The clock had barely been past midnight of August 6th 2023, and coinciding with my nameday (a weird type of event where us Greeks celebrate the origin of our given name), The Legend of Sisyphus, the latest ASD demos that Navis and I created was being shown on the big screen of, and winning 1st place in the Assembly Summer 2023 demoparty, followed by an overwhelming torrent of comments in praise and excitement. It was the perfect gift for my nameday, a gift that had a fairly large amount of work and serendipity behind it.
If you haven't seen it already, check it out on YouTube:
Or if you have a decent nVidia GPU (3060 with 8 Gigs or better) then feel free to run it on your machine which is definitely a much better viewing experience. Read the comments and download it on Pouet
But let's rewind the clock by about 8 months. It was a day past the turn of the year when Navis sent me a few videos of new effects he had been working on, crudely captured on his phone while fiddling with them on his computer screen. It was his way of signaling that we're making a new demo.
In the beginning
In the days that followed, Navis kept bombarding me with small video snippets, the one more amazing than the previous one. Around the end of January the visual part of the demo was pretty much ready with a runtime of 6:20. I didn't however get to see it up until February where he briefly visited Athens and we met for Gyros and of course up close and personal discussions about the demo.
In the next couple of months, I'd be getting frequent revisions of the demo, with new ideas and new effects and scenes, and the demo kept growing in duration. All of the videos had one thing in common. As Navis likes to listen to music while writing effects to get inspired by, there was always an ambient/glitchy track playing in the background, the kind of which ps usually composes. Now that I think of it, it might have actually been one of ps's tracks too.
At that point Navis stressed that he wanted the emphasis to be on the visuals and the music having a rather silent supporting role and of ambient character. I kept thinking about it over and over, but the visuals had motion and life that would be totally disconnected with an ambient track. So I put my devilish plan into motion.
I spent the better part of April going back and forth with Navis nitpicking the visuals and giving input on things that didn't sit well with me or that could benefit from improvements and small details. This process went surprisingly well, as we were in accord with Navis for the most part about the details. And then, in the first days of May I started composing the track.
Let's get our hands dirty
There's always a certain feel of dread when I open up Reason for a new song with no clear direction or ideas of what to compose. First steps were to decide on the key and BPM of the track. I opted for 120 BPM which would make Navis' life much easier to sync his effects to my music (and from what I saw, most effects were already timed at 120 BPM) and the key of E to make it easier for Leviathan, should he decide to add guitars to the track. Then, I usually slap a Europa synth and start fiddling with sounds on my Midi controller until I get to something that I like and go from there.
But this time I took inspiration from the demo's opening scene. The bell tower from Lifeforce and a man walking in water from For your Love. So the track started just with sound effects. The sea and the bell.
From then on, I started adding ambient sounds and basses for bombast, and experimented with a Balkan style clarinet that at the time felt fitting to the font used for the demo title.
Alright! We've got the ambient part that Navis wanted covered. It's time we kicked this up a notch. The Europa synths started piling up in the Reason rack pretty fast, as I started building up to the main beat.
Everything was played live on my new Arturia Keylab 88+ which in terms of composition is a new approach for me, since for the most part in my previous compositions, I've only played live the piano segments and everything else was traditional mouse and keyboard. This time around, with the exception of the beat, all sounds have been played live and then quantized or minimally fiddled with the mouse in Reason.
I composed the initial Merope dance scene up until Sisyphus appears for the first time, and sent it to Navis. Despite the fact that the style of the soundtrack veered quite off from what Navis had in mind, he really liked the result, so that was the green light to go ahead in this direction. The takeaway I had from the first day of composing was that just like Lifeforce I wanted to incorporate the bell sound into the song, not just as an effect but as an integral part of the soundtrack's sound, only this time I wanted it to be more pronounced. The first bell that sounds outside the intro is the moment Merope looks up. It created a powerful image in my mind so I asked Navis to zoom into Merope's face as she looks up to coincide with the bell sound. The end result gave me shivers. We're on a good track!
I went to bed at stupid o' clock in the morning that day (probably around 6am as I like to compose during the night where everything is quiet) with what I had so far on repeat in my earbuds until I fell asleep. This process has repeated numerous times after that, which helped me spot details and come up with ideas. I haven't kept count of how many times I've listened to the track in all of its stages to date, before I went to bed, during sleep, in my car, in my home stereo, on my phone while walking.. but I trust it's over 1000 times.
