Daniel Wolfert Snapshot #6: Melody and Metaphor

In which Daniel attends the opera and leaves dissatisfied, yet inspired. 

It was the first Friday of the second semester of my sophomore year, and after nearly two hours filled with soprano arias, baritone laments and the rhythm of early classical orchestrations, I sat alongside the other members of Dr. Geoffrey Block’s music history class, watching the final moments of Giuseppe Verdi’s renowned opera Rigoletto at an opera house in Seattle.  It is a famous tale of a deformed court jester – here set in Mussolini’s Italy – that, after insulting a father seeking to redeem his disgraced daughter, is placed under a curse that ultimately causes him to lose the only thing in life he truly loves – his own daughter.  There is something Shakespearean about the plot, what with the star-crossed lovers meeting once and pledging eternal devotion, the enraged fathers declaring vengeance, and the ironic twists of fate guiding the protagonist’s tragic life, but something cold and hard felt – to me, at the very least – to be hiding beneath the glimmering veil of warm, beautiful voices and lush orchestration.

It is not a tale of a deranged lunatic, but a man that has repeatedly been rebuffed by a world that finds him repulsive, and had his heart undoubtedly broken countless times – broken over his deformity, over his beloved late wife, over the cruel courtiers that he works for, and so many other things I’m sure.  After his daughter is kidnapped and raped, therefore, his anger is terrible to behold, and he swears bloody vengeance upon the Duke of Mantua, the man he incorrectly believes is responsible for his daughter’s rape, and incidentally the man with whom his daughter is in love.

Yet, if one were listening to the music alone, and not looking at the translation of the words the actors were singing, it would sound happy, almost chipper, despite the dark and appalling nature of the meaning, and this was to me something of a problem.  As the daughter flits around – but never quite touches – the subject of her rape, the music dances along in sweet bassline arpeggios, as if a waltz were about to begin, rather than a traumatized scream, and as the father declares vengeance, his cries are heralded by happy strings and woodwinds that float and soar most merrily, and to me, this is not what I wanted to hear.  The subject of rape is not a joke, or an interesting plot device or a character flaw.  It is a terrible atrocity committed upon another human being, and should be treated in art as such.  Had I written this, perhaps the daughter’s traumatized fragility would be shown through delicate minor chords, like tiny flowers, and the father’s anger through crashing dissonance, his melody cutting through the texture like a knife, but either way, I would not have portrayed the subject as Giussepe Verdi did.

I am not, of course, saying that he was wrong to musically handle the text the way he did.  His culture’s musical vocabulary was, of course, far different from ours, and what was considered worth dissonance then is not the same now, but all the same, the musical illustration of these dark themes – isolation, vengeance, rape – did not satisfy me personally.  I did not feel that moments of clarity came into focus through the story, nor that a truly honest moment arose between any two characters, and this absence did not compel me to feel for the characters in any moment.  My music history professor described the father’s character as evil due to his vengeful nature, and the daughter’s character as tragic due to her willingness to sacrifice her life for that of her love, but I did not see it as such.  The daughter was sad, yes, because of the injustice of the sexual abuse committed upon her, but not because of her ridiculous and completely illogical notion that she should sacrifice herself to save the irritating and sexist Duke of Mantua.  The father was vengeful, yes, but so too would I be if I had lived a life that was so full of bitter disappointment and cruel people that hurt me without me being able to hurt them.  If I had a daughter and she was raped, I would not say I was evil because I wanted to murder those responsible.  I would say that it was long overdue justice.

This is not, of course, to say that the opera was not beautiful and wondrous to behold – it truly was, with gorgeous costumes, masterful voices and wonderful melodies – but it was this sense of dissatisfaction that clung to me as my classmates and I left the opera house to return to the school.  I cannot help but wonder why so much great art feels this way to me – beautifully constructed, but with little sense of honesty and empathy toward unhappy people, and with too much idealization of them.  Women are not made of melody and metaphor; men are not made of vengeance and lament.  But I must give due thanks to Dr. Geoffrey Block, Professor of Music History, for giving my class the opportunity to see this opera, for without it, I would not have been given this reminder of how much I prize sincerity in art, how little I see it, and how much I need to put more of it in the world.

Fun fact: Tacoma’s record high temperature in January is 66 degrees.

Part of me wishes I could have flown back to Washington immediately after returning to the United States from studying abroad on the island of South Caicos.  Think of the culture shock of Tacoma versus a fishing village in the Caribbean – cloudy skies, elevation changes greater than twenty feet, people (with working cars, no less), buildings taller than two stories.

