Thursday, January 06, 2011

Musical Templates

I've been reading This Is Your Brain On Music by cognitive neuropsychologist and former rock engineer and producer Daniel Levitin. It is a marvelous, eye- and ear-opening book that, among other things, gets you thinking about what, exactly, shaped your appreciation for music. In one review, author Fahrad Manjoo writes of the impact of Weezer's debut back in the mid-1990's. Levitin speaks of lying on the floor while his mother played the piano. The late rock critic Lester Bangs wore his musical heart on his sleeve about his introduction to the anarchic possibilities in rock in the mid-1960's.

I, too, once wrote - not on the internet, but for myself - a long piece that attempted to understand the birth, growth, and development of my own musical obsessions and preferences. I started out with hearing "Star Cycle" by Jeff Beck on the radio, and kind of moved on from there. To this day, having listened to that song for 30 years, I still get chills during parts of it, and am discovering little nuances and subtleties both of production and arrangement that surprise me. All the same, I was being dishonest with myself. While "Star Cycle" was, and remains, a pivotal point in my (I hope) never-ending search for moments of transcendent bliss in the midst of music, both performing it and listening to it, were I honest, I would have to admit a far less cool beginning for my understanding of what is exciting in music.

It is the English single-version of this:

It was probably a 45-rpm single one of my older sisters bought. The performer, Miguel Rios, was one among many who, even today, take basic melodic themes from the classical repertoire, and adapt it for pop songs. In this case, Rios took not just the musical theme from Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Fourth movement, he also took the poetic theme, which was a poem by the German Friedrich Schiller. Interesting enough, I found several videos for this song on YouTube and, not having heard this song in what may be almost 40 years, I remembered the twists and turns, not the least of which is a break around 2:10 in to the song, after a passage from a string section, where some horns play a descending decrescendo motif as a Spanish guitar enters to take the next verse. The final section weds both classical and contemporary, as Rios syncopates in front of a fully-orchestrated backdrop, complete with choir.

I admit it sounds dated, it really kind of cheesy, and is a bit too literal in its adaptation (just consider how Eric Carmen treated Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto, Second movement in his song "All By Myself"; better yet, don't). All the same, having heard the song for the first time in decades, I recognize how much it has influenced my obsession with music, with what I find exciting and beautiful and interesting.

First, it is a wedding of classical and pop music. Hello Yes, Genesis, ELP, the end is listless. Yet, there is more. The arrangement, while faithful harmonically and melodically, takes liberties with instrumentation, rhythm, even mixing and matching classical and contemporary instrumentation and approaches simultaneously. Further, being a bit longer than the standard pop song (at just over four minutes, it must have seemed an eternity in a world where two minutes and thirty seconds was the norm), there is room to accentuate breaks in arrangement and verses, such as the one described above, to build tension and release it until the song comes to a resounding finish.

It isn't the song itself whose sound I continue to emulate. Rather, it is the emotional response I was surprised to learn I still had. The variation within the arrangement actually allowed for multiple tension/release moments, for rhythmic and timbral variation on the basic melodic theme, elements that are as surprising now as they were when I was four years old. In a sense, that continues to drive what I look for in songs. Some songs are simple enough in their emotional impact - consider any punk or heavy metal song, and you have that relentless sense of a release of energy. One advantage seventies classic rock has over much heavy metal is the build-up of tension (consider "Stairway to Heaven" as the archetype, too often badly copied; another approach was Boston's debut LP, where the songs use that tension/release formula, multiple times in the same song, in textbook fashion). On the other hand music I continue to listen to - classical and jazz, rock and pop - returning time and again follows those simple rules I first learned in Miguel Rios' "Hymn to Joy".

Virtual Tin Cup

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