Notes on notes: Sleeping In the Cold Below

A couple of weeks ago, my very good friend Melissa Dahn @two_n_minus_one sent me a link to Keith Power’s “Sleeping In The Cold Below” from the soundtrack of Digital Extremes’ Warframe. She cursed me; I have not stopped listening to it since. I haven’t really thought about a musical piece at length since I quit the industry in 2020, but this one set my analytical neurons going hard enough that the ADHD medication I took to spend a couple hours writing about it had to run to catch up.

This piece is a fantastic use of the sea shanty form because of:

  • how it respects the shanty and other associated forms and their origins
  • how it moves beyond them

For those who aren’t familiar, and to be fair, my computer can’t run it so I’m not firsthand familiar, Warframe is a far-future space-fantasy MMO third-person shooter. In-universe, “Sleeping In The Cold Below” (“Sleeping,” so my fingers don’t fall off) is associated with the capitalist/theocratic oligarchic—megacorporate faction known as the Corpus. Plot-wise, the song is from the quest Call of the Tempestarii, which utilises the established devices of Warframe lore to tell essentially the story of the Flying Dutchman.

The broader in-universe context in which the piece is placed seems appropriate. While shanties arose in many companies and workforces, their earliest development, and the earliest documentation of that development (The Quid, 1832, p. 222 et seq.), is associated with the British East India Company (BEIC), famously a transnational megacorporation with its own private military and police forces (Bryant, 1978), political sovereignty (Stern, 2012), and de facto sovereign legal immunity (Forsyth & Upadhyaya, 2013), an entity arguably of near-equal power to the State to which it was formally subject.

Given that the fictional context is an adaptation of the myth of the Flying Dutchman, the megacorporate element has additional resonance. The original Dutchman was described as a man-of-war (Barrington, 1795/2004, p. 30) in the service of the Dutch United East Indies Company, the VOC (Mambra, 2021), another de facto megacorporate state and perhaps the only one greater than the BEIC itself (Taylor, 2013). Economic and political power on this order cannot be said to adhere to many other real-world seedbeds of shanties, but within Warframe‘s context it describes the Corpus absolutely.

The composition and structural form are very period — the piece is in the call-and-response form typical of authentic sea shanties (“A history,” 2021), with the shantyman (caller) providing the primary musical line during their calls, with no accompanying vocal harmony and minimal orchestral detail apart from the rhythm section. Aside from general principles, one very specific salute is that the response chord progression opens E—B—Cm—Gm (VI—III—iv—i), harmonically identical to (and coincidentally at a similar tempo to) the response section of “Soon may the Wellerman come” (c. 1865), which was enjoying a resurgence of viral popularity in the months preceding “Sleeping’s” release (e.g. Evans, 2021).

The orchestration is also very period: male gang vocals are used as part of the rhythm section; the winds appear to include pennywhistles and fifes; the strings include fiddles and mandolins; the main drum is a frame drum that sounds like a bodhrán; and the auxiliary percussion includes a chain — all of which are standbys of authentic and imitation naval and nautical music (Agnew, 2011; Barton, 2011; Davis, 2021). When the main orchestra is brought to bear at around 0m35s, the occasion is marked by a rising glissando from the upper winds, suggesting the mournful sounding of a steamship’s whistle, which is mildly anachronistic for sea shanties, which were killed off by the age of steam (Alden, 1882), but in this context is an honoured thematic device.

Where the piece has traits that are not typical of the average shanty, those traits often still comply with the rules of other genres and styles contemporary with the shanty, despite the overall modern sound of the piece. This is particularly evident in the final verse, which ceases to be a shanty (by definition a rhythmic work song) because it abandons a rhythmic marching beat and percussion, but which introduces the lament bass harmonic progression and utilises free rhythmic timing, both well-attested devices of Western art music of the Romantic period,1 which was contemporary with the shanty form’s rise. Even lyrically, the bridge (“… When it’s my time to go / Won’t you lay me down …”) is a fairly traditional elegy/lament of the “Unfortunate Lad” genre seen more lately (Waltz & Engle, 2021) in, e.g., the “St James Infirmary Blues” (Redman, 1928: “When I die, want you to dress me …”).

Despite “Sleeping’s” links to the historical shanty form and its contemporaries, however, the reason I think I’m obsessed with this piece is how it moves beyond them.

The shanty rose and fell pretty much entirely within the 19th century, predating the mass integration of women into the workforce (Yellen, 2020). In “Sleeping,” the shantyman is Damhnait Doyle/Captain Vala Glarios — Doyle is the featured contralto vocalist, and is also the VA for Vala, the antagonist of Call of the Tempestarii, from whose point of view the song implicitly takes place. By focusing on a female vocalist and a female commander, “Sleeping” sets itself apart from the male-dominated classic form.

The framing of the song around Doyle’s vocal compass also affects the compass used by the male harmony vocalists, i.e., they have to adapt to her, rather than the other way around. My experience as a choral performer and arranger is that especially for performance works emulating this genre, the vocal compass will typically be determined with an eye to keeping the basses in the G2—D3 range in order to show off their impressive resonance. Altos are notoriously underused and neglected in choral music (Meek, 2014); framing the entire song to show off the capabilities of a featured contralto vocalist marks a strong break with that tradition.

I mentioned before that where “Sleeping” steps outside the shanty form it often does so in a conservative fashion, respecting other period forms, but even that conservatism can often produce a modern sound. One of the key rules of common practice period vocal harmony (e.g. Onyemachi, n.d.) is that the top and bottom voices should move in contrary motion where possible (when the top voice moves up, the bottom voice should move down, and vice versa). The choral response sections of “Sleeping” follow this rule, as well as the other common practice vocal harmony rules, with what sounds like absolute faithfulness, but they produce a distinctively modern sound specifically because of the way they use this well-travelled device.

