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Presenting Sassafras
by Chris R. Paige
September 2013

Updated October 2013

 Sassafrass is the name of an a cappella group that performed at Lonestarcon 3, the 2013 Worldcon, in San Antonio over Labor Day weekend. This year’s Worldcon was a great one for music, with such performers as Guest of Honor Leslie Fish, rocket-scientist and inventor Jordin Kare, Diana Gallagher (famous for the song best known as “Zero-G Sex”), Roberta Rothow, Bill and Gretchen Roper, Steven Brust, and Kathy Mar giving concerts or joining the filk circles.

Sassafrass was the surprise.  The twelve singers gave an amazing, breath-taking, mind-blowing performance of the song cycle Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok, which is based on the myths about the Norse gods and goddesses, and the jotuns – the ice giants – especially about Odin, Loki, and Balder.  Sharing a stage, wearing period costumes and singing their hearts out in clear-voiced polyphony, the singers made their concert an unforgettable experience.

The frame story for Sundown is a confrontation between Snorri Sturlson – the 13th century compiler of the Prose Edda – and a young man sent to kill him, whom Snorri beguiles with the old tales of the gods. The Seeress, a sardonic, enigmatic commentator, interjects information that Snorri is leaving out. At intervals, other members walk onto the stage, Snorri and the youth fall silent, letting gods, goddesses, and jotuns speak and sing for themselves.

“Ice and Fire”, sung primarily by Snorri and the Seeress, tells of the first beginnings, and also gives intimations of end, with the phrase “axe time, wind time…” One memorable riff is a list of the many names and epithets for Odin.  Later in the sequence, Odin the All-Father takes shape-changer Loki as a blood-brother, even though Loki, a jotun, does not see eyes to eye with Odin on many matters. What ultimately ices their pact is Odin’s determination to protect the world he has made form Loki’s three children: the Fenris Wolf, the Midgard Serpent, and Hel. Fenris is tricked and bound; the snakey one is consigned to the ocean’s cold deeps, and young Hel is banished to Nifflheim – the frozen, dark, desolate underworld of the dead. Loki is, naturally, outraged. He exacts a terrible revenge, oh so indirectly, to bring about the death of Odin’s favorite son, Balder the Beloved. 

Images are posted on the Sassafrass website. Be sure to check out Hel in grotesque, dramatic half-black-and-half-white. Hel didn’t have a large role to sing, but visually she was a show-stealer; absolutely riveting. Lauren sang the part of Odin, clad in fur and greys and blues; singing opposite her was composer and songwriter Ada Palmer as Loki, dressed in red and black with her long blonde hair cascading down her back.

After Saturday’s 2 hour concert, a number of the cast members attended a Sunday panel and answered questions.

Here is a summary of some of the discussion points, questions posed by audience members.

Q: How did Sassifrass start?

A: The original members got together about 8 years ago in the Boston area, where Ada was writing and composing music at Harvard, Tili was an undergrad, and Lauren, Ruth, Kara and Emily were all pursuing degrees in the area. We formed Sassifrass to promote her songs, to share them with a wider audience. And because most of the singing opportunities at the college were monotonous pop music; we wanted something more challenging, and which would give interesting, challenging parts to all performers, not just to one soloist while everyone else was stuck on “ooooh”. The school was very supportive and we were able to give several concerts, but as we graduated and moved elsewhere the group disbanded. Then about 2 years ago, a number of us found ourselves living close enough to bring Sundown back to life, especially since technology made it possible to have virtual group rehearsals over the distances – thousands of miles in some cases. 

Q: Most of the parts are sung by women, even the male roles. Why is that?

A: One of Ada’s goals was to write interesting music for women who usually only get to sing weird, unmelodic lines designed to support the sopranos. Some of us have deeper voices than the typical range: we sing tenor, even baritone.

Q: Could you tell us a bit more about the costumes you wore?

