Sunday, July 31, 2005

Three Sarabandes

I was sitting in our car on Monday night in Baie-Comeau, Québec, waiting for the ferry to arrive to take us to Matane on the other side of the St. Lawrence Seaway. As I had about 45 minutes to while away, I put the first CD in Jean-Yves Thibaudet's 5 disk set of Satie's piano music and listened to the 3 Sarabandes - the first three tracks on the record.

I was not familiar at all with these pieces before I bought this CD, and initially tended to skip them or not pay them much mind as they were followed immediately by the well-known Gymnopedies.

But since I have heard them a few times, I find them in some ways more satisfying than the more well-known pieces.

They are less attractive on the surface, lacking the lilting rhythm of the Gymopedies, and appear to be incomplete or oddly shaped on first listenings. The connection with the music of John Cage is made quite apparent here, and it is easy to understand why Cage held Satie in such high regard. By subverting conventions of time and form in subtle ways, these pieces stand out in sharp relief from the piano music of Satie's contemporaries. Here, the music seems to have uncoupled itself from time. There's a spaciousness that leads you to pay as much attention to gaps between the notes as to the music itself.

I sat in the Parc des Pioneers adjacent to the bay of this extraordinary town, a blend of natural Canadian beauty and heavy industry, listening to this music. I felt out of time and place myself. French music, played by a French pianist in a wholly French town - yet part of North America.

A moment that will remain with me.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Give Me 3D Vision & The California Blues

If ever there was a band that seems to be no more than style and glitz, it was T. Rex. Marc Bolan's group was huge in England when I was a young teenager, and songs such as "Get It On", "Telegram Sam", "Children Of The Revolution" and "20th Century Boy" are as much a part of my musical spawning ground as anything else.

Often derided at the time by 'serious' rockers, T. Rex's songs have only grown in stature since those days, chiefly because, by not taking themselves at all seriously, they convey more meaning and emotion than any number of contemporary prog rock opuses.

So I am waiting for an expanded and remastered "Electric Warrior" CD to be shipped with unusually bated breath. This is truly fun music.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Yet more from a Beatles course

The worst thing about looking back on exam questions is spotting all the typos, grammatical errors, and downright nonsense that you write under the pressure of a deadline. The following no doubt contains a few more - but I'm not going to correct them yet! This was a answer in reponse to a question concerning musical influences on the band outside of Pop music.

The Beatles were a curious and exploratory band of musicians. Having successfully developed a unique sound by assimilating all types of popular music, the Beatles turned, in 1965, to sources that lay outside popular music. In doing so, they not only reinvigorated their own music, but also introduced unusual music to their fans – many of whom would never have either heard or sought out this new music.

Perhaps their greatest achievement was the seamless integration of these extra-pop influences into their own songs. By example, this helped stimulate a period of remarkable cross-genre synthesis that pushed rock music into hitherto unforeseen regions.

Let’s look at these new types of music in turn.

Depending on what you read, George Harrison was introduced to the sitar by multi-instrumentalist Shawn Phillips[1] or by David Crosby and Roger McGuinn of the The Byrds[2] or simply encountered one on the set of the film “Help”[3]. Regardless, he became fascinated by the sound of the instrument, and after completing filming, he began a series of studies with North Indian sitar master, Ravi Shankar. Through Harrison, Indian music entered into the music of The Beatles.

“Norwegian Wood” introduced the sitar into popular music. From the beginning Harrison used the instrument in an “Indian” way, providing a drone – a sustained E major – and melodic shapes characteristic of the music.[4] This is an important observation, because it shows that The Beatles were not necessarily interested in simply co-opting unusual instruments into the Western popular style, but actually wanted to expand Western pop to embrace other types of music.

Three Beatles compositions, “Love To You”, “Within You Without You”, and “The Inner Light” all written by George Harrison go much further. The first two were recorded largely with Indian musicians from the North London Asian Music Circle, the latter with musicians in Bombay, all employ structural elements derived from the Indian tradition. “Love To You” begins with an alap – a musical discourse – and proceeds with the entrance of the tabla into a slow and fast gat – essentially a rhythmic ‘movement’ generated by a cycle of beats.[5] Both are elements of the Indian musical style known as the raga, described as a ‘continuum with scale and tune as its extremes’[6] or as a ‘melody form’[7], but “Love To You” is not a true raga.

