Moddi and the music of our time


The first time I heard a song by Moddi, I was on a mattress in my friend’s house half-listening to the TV that was on a rare music channel. There were people talking in the room, loud enough that when I caught the beginning of Let the Spider Run Alive I had to spring up from the mattress and press my ear to the TV to listen. I memorized a few words from the song and then googled them as soon as I got home.

I know that Pål Moddi Knutsen himself likely had completely different reasons for writing the verses that I identify with the most. But Poetry became my hymn for a long time; it’s such a beautifully hesitant song. Rubbles is angry, frustrated — something to listen to when you need a storm, but there isn’t one. House by the Sea was the song I listened to as I flew away from Paraguay, and one that has followed me on all my trips since. And countless others… One Minute More, The Northern Line, and Ardennes (something about the line about animal skin always freaked me out in a great way).

For me, listening to Moddi was a form of meditation. The lyrics force you to look inwards.

But recent times have changed the way I perceive media and art. More and more, I think, we’re aware that everything we consume is affecting our perception of the world. When I heard that Moddi would be releasing an album that consists solely of banned, censored or silenced songs, I was cautious. Music and activism are two fields that very often intersect, but it’s hard to write music that resonates with feelings more nuanced than love or sadness. And it’s even harder to keep them from turning political or aggressive in a very ugly way – or, at the other end of the spectrum, too ambiguous so that they lose their meaning.

This, I soon discovered, was not the case with Unsongs.

Punk Prayer was a beautiful combination of spirituality, freedom and feminism, which I readily fell in love with. A Matter of Habit hit me more personally; it distinctly reminded me of a young ex-soldier I met, and the stories I had heard from friends. And then O My Father I Am Joseph, which immediately made Unsongs my favorite album… possibly of all time. The story of Joseph has always fascinated me, and Moddi’s introduction, dedicating the song to Muslim people across the world who are being discriminated for peaceful beliefs, gave it even more depth. The lyrics — which are originally a poem written by Mahmoud Darwish, and adapted into a song by Marcel Khalife — remind me very much of the Tablet of Fire from the Baha’i Writings.

And then The Shaman and the Thief, and Strange Fruit, beautiful renditions of older tragedies, the wounds of which still haven’t healed today.

The love with which each song has been crafted, and then, in turn, adapted into a cover in English in Moddi’s voice, makes for an album of exquisite beauty; a collection of voices from all around the world, across history. A collection of beautiful stories that were once lost, but that we are now desperately trying to recover.

Being in the same room as Moddi while he plays is to witness something amazing happening within a person. I didn’t get the sense that I was being entertained in the way one normally is at a concert – rather, that I was finally understanding something about the world, and about myself. The music and its message is too important, too great, to be carried within one human body. It’s something that demands to be shared.

These days, I find myself thinking of platforms and their importance. When social media is both a blessing and a curse – providing a space for progressive movements, yet also spawning hate-speech and misinformation – anyone who possesses a platform and the ability to share facts with others, and empower them to contribute to the betterment of the world, should be doing so. We often criticize artists for not taking a strong enough stance in the face of world crisis, or not using their platform to raise marginalized voices.

I think Moddi is a good example of how this can be skillfully done. He openly speaks about his privilege, which I find very fascinating and unusual – and he uses that privilege to help less fortunate artists (imprisoned, exiled, or otherwise silenced) have a voice on a global stage. And even the way in which he speaks is markedly different. One of the first things I noticed is his avoidance of the word “fans” (although we are all, quite clearly, fans) – he uses “listeners”, instead; a posture that invites his audience to his level, that invites them into the conversation.

Calm determination will be vital as they strive to demonstrate how stumbling blocks can be made stepping stones for progress” says the Universal House of Justice. To me, the songs in Unsongs are an example of how calmness and determination can be weaved together – how the silenced can find a voice again, how we can learn from their words. How to speak up in the face of oppression, but in a way that will be understood by the masses of people who, lacking the spiritual and moral education to understand their fellow human beings, can only be reached through meaningful conversation and individual stories.

There is a historical significance to all of this; from artists who choose to lift others’ voices as well as their own, to listeners who choose to take in and boost creators who inspire. This is true for books, and journalism, and every other creation of humanity, but especially the music that we write and listen to. Our music is our voice; it is our call to arms, and often our greatest weapon when it comes to elicit emotion out of other people and spur them into action. What songs will they remember this period of history by?

This is Moddi, this is Unsongs, and this is the Unsongs website where you can learn the backstory of each song. You should probably check everything out right now.


From Before


When summer was still alive, we left our candle-lit tents and made our way to a clearing lined by the dark shapes of the Lithuanian forest.

There’s something special in being involved in the rituals of other cultures—in being a spectator to something that carries so much. To experience the swaying movement, the closed eyes, the voices that rise and fall. I’ve never heard music like Baltic music; there’s something raw about it, like it’s been drawn out from deep places.

We stood around the fire as two boys pounded on drums, and I looked up at the nighttime sky—so far removed from the lights of cities, aglow with thousands and thousands of stars that have seen millions of years. A thin wisp of smoke lifted itself into the air from the bonfire to the stars, like a signal to whoever was watching. And it occurred to me, as I felt the grass beneath my feet vibrate with the sounds of our presence and the breeze curled around us, dipping in and out of the forest, that it would be very easy to imagine that nothing had changed in thousands of years. That this was not 2016, that we didn’t have cars and phones waiting for us by the tents, that we had ever spoken something other than this language—this language that was lifting itself up into the sky by so many voices that had somehow remembered, that had been kept alive despite so many attempts to erase it.

In the firelight, it was easy to imagine that no time had passed at all. A girl across from me had dark hair, hooded eyes, her lips parted in song. Her linen dress and bare feet over the dirt conjured images of a maiden from a painting, if only I could render her properly.

I didn’t speak the language. I shouldn’t understand the words. But somehow I did, there in the forest, holding hands with strangers. So much life has taken place; so much is beautiful that it cannot all be remembered. It must be bottled up, carefully, in songs and drums and those moments near midnight when youth wander into clearings and sing the words their ancestors wrote. When the ancestors listen.

I think a lot about what music does to culture; about what it says about our history. I wonder if those ancient Baltic people ever expected that their rhythms and words would still remain after so many generations have come and gone, after so many wars and occupations have threatened the memory of them. I wonder what any of those people, from the recent past and the distant past, would think if they knew that I—a strange combination of nations and cultures—would hear their words and identify with them.

I wonder if I know them a little more, now. I hope that like this, they can be a little less forgotten.

The reason for this delay in posting is that, although I’ve had this written for months, I was hoping to combine it with another post and connect two ideas rather ingeniously. It turns out that I can’t. So here you go: part 1 of my music musings.

Late-year updates:
– My second article, “To fight back: Harry, Katniss, and what the world really needs right now” was published on Hypable in November.
– I won NaNoWriMo 2016 and finished writing the draft of the rest of “The Tisroc and the King“. Once I get to edits chapters should be out with more regularity.
– I also published 3 new one-shots, for Narnia and Harry Potter, so check them out if you haven’t already. I’ll do an end-of-year round up of everything because there’s too much to say here!