A: We try to make them as authentic as possible, using representative colors and designs. Odin, for example, is often in disguise as a mortal wanderer, so he does not wear ostentatious gold or wave around his spear. The color most strongly associated with Odin is grey, so that’s what we chose for him, but there is some dark blue as well. Blue was a color only the wealthy could afford, and it also denotes his power as a sky god, but it’s almost hidden under the whites and greys. Loki, is associated with fire, so he’s in red with gold trim. Snorri, on the other hand, wears simpler clothes in duller colors, to represent the more modest wealth available to a human, in contrast with the ornate costumes of the gods.

Q: Why does Hel look like the way she does?

A: Hel is usually described as being half alive, half dead, although some translations interpreted her as being blue on one side, like a drowned corpse, and fair on the other, which could mean anything from pale white to flesh colored. But they all agree on the stark, down-the-middle division.

Q: Why is so little said about the Vanir, and where did they come from? They just seem to appear out of nowhere.

A: Some archeologists and historians have speculated that there were neighboring groups with different religions, one group worshiping the Aesir, the other group believing in the Vanir gods. The stories indicate the was war between the two groups; the ones who worshiped the Vanir were conquered or assimilated, and this was reflected in the mythologies.

Q: Why is Loki so unrelenting over Balder’s death when everyone else wants to bring him back to life?

A: This is a really interesting point, and we only hint at it in a few of the lyrics. What you have to understand is that it was usual back then, if one brother had a son and another brother had a daughter, to pledge their children in marriage. Odin and Loki are blood-brothers, and by rights Odin’s son should have married Loki’s daughter. But Odin banished Hella to Nifflheim, and Balder married Nana. Loki feels he’s been betrayed and cheated; it’s just possible that all his machinations are his way of bringing Balder and Hella together. So his actions could be read as those of a dutiful father, though, as Hella herself points out, that could just be an excuse. Loki never directly reveals his motives.

Q: Aren’t there similarities between the Balder myth and Christianity?

A: Originally these stories were part of a centuries-long oral tradition that predated the arrival of Christianity.  Oral traditions only get written down when they are threatened, when they are in danger of being lost or eradicated. When Snorri wrote the Prose Edda, there had probably already been cross-contamination between the myths and Christianity.

Q: Why is Sassifrass spelled that way?

A: Ever since she was a little girl, Ada wanted to be part of a musical group named Sassafrass. When she was eight years old, she wrote it down that way. Now the justification is, the extra s at the end makes it easier to find us online!.

Sassafrass is nominated for a 2013 OVFF Pegasus Award in the Best Performer category, and Ada Palmer is a nominee for Best Writer/Composer.  You can stream and hear “My Brother, My Enemy”, “Somebody Will”, and several other signature Sassafrass songs at their website: “My Brother, My Enemy” is what Odin and Loki sing as they accuse each other of betraying their blood-oath. “Somebody Will” is an anthem for the dawning space age, and so much more, with a haunting melody and the following refrain:

 …But I am willing to sacrifice

Something I don’t have for something I won’t have

And not only me,

But we are willing to sacrifice

Something we don’t have for something we won’t have

So somebody will,

So somebody will someday.

This song was performed as an encore after the concert.  One of the singers wept throughout; more than one person in the audience was crying too.

The cast of Sassifrass are:

Ada Palmer: Loki, "Fire", Lodur

Lauren Schiller: Odin

Lila Garrott: Embla (the first woman), Njord, Chorus

Ruth Wejksnora: Ask (the first man), Tyr, Thor, Magni, Chorus

Tili Sokolov: Freya, Modi, Dwarves, Chorus

Matt Granoff: Snorri Stirlson, Frey, Hod, Nidhogg dragon

Alexa Weingarden: Seeress, Frigg (at Worldcon), Elves

Emily Lewis: Baldur, Honir

Kara Hurvitz: Hella, "Ice", Dwarves

Alessandro La Porta: Saemund

Sandry Wilkie was our Frigg at Balticon but she wasn't able to make it to San Antonio.

 – Chris R. Paige

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