A Soundtrack for the Strange & Profound Beauty of Difficult Times, pt. 1

When the time comes – and at the pace pop culture moves at, it’s already happening – the great novels, movies, music, and other works of art set during this time we’re in won’t be about COVID-19. They’ll use the pandemic as a backdrop to tell stories against. 

The story of the virus that has dominated the past nine months (with more are to come) is one we know. The tales waiting to be told in one form or another are the ones about the people and places struggling to get through a new, hellish, yet still mundane, situation.

The thing I’ve become aware of these past few weeks as the nation experiences its latest surge in cases is how fleeting emotional highs and lows have become. It’s like my barometer has adjusted to allow for certain amounts of relief before coming back down to the steady drone of what life is now. And likewise, I’m not dwelling in the lowlands of depression. I’ll visit for a bit, and then it’s back to that drone.

You can only spend so much time here, my brain says. We have to be ready for the next change to fight, flight, or freeze. Get hung up on a feeling, and you won’t be ready.

So crescendos never get to peak, and decrescendos never fully bottom out.

I heard an instrumental piece a couple weeks back that perfectly translated this into music. At least for me.

Photo credit: en.wikipedia.org

The piece is called Flight From the City. Composed and performed by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, Flight is the first track on the album Orphée. Jóhannsson’s last album before dying in early February of 2018, Orphée is his interpretation of the Orpheus myth, as told by the Roman poet, Ovid. 

The myth tells the story of our hero, Orpheus, who literally goes through hell to save his beloved, only to lose her despite his best efforts. 

I love music, but I’m not a musician and can’t speak the language. So I’m not going to even make an attempt. You’ll have to just bear with me as I try to explain Flight From the City and how it affects me. I’ll also post the piece here so you can listen before I go on.

Flight From the City is a simple piece, as is Orphée on the whole. Not simplistic, but simple. 

The only instruments on Flight are piano and violin, along with a bit of electronic crackle. There’s a repetition to the music that somehow manages to pull different emotions out of me throughout the piece’s six and a half minutes.

Photo credit: udiscovermusic.com

The piano, for whatever reason, represents our daily encounters with COVID-19. Always there. Always the same, but somehow different. Always revealing unexpected beauty despite difficult circumstances. And the violin will make my spirit soar at one point and then feel melancholy the next. But it never plays long enough to carry me high enough or low enough to feel complete.

Then it’s back to the piano.

Is any of this making sense?

Flight From the City is quite cinematic in scope. Not surprising considering Jóhannsson composes scores for several films, including Arrival and, posthumously released, Mandy. The rest of Orphée is less cinematic, but it works with the same simple formula as the lead track, while avoiding repetitive approaches to the work.

To be sure, it’s a great album. But these days, I can’t get past Flight From the City. Like Orpheus, we’re collectively going through a bit of hell, trying to take care of the ones we love. We could do a lot worse than being accompanied by music such as this.

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