The first Hiatus
It felt just as if I had just woken up from the previous night of composing, but in fact an entire month had just passed mostly being inactive (blame it on Easter vacations). At that point in early to mid May I felt that the clarinet was pretty jarring in my ears with a realization of.. "Dude.. what are you doing? There is a clear Lifeforce visual reference. It needs a musical Lifeforce reference as well", and as such, I decided to use an excerpt of the Lifeforce piano piece, a piece that is potentially the best thing I've ever written for piano, as a building block and repeating theme throughout the track. At the time, I had no idea how I would incorporate it other than the intro, but it became part of the plan.
The next night the itch grew.. but so did the challenge.. because in the Sisyphus parts he's shown to be clearly.. singing!
It would be super awkward to see a guy dancing and singing on the screen, but no voice being heard on the soundtrack. As such it was clear that the track would end up having vocals, a fact that made me hugely uneasy for one reason too many.
First and foremost, vocals in a demo are a tricky hit or miss endeavor, and in my past experience mostly a miss one. They have to be very good and fitting in order to avoid getting scrutinized on pouet, and since I don't have access to really good male singers with a good English accent, I'd have to take upon the role of the singer. I've got a really good English accent, but I'm no singer by any stretch.
Then, I also have to write the lyrics, which at the same time need to be timed to coincide with the visuals on a preset BPM, vaguely lip sync with whatever the Sisyphus actor is singing or saying, make sense and not be crass and also fit with the whole story of Sisyphus in some sort of way.
I started with reading into the story of Sisyphus as was the original myth. The main actors are Hades who punishes Sisyphus to endlessly push a boulder upon a hill, only for it to roll back to the bottom and have the process repeat. At the same time, I picked on Camus interpretation of the myth as a metaphor for the individual's persistent struggle against the essential absurdity of life. Finally I added the perspective of Navis in the mix, who also talked about the duality of the character shown on screen, essentially giving the notion that both characters in the demo are essentially the same person, or at least different perspectives of the same person.
And this whole melange, gave me the idea to use the story of Sisyphus as a metaphor for gender identity and sexual preference, in a constant plight against bigotry, religious animosity and systemic oppression. The roles were instantly defined. Hades would be the punishing system (who as a system but also as a God is never shown, but is only heard), and Sisyphus and Merope, the two main characters on screen who are both expressed as different entities but also the same person at different phases of its life.
The first time we see Sisyphus on screen, he's just walking on a level ground. There's no mountain nor boulder appearing, but under my interpretation both of those are metaphors in Sisyphus' journey. It was the perfect time for Hades to introduce the "beginning" of the story to the audience. As a God/System, Hades should sound harsh, and scary, and my naturally low and somewhat robotic voice since Dreamchild has been perfect for this.
The Hades "rap" part of the lyrics was written and sung pretty much effortlessly. The rhythm was there to guide the flow too.
Rolled back to the bottom
The stone is standing still
My previous iteration
Is standing there uphill
Gee that was easy. It's spot on to the original Sisyphus myth, no lip sync needed, we're golden. Now for the tricky Sisyphus part.
The first step was to find the rhythm of the vocals, by humming "na, na, na" over the visuals. After lots of na, na, na's and random words (good thing nobody was watching, less they'd be calling the guys in white for me), I ended up with the basic structure of na's interspersed with ey's and words.
The music for the verse followed immediately after. It came surprisingly easy, while fiddling with sounds on the Midi controller. And just as I was overtaken by despair about how a monumental task would be to write the lyrics for the verse.. they started flowing with unprecedented ease. It was rather serendipitous, as I started with:
I've made no sense
Oh I don't know
which fitted perfectly both with Sisyphus lips and hand movement and then the rest of the lyrics came almost automatically
Was lost the day I looked inside me
Sisyphus is troubled with his thoughts from the moment he started exploring his sexuality
From boys to girls
and back again
He's unclear as to what his sexual preference is
It's so immense
The way I doubt if you can see me
…and expressing his disappointment towards CIS and queer people alike regarding how they view him.
Was I this way
Or I was made
A role to play
In every chapter of my journey
Now he's pondering about his gender identity in respect to his sexual preference, two distinct characteristics that are often mistaken as closely related, even by the people who explore those for themselves, as well as if he's been typecast into specific roles and norms by society instead of being the way he is from the get go. I left any gender definition regarding Sisyphus out on purpose, so that it can freely resonate with all types of audience. I don't have any gender identification for Sisyphus in my mind to this day. He might be male, female or non-binary for that matter.
Note: I use the "he" pronoun when I'm referring to Sisyphus as a parallel with the character of the myth and ease in writing. It's not an assumption on Sisyphus' gender in the demo.
