In February of 2014, fan, artist, and musical raconteur Jeremiah Sun took on the project of digitally orchestrating the entire score to The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. He has been releasing tracks over the past eleven months and already has completed and released an impressive 52. Each of them demonstrates his vision (well, his “hearing”) of what the original Gameboy release’s sound capabilities might have been. Using computer software, he orchestrated each original track and even added original, secondary melodies in some areas to realize the potential of the themes. In this sense, his arrangements border on re-compositions. Nevertheless, since the creators of The Legend of Zelda series have taken to remaking so many prized games, they might want to listen to these tracks.

Sun was quite productive in December with no fewer than five tracks added to the ongoing album project. The two latest ones, “Cucco House” (23 December 2014) and “Eagle’s Tower” (25 December 2014) illustrate his imagination and use of instrumental colors extremely well because they could not be more different. Harkening back to the original handheld Gameboy, the sound capabilities were quite restricted, understandably so. When I was a kid and played Gameboy, I remember likening the musical timbres to the “bell” setting on my Casio keyboard when I first started taking piano lessons. Despite a limited timbral palette, there were some pieces on video games that always managed to provide effective moods.

One case was “Cucco’s House,” which, with its bouncy triple-meter, is always optimistic and fun. As Sun writes in his Youtube notes, he

treated this track as a complement to the Mr Write as well [as] Peaceful Villagers themes. When you enter these houses, you feel only peace and innocence. The Cucco tender is at first sad that the chickens have no energy, but becomes ecstatic when he gets the flying rooster. [He] used the shaker and pulli stick instruments to convey the feeling of wings flapping and feathers flying everywhere.

Listening to Sun’s orchestration, the combination of rhythm, instrumentation (color), and tonality—it is pervasively “major-key sounding” with his adding of implied harmonies—make for a cheerful listening experience.

The same can’t be said about the “Eagle’s Tower,” and it complements “Cucco’s House” in such a way that both demonstrate how Sun constructs a soundscape so effectively with his choice of instrumental colors. What makes “Eagle’s Tower” so effective was the use of pitch. For those of you familiar at all with music theory, the opening notes outline an unnerving interplay between half steps. The result is that the listener doesn’t know how, when, or even if the music would resolve. In other words, there were no resting points in terms of how we normally expect music to resolve, and that’s what makes pieces like “Eagle’s Tower” so unsettling. Now listen to Sun’s take . . .

Sun demonstrated sensitivity to the context in which players typically hear this theme; details like added reverberation and sudden crescendi and diminuendi in the dynamics all contribute to the sense of exactly what kind of environment Link is in. In his Youtube video notes, Sun writes that he

used a similar set of instrumentation as Kanalet Castle because just like the castle, the Eagle’s Tower is one of the few dungeons that exists above ground. [He imagines] the interior of the tower has high ceilings and long corridors, which is why [he] increased the reverb a whole lot. [He] also used a lot of wind sound to really sell the echo-y elevated atmosphere. This dungeon is [his] favorite in the game, with the fantastic multi-tiered, dynamically changing level design. The penultimate locations seem to always be better than the final ones. [He] added a soaring romantic melody in the middle just to provide an extreme contrast to the creepy tone of the rest of the song. When the harmonies don’t resolve at the end, it makes the listener feel even more unease.

Although there is no specific term in music terminology to capture precisely what Sun is doing here, it’s a mixture between “Text painting” and adopting the notion that developed in the middle of the 19th century, “program music.” There’s no text in the piece per se, but there certainly is a program (or a plot) that the music follows. In addition, it wasn’t until around the time of World War I and well into the 1950s that “adding” to an original composition became a faux pas in the music-making world. For most of music history—Western art music, at least—the notion of using a pre-existing musical composition as a blue print for improvisation, recomposition, arrangements, and the like was a form of flattery and homage. And from what I’m hearing, Jeremiah Sun is as flattering as they come. What do you think?


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