There are certainly aspects where “Sleeping” steps boldly outside the form altogether. For example, syncopation is ubiquitous in modern popular music, but is not typical of the classic shanty form, which was obsolete before syncopation in its modern usage became prominent. In most prominent examples of the classic shanty form, the lyrical and rhythmic emphasis is typically kept on the strong beats, and shorter words are stretched over multiple notes as necessary to preserve that emphasis. “Sleeping” is interesting in that the call is reliably unsyncopated, but the response, containing the title lyric, is reliably syncopated, distinctively synthesising two musical dialects that never lived in the same time.

Even beyond the vocal aspect, the orchestration of “Sleeping” subtly sets itself apart from the form it imitates. There are a couple of relevant examples — pan flute is used to provide some orchestral accents, and sustained, booming, low-pitched piano intervals are used to fill out the bass register in mid-song; neither instrument tended to show up on English or Dutch merchantmen — but the most prominent example is the bassline proper.

For much of the song, the bassline is an ostinato (repeating pattern) consisting mostly of 3 beats of G and one beat of D. The ostinato instrument sounds fairly similar to a hurdy-gurdy/organ drone. Like the steamship whistle, this is technically anachronistic — in this case, too old; the hurdy-gurdy is strongly associated with the Renaissance (Nypaver & Fredrickson, 2020), comfortably before the 19th century which birthed the shanty. However, the ostinato includes a portamento (pitch bend) from G to D and back again — a difference of seven full semitones. Hurdy-gurdy drone strings cannot pitch-bend that far, and the kind of organ being discussed here (which as a keyboard instrument had discrete pitch keys) could not pitch-bend at all. While portamento was possible in the art music of the time, it was thought of negatively when it was thought of at all (Potter, 2006). Use of portamento in a bass ostinato is a distinctively 21st-century touch.

Finally, “Sleeping” does an excellent job of lore integration. A considerable risk of trying to make a work that relies on a fictional conceptual vocabulary — in this case, a song set in a fictional universe — is unintentional, or at least unwanted, bathos, i.e., what is often referred to as “melodrama” or simply “cringe.” When you try to insert original fictional words and concepts into a classic real-world form, the result can often be unintentional comedy because there is too much of a dissonance between the shiny new poorly developed thing and the rich storied form into which it is being inserted (as with, e.g., Battlestar Galactica — “frak” is a 1:1 replacement for “fuck,” but it just doesn’t hit the same way).

On the other hand, if you try to insert a classic real-world form into a cutting-edge speculative story without modification, that also seems pretentious and bathetic because you are trying to set up a poetic resonance between the image-heavy past and present and your weightless future (the way that, if you depicted a drumbeat being used literally to organise the activities of a starship, it would probably just be kind of silly).

“Sleeping” navigates this really well by observing a “bridge” of lyrical concepts which are applicable both to the merchant marine of the 19th century and the grim darkness of the far future. In no particular order:

  • “Sailing” is something that both ocean and space vessels can do, using respectively a conventional sail and a solar sail.
  • “Sailing to the sun” has a wealth of meanings. Sailing ships can sail to the sun, i.e. they can move under wind power in an eastward direction. However, space ships can also sail to the Sun; they can move toward Sol in a “sailing” fashion, i.e. by moving quickly and with little resistance typically using momentum imparted by an initial surge of force, like a baseball sailing over a fence, or like a rocket sailing into orbit.
  • “Sleeping in the cold below,” without context, evokes the concept of dying and being sent to Davy Jones’ locker, the sailors’ hell, overseen by the demonic Davy Jones. In this case, it describes death in the Void, in Warframe canon a “hellspace where science and reason failed” (“Codex entry: Excalibur,” n.d.) with its own demonic avatar, the Man in the Wall.
  • “Where the winds don’t blow” at first appears to be an out-of-place exclusively oceanic image; you can only have wind in an atmosphere, there is no atmosphere in space, therefore there is nothing for wind to blow in, no expectation that the wind should blow, and the statement “where the winds don’t blow” seems nonsensical. However, stars also have atmospheres, and stellar coronae emit solar wind, the kind used by solar sails. “Sleeping” refers to a journey into the Void, an extradimensional plane which contains no stars — and where the winds therefore do not blow.

Where non-real-world concepts appear, the text focuses on describing them poetically, rather than trying to shoehorn in exposition through song. Lore character Parvos Granum has a fully articulated cybernetic golden prosthetic hand — a less talented or more ironic lyricist might have focused on the robotic nature of the hand. Instead, the text focuses on the fairly timeless image of a golden hand. In the two instances where Warframe-specific concepts appear (“Granum Crowns,” “Solar Rail”), they are couched in a sufficiently rich lyrical context for even a naïve listener to immediately understand them.

In sum, I guess my point isn’t that “Sleeping In The Cold Below” is a piece everyone must subjectively love or be wrong — I subjectively loved the shit out of it, but I can quite easily understand if a neutral observer might take it or leave it. It is, however, my firm opinion that “Sleeping In The Cold Below” exhibits craftsmanship which is thorough and involved to an incredible degree.

It’s not that the song itself is, must be, epoch-defining — it’s great, it’s fucking astonishing, but many things are. It’s that a (single or collective) composer who can write this is a composer whose thought processes I feel humbled and challenged by. If they can do this, what else can they do?


  1. Musicology nerds will say that the lament bass is not a Romantic device because it was attested as far back as the Baroque, for example famously in “Dido’s lament” from Dido and Aeneas (1689). They will be technically correct, the best kind of correct. In this post, I am referring to the resurgence of the lament bass in the Romantic through the musical form called the complaint or lament, which relied on the lament bass as an essential part.


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