Friday, October 16, 2009

Geosong: Liz Pappademas' "Loma Prieta"

It's been a long time since I posted a geology-related song (even though my collection of them has been growing steadily), but I've been waiting for just the right moment to post this one. Seeing as tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the M6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake, I think we've come upon the right time.

I found this song by typing "Loma Prieta" into the iTunes store, as I've had to get more and more specific (or obscure) to keep expanding my playlist. Two songs with the title popped up, and I downloaded both of them. This was the one I liked better, though; the other puts the quake into a relationships context, but this one seems like it must be describing an actual real experience.

I'd never heard of Liz Pappademas before, and I still don't know how well-known she is. Her website tells me that she was raised in San Francisco, but has moved around since and is currently a resident of Los Angeles. I think I could have gathered the first part just from the lyrics to the song. It opens with, "Loma Prieta, dark hill. Shook up the San Andreas to the heart of a little girl," and goes on to be an account of a very scary experience told through the eyes of a child who has some understanding of what's going on in a physical sense, but is having more trouble with the emotional side. She describes clinging to her mother in the doorway (nevermind that you shouldn't get in the doorway!), of school being canceled, of camping out in her parents' bedroom, of expecting aftershocks, and of feeling much older after the whole experience. There's also a stanza, a little more separated from what appears to be personal experience, that describes images of 1906 being recalled by the fires in 1989. I don't know how much a little kid would or wouldn't know about 1906 as a product of a San Francisco upbringing, but I do know the comparison is consistent with some of the news media about Loma Prieta. It's certainly a moving comparison in the context of the song.

In terms of the music, "Loma Prieta" is both simple and complex. It's simple in terms of its instrumentation - mostly just voice against a piano accompaniment consisting of elaboration upon broken chords, with a little bit of electronic stuff for color. The chord sequences are not, however, your typical I-IV-V-I of so many pop songs. I'd have to sit down and think about exactly where the chords go, but the specific progression is not the point - rather, it matters more that it takes a while to get to the resolution, and there are parts that don't get resolved. The melodic line is also very free, with phrases of unequal length and pacing. It also encompasses a wider range of pitches than many pop songs do; not lingering on a specific set of pitches adds to the somewhat freeform feeling of the song. In the way the melody is shaped (and perhaps also in the broken chord piano accompaniment), "Loma Prieta" seems to be toeing the line between pop song and art song.

I very much like this song, for its subject and for its music. I think that this free and sparse style of music fits the storytelling aspect of the lyrics, and I think that the lack of any attempt to paint the words with the music allows the severity of what the singer experienced to be come all the more stark and clear. The last verse also really gets me: "Loma Prieta, dark hill. Please stay dark, I pray, please stay still."

Please stay still. This is a very human thing to plead after disaster, but the plea is made to something that cannot and will not stop moving. That particular mountain may not be shaking all the time, but the forces underneath it keep grinding steadily away, and eventually, there will be another earthquake at Loma Prieta Peak. It's inevitable, and the music seems to know it, even if the lyrics pray for it to not be so - the final cadence never quite happens.

Liz Pappademas on Rhapsody. (You can listen to the song for free there.)

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