Different Kinds of Play

Two different events this past weekend caused a similar reaction in me, for similar reasons, but the situations themselves were quite different. What happened?

This past Sunday, my good friend Per who works as an organist in Härnösand Cathedral performed two great 20th century organ works: L’Ascension by Olivier Messiaen and Prélude, Adagio et Choral varié sur le theme du Veni Creator by Maurice Duruflé. He called on me on short notice to assist him as a page-turner and to switch between organ registrations. Additionally, I ended up reciting the Bible quotes Messiaen’s work is based on.

As I was standing next to Per, following along in the score, I felt my heart racing. My role was not insignificant, of course, but still small compared to Per’s. Most of the music was quite easy to follow along with, but I still felt quite nervous standing there, as a wrong move or a lack of focus on my end would inadvertently sabotage Per’s performance. I felt the weight of my duty as his assistant.

After the concert I checked my smart watch and noticed to my great amusement that it had produced a health alert patiently waiting for me! It had noticed, apparently, that my pulse was unusually high at the same time as I was standing still, and wanted to make me aware of this fact in case I needed medical assistance. It had noticed the elevated heart rate starting at 6:03pm – right when the concert started.

For my second heart-pounding experience, we turn to something else entirely – a different kind of play, if you would – namely the world of video games. For the past couple of weeks, I have been playing hours upon hours of Dark Souls III: a very difficult but very rewarding and engrossing dark fantasy game taking place in a decimated but still eerily beautiful world.

I faced two of the game’s larger battles recently, where one in particular gave me a real headache. I was stuck on it for a couple of days, trying to defeat this particular creature probably around 40 times before ultimately succeeding. The battle against the so-called King of the Storm – a massive dragon-thunderbird-creature – and its undead rider, the Nameless King, is nothing if not epic. It takes place high up in the mountains, in a half-destroyed temple to dragonkin, caught up in a massive tempest.

The Nameless King, wielding his lightning spear, atop the thunderbird-like four-winged beast, the King of the Storm.

First, the player has to defeat the dragon-bird in order to face the Nameless King – who is the real enemy. The King of the Storm breathes fire (oddly enough) and its rider can sweep down on the player, swinging and stabbing with its spear, or throw lighting bolts at the player from above. This is the easy part of the fight.

When the King of the Storm is beaten, the Nameless King goes on an unrelenting attack on the player, cutting and stabbing and showering them with thunder, dashing to and fro and furiously bearing down on the player. Two or three strikes, at most, from the Nameless King is enough to defeat the player, while the player has to deal an inordinate amount of damage to the Nameless King to emerge victorious.

The fight is designed to stress the player out, to trick the player into making mistakes, to wear down the player’s focus. Absolutely essential to winning the fight against the Nameless King is to know how to dodge his attacks. You need to get into a rhythm, a flow, a certain tempo. Essentially, you need to learn how to dance – to the death – with the Nameless King, finding and exploiting brief moments of calm between his barrages to either heal yourself or to get a quick strike in.

I managed to figure out how to defeat the King of the Storm after only four or five tries, but the Nameless King usually bested me in mere seconds after that. But occasionally I caught on to his tempo, the cadence of his attacks. It was almost a physical sensation when I lost that connection, when I lost the flow. A few times I managed to maintain my focus for a long time, but as soon as I got distracted I was immediately caught off-beat (pun sort of intended) and got defeated instantly.

That final attempt, when I managed to defeat the Nameless King, I stayed entirely calm throughout the fight, not looking at how far I had left or paying any attention to anything other than his movements, his rhythm. I stayed focused on our violent, terrific, exhilarating dance. Until he fell over, dissolving into the æther.

And then my heart started pounding like crazy.

My sudden tachycardia was kind of like a delayed version of what I experienced during Per’s concert. The fight involved such split-second decision making and mental focus that I had to suppress my nervousness in order to prevail. Turning pages and switching between registrations was a much more sedate affair, but the stakes were much higher! Failing at Dark Souls III means nothing at all, really, while messing up a page turn or a registration change might hurt Per’s performance.

Later this week is another event that might make my heart race from nervousness (but hopefully not). I will conduct the Härnösand Cathedral Choir at Pentecost mass this Sunday. Before that, though, I am going to Stockholm to record a concert at Berwaldhallen featuring violinists Janine Jansen and Malin Broman, and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Headlining the programme is Jansen playing not one but two of Mozart’s violin concertos, but while they are certainly fun pieces – and Jansen is a great violinist – I look forward even more to hearing Maurice Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin and Gabriel Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Also, I will get to see my fiancée again as well as this lovely little girl:

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Composer, arranger and songwriter for performance, recording, broadcast and interactive media.