A coming-of-age tale conveyed through genre-mixing and minimalism
Michelle Zauner has never shied away from a challenge. Known by her stage name Japanese Breakfast, Zauner has had quite the eventful year as an artist, releasing a memoir, an album and, most recently, spearheading the soundtrack to the newly released open-world video game Sable. Zauner’s work has always been defined by its vulnerability, exploring themes of grief, loss and personal growth. Her work on Sable is no different, as the game focuses on a young girl’s contemplative quest of self-discovery in a desolate, desert landscape. Zauner perfectly captures this atmosphere within the album, mixing together different genres and employing ambient loops to create soundscapes that add weight to this coming-of-age tale.
The majority of the soundtrack is instrumental, but the first three tracks feature Zauner’s soft vocals and thoughtful lyrics. “Glider” was released as a single during the game’s early development and provides an introduction to the journey the player will go on. In the song, Zauner apprehensively describes how she feels “caught between the wind and parts of the unknown.” In “Better the Mask,” which helps conclude the game, it’s clear this apprehension has transformed into self-assurance, as Zauner confidently sings, ”learn to rely on a future you made in which it gets better.” These two tracks highlight both the introspective journey the main figure in Sable goes on in the game but also hints at Zauner’s own coming-of-age, which she’s sung about in the past.
The remainder of this inner journey is conveyed through instrumental scoring. One of the most prominent features of the score in Sable is Zauner’s use of genre-mixing to aid the game’s visuals. In Sable, the player explores a futuristic, desert landscape, so Zauner matches the atmosphere by combining her indie roots with elements of traditional Middle Eastern music and minimalist composition.
“Eccria (Day)” and “Eccria (Night)” are two great examples. Zauner utilizes synths to create a simple melody atop a vibrant percussion section, the synth timbre mimicking the sound of the Mijwiz, a traditional reed instrument found in the Middle East. Additionally, the percussion section utilizes rhythmic patterns and timbres similar to the Tabla: a type of drum also found in the Middle East. Sounds like this are heard in many other tracks throughout the album, although they’re not exact replications. Furthermore, the soundscapes evoke desert environments—another nod to the Middle East. But Zauner’s own background in indie music is also present on the album. Whether it’s the more traditional instrumentation of electric and acoustic guitars in “Redsee (Day)” or the beautiful chorale of backing vocalizations in “The Ewer (Day),” Zauner’s own artistic voice is never lost.
Minimalist techniques also pop up a lot throughout the Sable soundtrack. Simple melodic figures with gradual texture changes and instrumental layering are featured throughout. This sort of ambient, trance-like music is common in video game scores and is especially prevalent in ones with open-world environments like Sable. Zauner employs this in interesting ways, such as by composing complementary tracks for certain locations during the day and at night. The music for “Ibexxi Camp” illustrates this perfectly. The “Day” theme features a delightful acoustic guitar melody over a synth drone. The guitar theme is repeated with different improvisational flourishes layered overtop. In the “Night” version, the tempo is slowed dramatically, and the synth drone is given more emphasis. Additionally, the guitar theme heard earlier is rhythmically augmented and simplified. These subtle differences from day to night add to the overall atmosphere of Sable.
Zauner’s work on Sable highlights the introspective journey and imaginative environment presented in the game. While the album doesn’t request the levels of active listening required from her past discography, Sable is still emotionally evocative and suitable for the medium it was created for. Zauner’s work on this soundtrack is yet another successful endeavor, adding to her well-rounded oeuvre thus far.