with a story that means something to you, that carries an important message, this can be a powerful tool. At this point in my life, I knew I wanted to play and write music.
The Planets – Gustav Holst
And here's the second phase of realizing how powerful music can be. I would imagine that I fall in with the majority of people in how I discovered The Planets: its first movement, Mars: Bringer of War. Being in high school now, and being inspired by the music so far in my life, I made sure to be involved with the band programs available to me. As a result, I was introduced to orchestral music formally for the first time. The Planets really stood out to me, and you can probably guess why. It tells a story.
Each movement of the suite is intended to convey an astrological influence that each planet has on the human psyche. As such, each movement has an effect of personifying the planet that they are representing. Mars is aggressive (Bringer of War), Mercury has very airy, flighty themes (Winged Messenger), and Jupiter is full of triumph and celebration (Bringer of Jollity). Even if these words were not present in the movement, Holst puts together themes that paint a picture to help humans visualize an aspect of themselves.
This stop on my journey of learning music's effects on personality (particularly my own) details just how powerful music can be standing on its own. With Cowboy Bebop, the music helps accentuate and recall actions that have happened. Things that become ingrained in memory as they were perceived. The Planets doesn't provide the image, but still provides the soundtrack, only this time to the human imagination. Music can tell stories and rely on humans to draw their own mental pictures. And the amazing thing is the picture can change over time. Whatever Jupiter's celebration is changes with you as you grow, but still tells the same story. Even further, there are no lyrics. This is simply sound converting to feeling and images. This absolutely blew my mind as a teenager. Music is truly powerful.
Baten Kaitos OST – Matoi Sakuraba
The final musical trip that guided me to wanting to learn to write music was the video game Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean. The game play itself (card-based, turn-based RPG) wasn't particularly outstanding, but the story, music, and visuals were captivating. The game follows a young boy trying to find his place in the world, while at the same time exacting revenge on the man who killed his brother and father. He meets a cast of other characters that unveil a plot that puts the whole world in danger, and they join forces to take it down together.
This game was one of the first where I started paying more attention to the music that accompanies the game play. One of the aspects of the soundtrack that stood out to me when I was playing was how integral music in areas of safety and downtime were to the atmosphere of the game. The GameCube era (sixth console generation) was getting sophisticated enough that orchestral soundtracks were starting to become a viability in video games, which greatly expanded the sounds available to set the right atmosphere.
To this day, I'll listen to the soundtrack and recall the towns and people of the Baten Kaitos universe just by hearing the more ambient or atmospheric sounds that characterized them. It was this music that showed me that music has another storytelling possibility: it can define a scene and set expectations. Similar to Cowboy Bebop and The Planets, Baten Kaitos tells stories through music, but instead of emphasizing the action or being the primary storytelling device, it paints a setting. Music can take people to a place where they may not see a story, but they see an environment. Video games, especially, take advantage of this to help paint memorable portraits or set an expectation for the player at various points in the game.
Different Trains & City Life – Steve Reich
In college, I studied percussion and music composition. I absolutely loved being in the various percussion ensembles in school and often looked to composers who wrote music for these types of ensembles for inspiration in my own writing. While studying up on percussion composers, I stumbled across Steve Reich. I brought this up in my percussion lessons one day, and my professor let me borrow a full set of his Reich's works written from 1965-1995.
In this set set of CDs, there were some pieces that I'd read about that Reich was especially known for: Piano Phase, Nagoya Marimbas, and Drumming. Not that these next works were not known, they just weren't dealing with one of Reich's signature techniques, which was rhythmic phasing. The pieces that resonate the most from that set of works were Different Trains (a three-movement piece using the recordings of trains and human voice from the times of World War II) and City Life (a five-movement piece using recordings from sounds in and around New York City). As is a theme in these albums, they tell stories, albeit with instruments as supporting material to sounds from the living world around us.
These pieces, in particular, made me realize something fascinating. Even in my earliest music studies, I was taught that music is the organization of sound and silence. People often extend that definition to be something like the intentional combination of sound and silence by some entity. What Reich did in these pieces is recognize that music exists all around us. He took recordings of real world sounds and created melodies from them. He had the ability to recognize the world is generating its own music. Ever since, I love listening to the world around me. I hear way more than I used to by understanding that the organization of sound and silence is a part of this living world. Music isn't just something we can create, it's something that accompanies us in life.
2112 – Rush
Some of you who made it to this point may be wondering how on earth a Rush album didn't pop up earlier in my life. This marks near the end of my college years. The first time I attributed a song to the band was with YYZ in Guitar Hero 2. I'd definitely heard Rush songs on the radio before, but never remembered to look them up afterward. Kind of a shame I didn't because, wow...this band changed how I think. Anyway, I found this album buried in one of my dad's CD collections one time my car broke down at his house. He told me to take it with me and give it a listen.