When I was flying from Providenciales to South Caicos last October (a grand total of thirteen minutes and ten seconds from takeoff to touchdown), I watched the ocean vary in shades of turquoise and the spits of white sand illuminate the water from beneath.  When my flight from Providenciales was landing in Charlotte, NC in December, I (along with my study abroad classmates who were on the same flight) was glued to the window, marveling at all of the colorful electric lights marking the runways.  When I was landing at Sea/Tac last week, I watched the imperturbable snowy slopes of Mt. Rainier as the plane descended through the steely clouds.  It’s been a rather varied month and a half, location and climate-wise.

But in my first week back in Tacoma, I have realized two things: first, that the best way to reacclimatize to the Washington weather is to lose your jacket, and second, that if you struggle with seasonal affective disorder, the way to cope is to move to an off-campus house with a dimly-lit bedroom that forces you to rely almost entirely on your happy lamp.   That being said, though, I’ve always found Tacoma’s grey skies to be rather nice – like a calm grey blanket hiding the Pacific Northwest’s beauty and character from the rest of the country.  But I have to say, seeing the gleaming pink queen conch shell (Strombus gigas) on my windowsill juxtaposed against the evergreens and mist outside is still just a bit startling.

Announcing Bird Bounce iPhone Game

Over winter break, I put together a small game for the iPhone and iPad called Bird Bounce. It’s an infinite runner game of the Temple Run variety that replaces running with flight, which I’ve conveniently dubbed an ‘infinite flyer’ for lack of a better name. You fly through 3D worlds as a penguin, jumping across platforms, collecting coins, and unlocking levels. If you’d like to try it, here’s the link to Bird Bounce and a short promo video.

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I thought I might briefly describe the process of developing and releasing a small game. It was definitely different from what I expected.

Idea

The idea started when I realized everyone around me seemed to be talking about 3D games. From our school’s computer science club to an English professor who wanted to make one, 3D games were the thing. I’d always thought that 3D games were impossible to make quickly, but I’d heard recently that there were some new tools that simplified things a lot. So I realized that after years of dabbling in 3D design I should finally bite the bullet and try to learn how to develop a game. After hours spent trying to make a simple prototype, I came up with what seemed like an utter failure. I had a strange black and white bird that bounced instead of flew… infinitely.

 

I showed it to a few testers for fun and they immediately thought I’d made some sort of infinite penguin flying game. I couldn’t argue with that, so I began developing it further until I had a passable penguin and some working flight controls. Things were coming together serendipitously from the seeds of what I thought was a mockery of a mockup. Then came…

Art

It was then that it dawned on me what I had really gotten myself into. I should have seen from the start that 3D design might require some artistic ability, but it hit me a few weeks in that most of this process would require artistic skill. And if there’s one thing I can do, it isn’t visual art.

 

But I got over this hurdle somehow with the help of software that makes art possible even for those truly not inclined. My brother saved the day, too, by making my game icon and several of the scenic elements, and he is, in contrast, artistically inclined. Thanks, Steve, for saving the day!

And Music

I was finally back in my comfort zone when it came to composing the game music… music’s something I’m at least familiar with. After a few hours of culling together and orchestrating loose ends of songs I’d tinkered with and liked but never been able to package into anything, and composing a few new pieces as well, I had a basic score ready for all the game levels.

And Settling Score

Of course, when it comes down to the deadline, it’s the little things that you don’t anticipate. My goal was to finish the app by the end of winter break since I’d be on to new projects after that. Making mountains, snow, programming movement all paled in comparison to the amount of work involved in formatting the score text so that it was just close enough to the edge of the screen without being slightly out of view, or diagnosing a bizarre new bug that hadn’t existed moments before that made penguins fly backward. As the clocked ticked toward my final deadline, I eventually had to make a few compromises (that’s not a bug, it’s a feature!), but I had something that I could call final. Better than that, I had built a 3D game, and now I could respond to those wanting to build their own 3D games knowing a little bit more than I did before.

Want More?

While you’re at it, you can check out Bird Bounce and my other iPhone app, Circle Draw at my site

International Holiday

As the holidays are finishing up I feel incredibly lucky to have had such an incredible few weeks. Finishing up classes and saying goodbye to Granada just before Christmas was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do so far on this trip. I survived finals, but saying goodbye to my incredible host mom and host sister, the 40 ILACA students, my new friends in Granada, and the beautiful city of Granada was no easy task. However, I was lucky enough to be invited to spend the holidays in Almería with a friend of mine who I met in salsa classes.

