Sundown: the Play and Characters

The three narrators: the Seeress, Snorri Sturlson and Saemund.

The three narrators share stories around their campfire: the Seeress, Snorri Sturlson and Saemund.

In the two-hour stage performance, the songs in the Sundown cycle form a continuous narrative, held together by a framing story narrated by Snorri Sturlson, the historic author of the Prose Edda.  Camping alone in the mountains, Snorri is approached by a youth called Saemund, a descendant of Snorri’s childhood foster father, raised in the south, who says he has come north  in order to learn the stories of the gods which are no longer taught in the Chrisitan lands where he grew up.  As Snorri tells his tales, he is joined by the spirit of the ancient Jotun Seeress Angurboda, whose prophecies warns Snorri of a sinister purpose behind young Saemund’s visit.  Thus two stories unfold as the play progresses, the rise and fall the Aesir gods, and the historical conflicts that surrounded Snorri Sturlson during the last days of the Icelandic commonwealth.

Young Saemund learns his Nordic Runes.

Young Saemund learns his Nordic Runes.

Our music is completely different in live performance, as gestures and costumes bring life to Odin, Loki and their kin.  In large pieces where many simultaneous lines and lyrics braid together, the live version makes it possible to follow the individual words, expressions and moods of characters in ways no recording can reproduce.  The songs themselves also work differently when performed in order, since the themes develop from song to song.  Each of the central characters has a personal musical theme, which develops over repeated variations as the story progresses.  Here are samples of the most basic versions of the motifs for each character.  As you listen to the songs you can recognize these motifs, and here them mature and influence each other as the characters do the same:

The Character Themes:


Loki, in costume.

Odin’s theme uses strong, repeated pitches and a steady driving rhythm suggestive of hoof-beats to communicate the Allfather’s cold, unswerving, stony determination to defend his creations and his laws.  As the play progresses and his passions are more strained, his motif gains more melodic variation, driven from its steady starting form by his grief and rage.

Loki’s theme uses fast, chaotic jumps, like the flickering of fire or the sparkle of light over ice.  It harmonizes with Odin’s theme, hopping around it, now above, now below, leading and following and encouraging Odin’s theme to stray.

Since Baldur’s story is filled with contrast, the glory of his life and the tragedy of his death, his themealso combines extremes, long, warm suspensions alternating with quick, fragile runs and trills, and cadences which shift back and forth from major to minor, mixing sweetness with sadness.

Hel, in costume, black as death on one side and pale as a frozen corpse on the other.

Hel, in costume, black as death on one side and pale as a frozen corpse on the other.

Hel’s theme is a series of steady downward marches, invoking the inescapable fall of souls and worlds down into darkness.  By putting this dark base line in the voice of a female character, Hel’s theme highlights the sinister role which the sagas assign to female power when she sings it with Odin, Loki and Baldur’s themes intertwined above.

Frigg’s theme is sweet and flowing, in a major key throughout, and wholly different from the nesting themes of the others, showing how her goals and concerns are different, looking forward to the future, and hope.

Snorri’s theme is steady and metric, with a driving momentum invoking the rhythms of the poetry for which he was so famous.  It flows into the “stories” theme, which appears in the choruses of the two pieces that focus on storytelling, “Ice and Fire” and “Longer in Stories than Stone.”

Odin (center) sings of his prophecies.

Odin (center) sings of his prophecies.

The Seeress’s theme has two halves.  The first intertwines with Snorri’s, and marks her role as a poet-prophetess and Snorri’s teacher, with a strong poetic meter and some hints of the flickering cadences of her husband Loki’s motif.  From there it can flow into the “stories” theme, or into the grim and inexorable “Sundown” theme whose darkly minor rising and falling march outlines the rise and fall of the cosmos as it prophecies Ragnarok. The Ragnarok portion of her theme reappears in many places in the Sundown Cycle, including Ice and Fire, Sundown and If I Could Ask You.

Though the album is at the center of the Sundown project, the full experience is much bigger: since the songs are composed as a single, continuous cycle, we’ve gone the extra step and written a full stage show around them! Sundown the play consists of all eleven songs in order inside a framing narrative told through spoken scenes between each one.

The Performance:

The full play premiered at Balticon 2013 and we will be having a second performance at Worldcon San Antonio (LoneStarCon).  We are using a Kickstarter to raise funds to produce a DVD of the performance, and to fund future performances, so we can share this experience with more audiences.

Keep your eyes on this site to be the first to learn of future performances.  If you’d like us to perform at your event, let us know!

July2011 410Learn More about Sassafrass and Sundown: