Sassafrass: choral folks songs about space and Icelandic mythos

Sassafrass is a choral folk group who perform heartstoppingly beautiful songs. The songs are composed by Ada Palmer, who also happens to be a talented fiction writer (with several novels forthcoming from Tor Books) and an outstanding academic historian, so the songs (and their accompanying notes) are not only brilliantly written, they are also historically accurate, informative, even educational.

Above, I have embedded their song Somebody Will, which is the most moving piece of art about science (specifically, space exploration) I've ever heard. I am literally incapable of hearing this without misting up -- even thinking about it brings a tear of mingled joy and sorrow to my eye (you can buy it for a mere $1). But there's much, much more.

But the main event with Sassafrass is Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok, a Norse-mythos-themed album that is still forthcoming. Many of the tracks have been laid down and are available on Sassafrass's site, though, including two standouts that I've embedded below, with some of the composer's notes.

The first is Ice and Fire, which is a choral piece for two voices. The Seeress of the Voluspa, a giantess, recounts the entire creation story of the universe. Her interlocutor (and comic relief) is a know-it-all called Snorri Sturlson, a real scholar who lived in the 12th and 13th century, and was famed for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Viking myths. The interplay between these two characters is gorgeous, funny, and daring -- and tells you everything you really need to know about Icelandic creation story.

The Seeress of the Voluspa says she remembers the beginning of the world, and can prophecy its end. It is therefore assumed she is likely a giantess, an interpretation reinforced by the fact that she refers to the Aesir in the third person. Her identity is otherwise unclear, but one possible clue is provided in a completely different section of the Edda, “Baldur’s Dream.” This scene (included in the song Sundown) shows Odin’s visit to the grave of a dead Seeress, possibly the same one. Using his ability to breathe life into objects, he revives her in order to question her about the prophecies of Baldur’s coming death. Odin approaches using the alias “Vegtam” and asks her many questions, which she answers. He then asks her a strange question, which still baffles mythographers, roughly translated as, “Who are those three weeping women who throw up the corners of their headdresses into the air?” Hearing him ask this she (somehow) suddenly realizes he is Odin, becomes enraged, and harshly repeats her prophecies of Ragnarok, saying that Loki will escape his bonds and bring about the doom of the gods. Odin accuses her as well, saying, “You’re not the seeress, you’re the mother of three [ogres/monsters].” The story cuts off at this point, but the identification of the prophetess as the mother of three monstrous young can be read as suggesting that she is Angerboda, Loki’s mate, mother of Fenris, Jormungangir, and Hella. I use this reading in my presentation of the Seeress here.

The second narrator, Snorri Sturlson (1179-1241), is one of the most outstanding figures in medieval Icelandic history. The wife of a rival in a lawsuit had attacked Snorri’s father with a knife, declaring “I’ll make you one-eyed like your hero Odin!” and after the attack, in order to prevent a deadly blood-feud between the families, Jón Loftsson, a member of the royal house of Norway, volunteered to make reparations. Instead of money, he volunteered to adopt and raise the victim’s third son, so young Snorri was raised among nobility, and received the very best education. He soon gained a reputation as one of the most learned poets and scholars in the north, and was twice elected Lawspeaker of the Allthing (the only real elected office in Medieval Iceland). He was famed for his encyclopedic knowledge of Viking culture and mythology, and, like any good skald, knew many verses and lists by heart. Later in his life Snorri fell into complicated politics between Iceland and the royals of Norway, who were attempting to assert authority over Iceland. After many daring but unsuccessful political adventures, Snorri took to co-habitating with Hallveig, the wealthiest widow in Iceland. When she died, her sons by her former husband struggled with Snorri over the inheritance. The squabble, fired by political tensions, led to a plot, and Snorri was ultimately assassinated in a night raid. He left behind many histories and poems, a vastly transformed political world, and the Prose Edda, which, though less important at the time of its drafting, is critically important now as one of very few Norse mythological texts to survive.

The next track is My Brother, My Enemy, an angry duet between Odin and Loki. It's ferocious, moving, and intense. It also sheds light on Loki's own motives, making him more sympathetic than he is in most accounts.

This fierce and angry duet for the Norse gods Odin and Loki is one of the centerpieces of our Sundown Norse myth album project. In Norse mythology, the end of the world, Ragnarok, comes about as a form of cosmic retribution when the gods break their oaths too many times. Ragnarok is ultimately brought about by the enmity between Odin Allfather, Lord of Asgard and god of wisdom, war and witchcraft, and his blood-brother Loki. The song expands upon the myth, exploring the details of how these two central figures, once the best of friends and later the bitterest of enemies, feel about each other and the conflict which has doomed all Creation.

Loki comes from the race of Jotuns or ice giants, the traditional enemy of the gods, but while Jotuns are normally brutish and ugly, Loki is handsome and winning, with a brilliant mind and the ability to take any shape he chooses. Odin was impressed by Loki and invited him to Asgard to become his blood brother, and the two swore never to harm the other, allow the other to be harmed, or accept food or drink which was not also offered to the other. They were unable to keep this oath, because Loki was a wild and untameable trickster, and the rift between gods and giants was too deep.

You can pre-order Sundown here -- in formats ranging from CD to DVD to score to libretto. I got to hear Ada and Lauren perform many of these songs at an intimate room party in at FenCon in Dallas last September, and the experience was incredibly. The group performs at many science fiction conventions, and if you ever get the chance to hear them, you really, really shouldn't miss it.

Sassafrass Music

Start the discussion at bbs.boingboing.net