And give it a listen I did. Since all of what I heard from Rush prior to this was radio-ready songs, I was not prepared for what was on this album. For those who don't know, Rush is known for a good number of radio-ready songs, but their early career focused heavily on longer concept pieces. And 2112 is a veritable rock opera. Split into seven movements, it tells the story of a man who discovers a long-lost artifact (a guitar) and learns how to make his own music. When he brings it to the leaders of his world, they dismiss it entirely, and when our hero asserts the relic is of massive importance, they destroy it before his eyes and cast him out. The hero refuses to live in a world where creativity is stifled, and, either through heartache or suicide, his life is ended.
These lyrics and sound that weave in and out of this masterpiece are the outpouring of feelings that Rush had against their label and producers at the time. They were being told to abandon what they wanted to create because "it couldn't sell on radio" and they didn't want any of that. Instead of following what they were told to create, they wrote 2112 in a last ditch effort to prove this is something the world wanted to hear, and it tells a story parallel to their own about needing creativity in a world dead-set on packaging culture for a profit. This song helped me understand that I can't give up my creativity just because it doesn't fit the norm. I can't just give into what is expected when there's so much that can be accomplished by pushing the boundary.
To The Moon OST – Kan Gao/Laura Shigihara
After studying music in college, I continued my education in various computer arts, such as design, animation, and programming. This was all driven by a desire I had to create video games. During this time, I was being heavily influenced by the newly burgeoning independent (indie) developer scene. One of the games that caught my attention was a little gem called To The Moon, a story-driven experience having the player take on the role of two doctors that traverse a dying man's memories to grant his last wish.
The story itself is beautifully written, touching on topics of living with a mental illness, love, and the importance of different perspectives. One of the things that I found fascinating is that the main character, Johnny, is a pianist and how this was used as a story mechanic. To give some perspective, he's lived a fairly long life effectively alone with his wife, and after she passes away, he has a strong urge to go to the moon. He has no recollection of why he wants to do this, but knows this is what he wants. As the doctors traverse his memories in an attempt to have him remember going to the moon, we hear Johnny play a piece that he wrote a few times throughout the story. Instead of just playing the same recording every time this song is played, the designer/composer for the game, Kan Gao, records himself playing it while fitting the current mindset of Johnny.
This fits so beautifully well with one of the themes throughout the game, which is acknowledging the many perspectives of a situation. As the doctors traverse Johnny's memory, they see some things he sees, but but from an outside perspective they have a better idea of what was actually happening. As they change some things about Johnny's memory, the piano piece evolves with Johnny. Musical expression, as with all expression, changes depending on our perspective and feelings. Being able to recognize the many perspectives to any given moment can greatly inform your own decisions, and potentially the feelings and decisions of others around you.
Calling All Dawns – Christopher Tin
And here we are with relatively modern day me. When I was actively playing a bunch of games to teach myself game design, I would frequent a website called Humble Bundle (I still do, but not as much) which, at the time, would put packages of games on sale for discounted prices and allow the customer to determine who received the money between the developer, the distributor, and charity. It's a site with a good cause and definitely appealed to my lack of money at this time in my life. One of the bundles they ran at the time was a package of soundtracks from composers that gained popularity making music for video games. Of these albums, one of them was Calling All Dawns.
Despite having purchased it a number of years ago, I didn't really get around to listening to it right away. I was aware that one of the tracks was the first video game song to ever win a Grammy, but for some reason, that wasn't enough to sit with it immediately. A couple years ago I did get around to listening to it in full, and it is a wonderful portrait of world culture. The album is a song cycle that personifies the night-day cycle of the earth. Each of the pieces in the cycle is sung in a different language. This wasn't a turn-off at all since I was used to listening to music in Japanese and various European languages from my studies in college. To my delight, a lot of these languages were new to me, many of them hailing from Africa and the Middle East.
The greatest takeaway I have from Calling All Dawns is that a piece of music doesn't have to share a style or language across all its parts to tell a cohesive story effectively. Christopher Tin expertly weaves all of these styles and languages together in a way that transcends the words they are saying to convey the meaning he is trying to represent. A wonderful side effect of this approach is that the listener gets to hear the sounds from various cultures from around the world. This earth is so full of beauty and the differences in our cultures often lend themselves to showing just how amazing diversity can be when its brought together. In the world we live in today, growing ever more global, I think that's a very important lesson to learn. Be aware that our differences can overcome perceived friction when we realize the beauty we capable of as a whole.
Music is Amazing
I think I've written enough for one sitting here. For those who made it this far, I hope my self-indulgent sharing of music, stories, thoughts, and experiences was a fun diversion. Music truly is an amazing thing, and its impact on us, as humans, is amazing in its own right. If you've been moved by music you've heard in your life, let me know your stories as well. They may even help me see the world in an expanded light. And even if we share a vision already, it's more new music to listen to, which is never a bad thing!
Keep on playing, making, and experiencing music in your life, and let it open your mind to paths you never realized before :)