From up to down
A dark remark on Sisyphus journey and the toll this has taken to his psyche to the point that he's dealt with depression.
A thorny crown
My prize for looking past the red line
A final remark against the ridicule and hardships he has faced for daring to act outside of what society considers the norm, with a little jab on the religious side, which is often rather vocal and polemic to non CIS-straight people.
Alrighty! The lyrics are done. Time to sing them... in a non-airconditioned, non-ventilated room, with the CPU fan going berserk on a rather hot May night in Greece at stupid o' clock. I only did a couple of takes as I didn't want to bother the neighbors more than I had to.
I have a pretty "okayish" voice when singing at higher notes, but it was clear that my vocals needed fixing. Fortunately Reason has the tools for that out of the box, so I corrected timing, pitch and drift issues, until the vocals were perfect. Well.. sort of perfect, because as I listened back to them, not only did I not really like the sound of my voice, but there was also the omnipresent CPU fan humming in the background. Just a reverb wouldn't cut it, so I started experimenting with effects, upon effects, upon effects.. until I ended up with this chain of devices.. just for my voice
I also fiddled a lot with panning, EQ and volumes to reach a result which I felt comfortable with. In retrospect, the vocals could benefit from a bit of sibilance removal and leveling, which I might do at some point in the future (Maybe in a final version of the demo, in which Navis also will fix some incompatibility issues with AMD and older nVidia GPUs).
The vocal part, now gave me strong Pet Shop Boys vibes and I liked it. Even though I've never been a Pet Shop Boys fan before in my life! There were some some parts where the second part of the verse did not sync nicely with the visuals, but as I was bound to keep the same internal flow of the lyrics, I'd leave the syncing of these parts to Navis.
I made a quick export, sent it to Navis, put it on repeat on my earbuds and went to bed.
But enough with the vocals
The next day of the composing process begun with Navis being both impressed and inspired by the music. By the time I woke up he had already fixed the sync issues and I had a new video to work on. It was time to tackle the middle part of the demo, essentially from the moment Merope appears as a statue up until the point we exit from Sisyphus/Merope's eye. That middle part is packed with scenes and effects, and had it been 2007, I would have opted for a multitude of style changes in the music to accommodate those. But in this occasion I wanted to keep the style consistent throughout the demo with a minimalist approach.
While the first part was perfect for first person narrative and exposition, the middle part felt as the actual meat of Sisyphus journey, the "meaty" part of the loop. And as a life loop, I wanted to give the iteration feeling through the music as well. I wrote a rather lengthy harmonic sequence and put it on repeat, until it reached the end of the video (which was now a bit above 8 minutes). Over that sequence I started enjoying myself playing various solos on my Arturia with various sounds, until I came up with the Jarre-ish keyboard solo that made it into the demo. Looped it twice, and then left the rest of the harmonic loops intact, as a placeholder and guide for Navis to sync the rest of the middle part effects to the beat.
I had half a mind to quantize and re-perform some of the keyboard solo, but after many listens I grew so used to it that any attempts to alter it much later on in the process seemed wrong to me. That first, unquantized (and probably mistakes ridden) solo remained as is in the final product. It's a good thing that both Navis and I fell in love with that solo and it now feels as an integral part of the demo.
The big hiatus
That was the last thing I composed for the track for a month. Springtime came and went, and I didn't touch it at all, but I kept on listening to it again and again to get inspiration for the next parts and having friends listen to it as well for feedback and ideas. A month later I had gotten entirely positive feedback from friends who loved what I've done so far.. but no ideas or pointers at all. I reached out to Leviathan to get him involved in the creative process as up to that point I've had composed more than 50% of the soundtrack already without his creative input.
As a side note here, many in the scene view Leviathan as just a guitar playing machine, which is only half true as he's an excellent composer as well and many of our songs together in the past are results of meticulous collaboration in composition.
Unfortunately, Leviathan was in a period in his life where he had to tackle a multitude of life issues, a fact that made his availability quite scarce. The more days went by with me waiting on his creative input, the more clear it was becoming that I'd have to carry this track on my own this time.
Let's wrap this up
The first days of June came, and it was Navis who decided to wake me from my slumber by sending me a new video of the demo. Navis felt enamored with that fat repeating snare that I had in the big loop for the middle part, and synced everything around it. But at the same time he added more content, fiddled with effects and little details all over the place, which was the boost I needed to open up reason again. Only this time, it was apparent that I couldn't rely on the 120 BPM rule to sync my music to the video, just by watching it in VLC in parallel with Reason on another screen. The sync points now needed to be more surgical. I thought to myself what a useful tool would a VST that would play a video in sync with my DAW's playhead would be.. and as a non-pornographic version of Rule 34 of the internet, it already exists. I bought the VidPlay2 VST plugin just for that and it proved valuable.
