Narrative to My Ears – Analyzing the Use of Musical Narrative in Clone

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image source: http://projectclone.com/hall.html

When asked about their favourite work of fantasy or science fiction, very few people respond with a piece of music.

Most people suggest books, like the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or a movie or TV show, like Star Wars, Star Trek, or countless other star-somethings. I have yet to meet anyone who has named a song or a band. Until recently, if you had asked me, I wouldn’t have done so either.

Ben Cooper, the man behind the musical act Radical Face, is the reason for this change in perspective. For years now, he’s been a relative unknown in the expansive indie folk industry, but in 2014, with the help Richard Colorado and Bear Machine Records, he released Clone, one of his most ambitious projects.

With Clone, Cooper created an audio-visual experience as compelling and narrative as a film or novel, but focusing on the music.

Next time you’re watching a movie, try plugging your ears. Like my mom taught me when I got scared watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Lupin as a werewolf is terrifying), most of the scary stuff is tied up in the sound. It is the same with the happy stuff. And the sad stuff. And pretty much all the other stuff that makes you feel something. Like plugging your nose when you eat, plugging your ears when you watch a film mutes the flavour and dulls the experience.

On the other hand, musical artists through the years have done their best to become lyrical storytellers, bringing realms of science fiction and fantasy onto our vinyl, CDs, and iPods. Yet, aside from the most popular artists (I’m looking at you, Mr. David Bowie), the speculative rarely makes its way into mainstream music, at least not into the more common mediums, such as film and print. People love David Bowie for his music and the characters he portrayed, not the characters in his music.

Conversely, Cooper focuses on the story and his protagonist, “Subject 006,” and tells a vibrant science fiction tale about a clone who escapes captivity and gains his freedom, experiencing all the world has to offer along the way.

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image source: http://projectclone.com/city_nighttime1.html

At this point, you’re probably reading this asking, “What’s new here? I’ve seen a musical. I’ve listened to a concept album.” Oh, this is much more than a concept album.

Cooper is not one to shy away from concept albums; indeed, he often prefers them. However, what we see in Clone is a more multi-faceted, nuanced attempt to tell a single narrative, focused on one character through a traditional beginning-middle-end plot structure. Cooper employs multiple media, specifically visual art, video, and prose, alongside the music, creating a fully formed web of narrative.

Having listened to the project more than once now, I am finding it easier to follow the narrative by only listening to the music. At the beginning, I held fast onto the descriptions of the action, and though they are purposeful and do contribute to the experience, they shouldn’t be used as a crutch.

The reason Clone is so hard to follow in terms of its narrative is that it is primarily instrumental, and where lyrics are used, they are sporadic and represent the thoughts of the protagonist, so they can only really be used as mile markers along his journey. The story is told through this character’s feelings as he interacts with his environment, feelings that are presented through the music.

I should mention now that I hate instrumental music.

I’m a big fan of stories, so when a musician bypasses the lyrical method and doesn’t use words, which are generally a fundamental building-block for stories, I get a little put out. It’s for this reason that I also don’t generally stand and look at a painting for ten minutes, or however long a concerto is supposed to last. Most instrumentals that I have heard have attempted to ‘paint a picture’ of a person, place, event, or feeling, and I, a sucker for narrative and character development, don’t tend to spend much time on these things that seem static in nature. However, by marrying instrumental music with the concept of narrative, Clone has encouraged me to take another look at this ‘static’ art form.

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image source: http://projectclone.com/city_nighttime2.html

What Clone presents is a series of dynamic paintings, moving pictures, which could hypothetically be dissected into images of individual feelings, but when experienced in sequence, along with the accompanying media, create a story. After all, what is a story but actions and reactions to feelings? We often say the best stories are the ones that make you feel, and Clone simply removes the middle-man and plops the feelings right at your feet (or into your ear-holes, I guess).

Unfortunately, this method of musical narrative is not particularly common on its own. Upon discovering this, my first thought was “Why am I just now discovering this? Is there anything else like this out there, or is this the only one?” The answer is yes, to both.

Firstly, Clone has not been my first introduction to musical narrative, or at least attempted musical narrative, nor will it be yours, if you’ve liked anything I’ve said and choose to check this out. In fact, every time you watch a movie or TV show, the score contributes to the narrative. Far be it for me to call them music, but even laugh tracks play on the same idea of auditory cues in narrative.

