Mass Effect’s Vigil Theme and the fight to remember

I remember not being very taken by Mass Effect's main theme, the first time I heard it. Next to what I'd read about the game, a tale of alien liaisons and sizzling gun battles amid the stars, the title music seemed dreary, the wrong kind of spaced-out. A decade later, I listen to it while crossing a certain footbridge in London, on my way to the abandoned mall food court where I'm writing this. Somebody has scrawled "change" plus a few choice sentiments about austerity policies on the wall at one end. The council has repainted that bridge a few times in the years I've lived nearby - right now it's an incongruous medley of green and purple, like a coral reef hammered flat - and every time, that unknown soul has returned to scribble the message anew. A gesture of defiance, or ironic futility? I couldn't tell you, but as the languid drone of Vigil's Theme fills my skull, I read the words again, ponder their relevance to Mass Effect's storyline and find myself ludicrously close to tears.

Every great musical composition is a survivor, struggling against the tides of history. Before written language became ubiquitous, oral artforms such as ballads, folk songs and sung epics were important ways of passing on knowledge from generation to generation - arguably, modern music continues to serve this function alongside other kinds of media, preserving scenes and sensations if not the detail of chronologies. Lyrical structures like rhyme and alliteration have their roots in a wish to codify laws, divine precepts or the genealogies of families in a digestible, memorable form.

As vehicles for knowledge, oral traditions have major downsides. The untimely death of a bard may wipe away decades of learning, and compositions mutate as they are sung or recited, misheard and adapted, losing and acquiring associations in hindsight. A famous example is the English folksong "Ring o Rosie", often taken to be a gruesome taxonomy of Black Plague symptoms, which may actually refer to a game played by 18th century children to sidestep a prohibition on dancing. But these artforms are also enduring in a way other types of preservation are not. The elusive nature of musical memory, stored in several parts of the brain as muscular performance, sensory stimulus, spoken word and malleable abstraction, allows it to weather upheavals both within the life of the individual listener and the life of a community.

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