The ultimate mashup: Gordon Freeman’s Model of a Modern Major General


The juxtaposition of the unlikely always has had appeal to me. Not least because it’s often very funny. I think such things are usually called ‘mashups’, but a century or so ago the word was ‘dada’, after the art movement that pivoted around superficially irrational juxtaposition.

A friend pointed me to an example the other day on You Tube – machinima, video made using a game engine. This clip had been made with the Build Engine version of Valve Software’s first-person shooter Half-Life and featured Gordon Freeman, the geek physicist-turned-defender character that players become in the game.

The thing is, it was a music video featuring (wait for it) Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Modern Major-General’, from their Pirates of Penzance of 1879. I don’t know about you, but I am a great fan of Gilbert and Sullivan. Tell me, in the comments. To me, like Shakespeare, their stuff is very good by any measure, because it says so much about human nature; and for me the added appeal is that they captured and satirised the particular emotional essence of a period and society that I went on to study extensively, long after I knew their music. That study involved a lot of ‘aha’ moments.

The thing is that the writer W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan had a public profile in their time similar to what Taylor Swift or Eminem has today, mashed up with Saturday Night Live. Their fame went well beyond their native Britain: and Pirates of Penzance had its world premiere in New York. Yup, they were global superstars of their day. And ‘Modern Major-General’ is usually taken to be a relatively gentle skewering of Major-General Garnet Wolseley (1833-1913), who was reforming the army at the time. Wolseley certainly thought so, but apparently took being lampooned by Gilbert and Sullivan as a complement and used to sing the song himself. It’s called a patter song because the rhythm and notation – mainly da DAH da DAH da DAH da DAH – is close to the rhythm of ordinary spoken English, which is mostly iambic pentameter. (As Tom Lehrer showed us, you can actually sing the periodic table of the elements, slightly out of order in his version, to the same tune.)

The idea that such a piece might be set against the Half Life hero and his deeds is – well – see what I mean about dada? The best part is that it isn’t just an old recording. It’s been done for the video, with the original lyrics bolstered by add-on verses, and if the match of up-syllable to up-beat is a bit wobbly at times in those extras… hey… this is dada. And Gordon’s train of thought…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

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