In the meantime, during the month long hiatus I had come up with a few ideas for the soundtrack. The demo had clearly three exit points after the middle part. The first one being when the middle part exited the eye, which would be followed by a coda, the second one being the fall of Sisyphus into the tunnel scene, and third one the actual outro of the demo from the point Sisyphus gets caught into the puppet strings until the end credits.
The first idea was to also have Merope sing a small tidbit. It would coincide with the break in the demo right before the tunnel scene, and it would be sung in the Lifeforce melody. The second idea would be for the tunnel scene to have a complete change of pace into a harsher beatty music part, ideally accompanied by heavy chugging Leviathan guitars.
But first I had to go back to the middle part. I never intended to leave it as the exact same repeating loop. A loop yes, but not an identical one as that would be super boring. As such I kept the keyboard solo part to just one loop, interspersed the next loop with snippets of the verse vocals, and when I got to the point where we're entering Sisyphus' eye to take a look into his mind, I wanted to have a more muffled, sort of underwaterish sound to signify that we're lost in his thoughts. As such I got rid of most of the instruments in the loop and put the beat through a LPF, which gave me room to play a really relaxed piano solo over it, to signify the randomness and inconsistencies of a person's thoughts. Just like the synth solo, the piano solo was played live on the Midi controller, one pass and unquantized. I was happy enough with the result to move on to the Coda.
Oh no, more vocals!
At the penultimate coda part, I wanted to reprise elements from the beginning of the demo and to pass on Hades' judgement and punishment to Sysiphus for daring to defy his will.
I opted in repeating Hades' initial vocals for his last reprise, but those only took 1/4th of the time the coda scene took.
Rolled back to the bottom
the stone is standing still
My previous iteration
is waiting there uphill
It was high time for me to open notepad again and come up with more lyrics for Hades.
The perils of your journey
a lot but far apart
hardships and temptations
my gifts as you depart
I wanted Hades to be the character that orchestrates Sisyphus journey, much like the original myth and through his voice to show how cruel and relentless he is
And once you cross the treeline
the boulder disappears
a prophecy repeating
to bolster all your fears
A prophetic call to what's going to happen to Sisyphus once he reaches the point where he believes that he's accomplished his goal. I'm not super enthused with the word "treeline" but up to this moment I haven't found a better word that would fit the context.
your fate has been decided
ten centuries ago
now rest up for a minute
and down again you go
And in his final words in the demo, I wanted the inevitability of the loop to be expressed in a harsh and commanding tone, with just a smidge of ironic sympathy by letting Sisyphus rest for a bit and maybe gloat for his achievements, before sending him back on the beginning of the journey.
And right as the coda closes, it's time for the big break. In the melodic sequence of the Lifeforce bell tower scene..
Life in circular motion
The last verse heard in the demo, stressing out how the struggle in life is a loop. That verse is designed to be sung by Merope, thus a female singer. But as I don't have an immediate access to any singer at 5am, I sang that too myself, at least as a placeholder for the time being.
Sisyphus, after resting up for a minute, goes down the rabbit hole of his life to start over again!
The "tunnel" scene is an intense fast-paced rewind, and so the music called for a change into an equally fast paced break. I had played the melody and rhythm in my mind again and again during the hiatus month, so it was composed rather speedily and easily. I still had in mind to have heavy chugging guitars, so when I was done with the track later that night I sent it to him. He considered that tunnel part to be the best one in the soundtrack, alas once again Real Life™ interfered and he didn't have the chance to write guitars for it.
And then it was time for the outro. The Lifeforce bell tower appeared again in many copies, hence the two bell sounds an octave apart, and as the scene faded out into a single bell tower and the water, the "left hand" of the Lifeforce melody was once again incorporated for the close, just as in the intro of the demo to form a perfect loop, but this time without the "right hand" melody to also signify a peaceful and calm fade out of the demo in contrast with the intense tunnel scene that had just finished.
The music ends with everything gradually fading out. The repeating bassline, the sea sound, the bell, and the only thing that remains is the final A note of the Lifeforce melody ringing in infinite sustain as the end credits are shown on the screen. As the last credit abruptly disappears from the screen so does the A note. The last sound you hear is the sound of the sustain pedal being released.
The devil is in the details
As I mentioned earlier, I was playing the demo in video form through the VidPlay2 VST plugin for precision syncing, and this is where it shone as in various parts of the demo there were small details that called for special sound effects.
In the past I've used sound effects for ASD demos, most notably in Rupture, however the sound effects were specifically and as-realistically-as-possible linked to the vehicles and events happening in the demo. This resulted in the effects adding a lot to the visual experience when watching the demo, but sounding completely unrelated to the soundtrack when listened to without the visuals. This time around I wanted to find a way to incorporate sound effects in the demo in a way that both complemented the visuals but also felt part of the music itself without alienating the listener. I had already used sound effects that were linked with the visuals (the sea and the bell), but the sea was just in the intro and outro so even if unrelated to the music they can be "forgiven" as non-alienating, and the bell was either way incorporated as a sort of instrument into the track.
As such, I opted for abstract sounds to accompany the scenes that called for them, namely the falling Merope scene, the scene where Sisyphus and Merope get unglued with strands detaching, the head halo scenes where the heads turn into skulls with abrasive spikes forming in their geometry, the chaotic blinking particle-lights in the inside-the-eye scene, and the zoom in/out effects when entering and exiting the eye.
The sound effects made heavy use of Europa, Synchronous and Alligator gate REs in reason, and I spent a good deal of time fine-tuning them. In the end I was extremely happy with the result. In the future I might invest into VSTs that are specifically made for sound effects.
All of the above happened within the entirety of June with a few days of July as well. June was an uncharacteristic rainy month for Greece, followed by an intensely hot and prolonged heatwave in July, which made it really hard to work on my rig in an extremely hot room.
Around July 20, most things were already set in stone. The demo and soundtrack were now timing complete, and the name of the soundtrack had also been decided (Identity Loop).
The female touch
July was almost coming to a close. We were a week away from Assembly and the soundtrack had undergone through a multitude of small changes and fiddling and finetuning. It was pretty much complete, but there was still a key element missing. The Merope vocals were still sung by me and I needed them to be voiced by a woman.
So I reached out to my good friend and bandmate Georgia Tsetsoni who is a classically trained opera singer to lend a hand.. or more accurately a voice.
She had already listened to the track and was excited to lend her voice for it. We organized a recording session where she sung that last Merope part. It took us quite a few takes (among jarring car sounds outside as it was a busy afternoon) to get it right but we got there. In the end, I asked here if she could improvise some humming during the end credits, just for shits and giggles. It took just one take for her to unfold her vocal magic, and transformed the soundtrack outro into a very emotional experience! While we work together frequently on our live band project, I'm really looking forward to working with her again in my future tracks.
Georgia, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your help and part in my soundtrack!
The final version of Identity Loop, after fiddling a bit with Georgia's vocals, and what you ended up listening to in the demo was done and given to Navis to add to the archive on July the 29th.
Final thoughts and tidbits
I had tremendous fun composing Identity Loop. It was a new experience combining knowledge that I've acquired as a musician all these decades into making a soundtrack that is destined for a product that is half demo and half video clip.
It might sound minimal for the most part, but the device rack in Reason is the lengthiest I've ever gone in all my years of composing
Up until the final version of the soundtrack, I never once had seen the demo run in realtime. I was only given video captures (at relatively low quality to help with transfers) and those are the ones I worked with. I had to combine the video with exports of my music in virtualdub numerous times all these months to try and sync my soundtrack to the visuals, both in terms of beat sync and emotional sync.
I haven't actually watched the demo in its full detail just yet. Alas, I've developed early onset cataract and most of the things are quite blurry for me (which made the task of writing this blog post quite a strain and challenge). I'll be having a surgery to get rid of cataract around October. I can't wait to see the demo once my eyesight is restored, and finally be able to see all the little details that Navis so masterfully crafted in the demo.
I don't exactly know what the magic is in remotely collaborating with Navis. We are miles apart, however we somehow manage to marry the visuals with the audio in a way that everything just falls into place. It's been like that since 2000, and this time was no exception either.
The Legend of Sisyphus is the demo I've had the most creative input so far. I must have asked Navis for more than 100 things to alter, fix, or incorporate and he did his best within the limitations we had to incorporate my wishes. Out of the 100 things I asked, 95 of them found their way into the demo. From large painstaking timing changes into scenes, to miniscule details (like the sudden half a second cut to black in the tunnel, right before the key change in the music). Thank you Kosta for being so accommodating, even at times when the pressure was high. It's been, once again a tremendous pleasure working with you.
And last but not least, I'd like to thank you, the viewers, for so enthusiastically embracing The Legend of Sisyphus. Your reception gave me tremendous joy! We <3 you!