At the same time, we rarely see musical narrative uncoupled from its visual narrative, which I would wager is because of its vast popularity as film score. It has found its niche so to speak—and it does a dang fine job where it is.

However, if we don’t push outside the limits and comfort zones that are established in these niches, then who knows what possibilities are going unexplored? It is only through the marriage of narrative with music, and the separation of music from its reliance on visual cues, that makes Clone so successful. It is both narrative and music, without sacrificing either, but it took a leap to get there. I guess Cooper’s Radical Face persona lives up to its name.

This isn’t to say that what Clone has done is the be-all and end-all, or even that it’s objectively good; some people might reject it as vehemently as I initially rejected instrumental music. However, the sort of work done in Clone is the sort of leaps we need if we want to keep the genres of speculative fiction fresh and thought-provoking. There are a lot of stories out there, and we’ve been looking for them for a long time. Maybe it’s time to listen.

people in Sopelana beach with haze
image source: http://projectclone.com/hall.html

The music, video, visual art, and prose of Clone can be found at projectclone.com (it’s separated into 6 acts, so start with Act 1: The Laboratory). Also, all the music and videos are available on YouTube, and it is encouraged that you find a playlist there and consult the prose (Act Info) on the website as necessary.

Contributed by Stephan Goslinski

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Borrowing Lives: Clone Organ Donors in Never Let Me Go

 Note: This review contains spoilers. 

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go takes place in a parallel universe after the Second World War, where human cloning is predominant in medical science. Written in the first person perspective, the novel is woven from the memories of the protagonist, Kathy H., and touches upon the lives of many others, particularly those of her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy. A good portion of the book gives us insight into Kathy’s life at a special boarding school called Hailsham, and the constantly evolving romantic-triangle-esque relationship between the three friends. As its speculative undertones become more apparent, the novel makes us question what it is to be human in a scientifically advanced world.

I cannot imagine the novel being written in any perspective other than Kathy’s, especially because her tone of voice suits the novel so perfectly. The first section of the novel, “Childhood,” contrasts drastically with the second and third sections, “The Cottages” and “Donor,” respectively. As a child, Kathy is free-spirited, passionate, and stands up for what she believes in. However, as she ages, this gradually fades and is replaced with a cool and collected perspective that seems to be almost emotionless. The fade of passion marks her lost innocence, which makes sense because as she matures, she comes to understand and accept what it means for her purpose in life to be an organ donor to ‘real’ people.

At the end of the novel Kathy placidly describes her best friends going to “completion”—which is to say, dying—is frightening and creates an emotional divide between her and the readers. Her resignation to her fate makes it hard for us to empathize with her, and this is probably the best comparison to the stigma against human clones Ishiguro provides for us. We view things that appear to be emotionless or too different from us as ‘soulless,’ and put up a barrier that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’. Thus when some people reason that clones must not have souls, they believe that it is morally acceptable to use clones as needed, similar to how they treat animals.

The science fiction aspect of the novel is underplayed. Whether this is because Ishiguro wanted to make it more accessible to increase readership is debatable. But the novel definitely could have explained more about the whole process of cloning and organ distribution, as many of the logistical details were left out. One of my questions was how did they keep track of all of the clones? Was there some sort of intricate system of tracking devices? And even if there was, why did no one ever try to escape it? I understand that Ishiguro wanted to emphasize the hopelessness of existence in the novel, but by creating a world where the clones do not even consider the idea of escaping the system, Ishiguro is just reinforcing the idea that they are clones, and just clones.

During their adolescence , Kathy and Tommy did have several discussions concerning the hushed system of Hailsham, but their questioning  natures diminish as they reach adulthood. This is probably because they realize that they have no other option—but in the readers’ perspective, they were the best candidates to oppose the inhumane system of their world. The fact that they did not oppose, and furthermore, could not survive the system, completely extinguishes whatever hopes the readers held on to.

It is true that all of them were led  into believing that their purpose in life was to donate their organs and care for other clones. However, isn’t  innovative thinking one of the greatest assets of the human mind? I feel like there were many loopholes in the system that the characters could have taken advantage of (for example, who, if anyone, would punish them for trying to escape, and how would they be punished?). Their failure to actually rebel is such a shame.

