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Song Sources: Altai (Falls the Last Night of Snow)

October 19, 2022

This is part of an ongoing series about our recordings. To read more in this series, click on the category “Song Sources: Stories behind the recordings.”

This is a story of someone burying a loved one, and thinking about how some things that are supposed to get buried forever never really go away.

By GanKo – Wikimapia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Cold weather definitely has an effect on songwriting. This is hardly the only song I’ve written during February that uses bleak winter imagery. But in this case, it’s a thaw that inspired the words: The permafrost graves in Altai are important archaeological sites because the remains are so well-preserved. Unfortunately, the warming climate has started exposing them as the permafrost has started melting.

In the 2019/2020 winter, I was working on some running training in the hopes of doing a half marathon in the Spring. Despite one or two days requiring a scarf and hat, the weather was pretty mild for what’s supposed to be the coldest month of the year. And either some wiki surfing or Atlas Obscura led me to find an article on the Pazyryk permafrost burials, and I had the clearest mental image of a perfectly preserved body at a funeral suspended in ice.


Falls the last night of snow
Settle careful and slow
One two one
Cover up and go
Cover up and go
Cover up and go

There’ll be no wind for weeks
There’ll be no sun today
Thaw to thaw
One to walk away
One to walk away
One to walk away

Buried in aquamarine
Become a little strip of green
Six by two
Frozen but serene
Frozen but serene
Frozen but serene

The song is a funeral ode, narrated by the person burying a loved one. The first line I know came directly from thinking about climate change affecting the permafrost: The bodies are buried shallowly because digging in the frost is so difficult, but for thousands of years it’s been good enough because it never melted. For archeologists of course it’s interesting to be able to study burials from thousands of years ago with minimal damage to the bodies and whatever accompanies them, but then there are doomsday scenarios people talk about where some long-dead bacteria or virus is unleased on the world. And for the people who buried these people — they probably weren’t thinking about the preservation powers of this freezer but simply covering their family with soil. The preservation is actually frightening in this respect, because burying is supposed to put things out of site and let them decompose in peace. Instead the bodies are still recognizable as human thousands of years later. Of course the individuals themselves have long since passed out of ancestral memories, but to the character holding the funeral, the expectation was that this person’s physical representation is gone from the earth forever.

Music and Recording

The guitar part is played with a capo on the third fret of the guitar, based around an F chord with a D in the bass. It owes more than a little bit to Beeswing, a song I cover sometimes.

The verses have an unusual 15-bar structure, where the first three lines are two bars each and the last three are three bars each, though this wasn’t some conscious choice, it was just how the presentation of the lyrics worked out to leave a little breathing room after the lines like “Cover up and go.”

The intro came about because I asked Kristen Jones if she could play something on her cello mimicking a horsehead fiddle, which is a bowed instrument developed in Mongolia; instead of pressing strings to the fretboard, the player slides their finger along the string itself. The player can choose to mute behind the string to get a pure tone, and this often presents unusual harmonics and overtones for a rich and haunting sound. Kristen improvised some using this technique, and I cut it down in editing from several minutes to just the most intriguing parts; the result is something that pays homage to the traditional playing without being a direct imitation.

Besides the vocals, guitar, and cello, there’s one other sound used in the recording, though it’s probably hard to hear and even harder to discern what it is. I wanted some sort of delicate bell-like chime in the background of some places, and though I tried using some midi instruments, harmonics on the guitar, a glockenspiel, and other ideas, Jen Parde happened to show me some mediation bowls she owns and I realized that was the sound I was thinking of. She sent me a file (recorded on her phone, I believe) and I manipulated them to fit into the song. They’re autotuned in some places to just provide some background, but other times I left them “slightly out of tune” — there are also overtones to each bowl that add some uneasiness to the song.

The “pretty but uneasy” feeling from the intro and somewhat grim subject matter of the lyrics made for a great contrast to the gentle fingerpicking and lush cello string section backing up what’s probably the most delicate vocal I’ve ever put on a Midway Fair album. When it came time to pick the first track, nothing else so neatly summed up “Pretty Music About Ugly Things” and communicated how I wanted people to feel by the end of the album.

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