Saying Goodbye to Granada...

Saying Goodbye to Granada…

When we arrived in Almería we were greater by a large and delicious lunch of “bolas”… balls, similar to meat balls but with bread and other things. I was told this was a traditional New Years Eve meal for their family, but because her parents would be working this year they were eating it early. The rest of the trip seemed to be centered around food and family, and I felt lucky to be a part of a traditional Spanish Christmas. There was a ham leg in the kitchen that we slowly worked our way through by eating a little bit every meal an snacking on it when coming home late at night. On Christmas Eve we went to a suburb of the city and had dinner with her moms side of the family. They were all welcoming and more than willing to include me in the holiday tradition as we ate plum stuffed turkey, lasagna, seafood stew, and of course bread and ham. They wrapped up dinner by singing some traditional Christmas songs and waking up the 9 month old baby to join in the fun.

Exploring the Alcazar of Almería

Exploring the Alcazar of Almería

On Christmas day we ate lunch with her dads side of the family, just as loud, fun, and inviting. If I didn’t know better I would’ve thought they were arguing at the table as they yelled at one another between bites of food, but that’s simply the Spanish way. I got to try “caracoles” which is kind of like a snails ceviche and was actually quite good, along with the ham, fish, beef, and chorizo. This meal finished off with 2 giant boxes of desserts, one was pralines, the other bonbons! I was so full I couldn’t possibly eat another bite, but found room for a few more chocolates before we headed out.

A Christmas/Birthday Potluck in Almería

A Christmas/Birthday Potluck in Almería

Along with the traditional family meals, I got to meet a number of Alba’s friends from Almería and really get to see what it’s like to hang out with Spaniards. Up until this trip in Almería I was baffled by the night life of Spain (you’re not supposed to start heading to clubs before 2 or 3 am and can often be out until 8), but I now understand slightly better how this works. You start by taking a good siesta (2 hours) in the afternoon. You wake up around 5 or 6 pm and head for coffee with friends. You then go and grab some tapas for dinner between 9 and 11, and then head to a park or a friends house to hang out, chat, or occasionally play jeopardy games. Then you have a drink and finally go dancing. You hang out at the dance club until you’re bored and then go eat breakfast and head home where you sleep until 12. While I now understand the schedule, I’m not sure I could maintain it for any large period of time, but I’m told it’s uncommon to go out all the time.

The time spent in Almería was amazing for so many reasons… I was able to experience Navidad the Spanish way (or at least part of it since it technically goes until January 6th), I was invited to stay with a friends family and shown incredible generosity and hospitality by people who I hardly know, I got to delve into the Spanish lifestyle, and I think I learned more Spanish in 9 days than throughout my entire program because I never had an off switch.

I then headed to Barcelona for New Years Eve, and stayed in St Jordi’s Mambo Tango Hostel, which had an amazing staff and was relatively close to all the action. On New Years Eve Barcelona has an event which was referred to as the “Magic Fountain.” The fountain in their main square is turned on and colorful and there is music. Even better they have human pyramids where something like 20 people bunch together on the ground then 10 people stand on them, then 7, then 5, and so on. This was topped off by a fireworks display just before 12, followed by the eating of the 12 grapes at midnight in order to have a lucky year.

Finally Reunited with Maddie!

Finally Reunited with Maddie!

Finally on New Years day I headed to Prague and was reunited with one of my best friends. She is now on her way to Spain for the same program I just completed, but first we needed to meet up in an international location :) Her family hosts professional paddlers from the Czech Republic every year and they showed us around the city and took us to Plzen, the original home of Pilsner beer. We toured the factory while there, saw the cathedral, and were treated to a delicious home cooked meal of traditional Czech food (potato dumplings, meat, and sauerkraut). We were invited to stay with the family of one of the boys who visits every year. His mother was an incredible cook and baker and gave us each 2 jars of homemade jam to take with us. The table had a cookie tray in the middle with about 10 different kinds of intricate cookies, all of which his mother had made for the holidays. This trip has also been characterized by a lot of eating… I’ve been full since I got to the Czech Republic and I’m pretty sure I’ll stay that way until I leave.

Making Potato Dumplings in Plzen

Making Potato Dumplings in Plzen

So I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to share my holiday season with incredibly generous and kind people from 3 different countries (my friend from the US counts too :))!