 The scientific backdrop of the novel is interesting and enticing for science fiction lovers, but by the end of the novel it becomes apparent that Ishiguro mainly incorporates this setting in order to emphasize the hopeless tone of the novel. The fact that the main characters are clones and are forced to donate their organs until they “completed”  leaves them wondering how long they can live their lives as ordinary people. Ishiguro masters the structure of the novel by juxtaposing this lengthened time of bliss to the short period of time they are monitored and live as “carers” and “donors.”  The abrupt ending to each carefully-described life highlights the cruelty of the world in Never let Me Go.

I usually expect speculative pieces to immerse me in a new, fantastical world, yet I actually found this novel too normal. Ishiguro’s writing style is very simple, and no sentence was particularly profound or grabbed my attention for a re-read. However, Ishiguro resolved the novel with a sense of closure, and the ending scene was an excellent moment in the novel. Overall, the character development and the storytelling were incredible. Ishiguro has a way of weaving words and storylines in the most careful and intricate way so that the reader is gently pulled along until the end (just like the clones).

 -contributed by Ariana Youm

 

 

 

Many Sides of the Same Genes: Examining Diversity in BBC’s Orphan Black

This review contains spoilers up to late season two .

Needless to say, when I began watching a show whose core premise was “clones, clones everywhere,” I was not expecting much diversity. I have never been so happy to be wrong.

Though it began as a fringe show, Orphan Black has recently gained immense popularity, reaching audiences beyond those that frequent the Space channel. The show itself is a science fiction series that revolves around the scientific, moral, and ethical dilemmas that fall within the practice of cloning (and subsequently monitoring) people as “human property.” It is an in-depth take on the human side of the science: the way each clone uniquely fits into the situation and the ramifications being a clone has on both their identity and their personal lives.

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The main cast of the Clone Club (from left to right: Rachel, Allison, Sarah, Cosima, and Helena)

 

What has made Orphan Black stand out recently is its startling take on a prime-time television show. As of late season two, there are officially thirteen known clones inhabiting a range of heterosexual , homosexual, cisgender , transgender, and undisclosed identities. Although they share  the same genetics, each clone is extremely nuanced in their personality and approach to their environments.  With the combined efforts of a strong script and talented acting—Tatiana Maslany recently won the Critics’ Choice Television Award on June 19 for her outstanding performance as the clones—it is impossible to see the nine clones with speaking roles as the same person. Their biology does not define them, and, as one of the characters so aptly states in regard to her sexuality, “[it] is not the most interesting thing about [her ].” They are experiments, and though they do not fit the norm in any way , they are still—first and foremost—human.

The diverse representation on Orphan Black is important in two capacities: firstly, that there even is any; and secondly, that it is done well. Tony, the show’s first trans* character and clone, is not treated poorly by the other characters on account of his gender. There is some confusion about his identity, but it is directed solely at the fact that, up until this point, all the other clones have been cis female. Sarah (another clone, and the show’s protagonist) and Felix (her foster brother) are shocked because Tony is another stark example of how the clones vary—Tony, meanwhile, is just shocked to be a clone.

 

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Tony has only appeared in one episode thus far—though he will be a recurring character in the future.

 

Moreover, the only character that struggles with remembering to use Tony’s proper pronouns is corrected. The show makes a conscious effort to amend slight slip-ups, and in doing so, purposely draws attention to the mistakes even well-intentioned people can make.

In a recent interview  for The Huffington Post, the real  Cosima (Cosima Herter, the show’s science consultant on whom the character with the same name is loosely based) describes Tony’s inclusion in following way: “[the writers] didn’t introduce Tony for simple representation. All the characters you see….are there to show the diversity of the real world. These are our friends, our family, our intimate relationships. They’re just people!”

The diversity of sexualities and genders on Orphan Black has been successful because the characters are so much more than just screen time for neglected identities.  They are fully fleshed-out characters with their own inner lives who also happen to represent minorities. This is the difference between forced representation and good representation.

Orphan Black finished its second season on June 21st, tying it up perfectly for new viewers to marathon it in the future. I’ll be waiting for season three with bated breath!

 -Gwen Wolinsk