The raga has profound extra-musical meaning in Indian culture. Each raga is associated with a fixed mood, time (day or season) and often a ceremonial occasion. They are believed to influence the physical world – for example, the raga Mālhar is believed to generate rain. They are also believed to have therapeutic properties, for both mental and physical ailments.[8] The root of Indian music is based on the belief that God – or the creator – is musical sound which pervades the whole universe – the Nada Brahma. An Indian musician is attempting through his art, to reintegrate himself, and presumably the listener, with creation itself.

This is definitely the poor man’s introduction to Indian music. To truly understand it requires a commitment well beyond just listening, and an exploration of the complex and profound spiritual and philosophical bedrock of this music.

Hence, the sometimes offered criticism that Harrison is engaging in “Orientalism” – in essence a half-understood appropriation of Asian cultural elements.[9] Harrison himself was certainly not guilty of this – you do not commit yourself to years of study with Ravi Shankar if your interest is but a passing fad. It’s probably a different story for the average Western listener.

The second of Harrison’s Indian songs, “Within You Without You”, is the most important, not only because it was the opening track to Side 2 of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band”, but because it, in many ways, provides that album’s (and by extension the entire Beatles at the time) philosophical core. Use of music with the profoundly religious roots described above to underlie sentiments such as

Try to realize it’s all within yourself

No-one else can make you change

And to see you’re really only very small

And life flows on within you and without you.[10]

is entirely appropriate and illustrates how closely The Beatles were tied to the 1960s search into “inner space” . A lengthy five minute plus, with instrumental dialogue between Harrison on sitar and a dilruba (bowed lute-like instrument or ‘one string fiddle’) , and an accompanying string arrangement carefully arranged by George Martin to allow the European players to get the right sound, this is a track well outside of The Beatles’ usual sound.[11] Indeed it was well outside the sound of any pop/rock music of the time, going further even than “Love To You”.

“The Inner Light” expands on the same lyrical themes

Without going out of your door

You can know all things on earth

Without looking out of your window

You can know the ways of heaven[12]

using much the same musical elements.

In addition to “Norwegian Wood”, Indian instruments were used in more ‘conventional’ Beatles’ songs. A svarmandal (also used on “Within You Without You), described by McDonald as “a sort of Indian zither”[13] was used to texture “Strawberry Fields Forever”. The tambura, a stringed instrument which provides the drone that is the foundation beneath a rage, was used to give an Indian feel to part of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. But the most significant use of the tambura (aside from its more normally integrated use alongside sitar and tabla in the Harrison songs) was to provide a constant drone in the song “Tomorrow Never Knows”.

“Tomorrow Never Knows” serves as an excellent introduction into the second main musical influence outside of pop music that The Beatles appropriated. This was the music of the avant-garde and experimental music.

I’m going to differentiate between avant-garde and experimental music following much of the classification introduced by Michael Nyman in his excellent book “Experimental Music”. It is ultimately a pointless differentiation in terms of The Beatles, and hopefully I’ll explain just why shortly, but it is helpful in explaining the music.

Nyman states that “experimental composers are by and large not concerned with prescribing a defined time-object whose materials, structuring and relationships are calculated in advance, but are more excited by the prospect of outlining a situation in which sounds may occur, a process of generating action (sounding or otherwise), a field delineated by certain compositional rules.”[14] Avant-garde composers, indeed all composers who fall outside the criteria outlined above, are, by definition, interested in time-objects who materials, structures and relationships are calculated in advance i.e. composed. Two composers influenced The Beatles significantly, largely mediated through Paul McCartney’s interest in cutting-edge art of all kinds at the time, and one is avant-garde and one experimental according to this definition.

John Cage is the experimental composer. His piece for audiotape, “Williams Mix” consists of a blend of sounds belonging to six categories – city sounds, country sounds, electronic sounds, manually-produced sounds, wind-produced sounds, and small (i.e requiring amplification) sounds[15]. It is how these sounds were arranged that puts Cage into the experimental category. He devised a method of cutting up and rejoining tape that was driven by chance – he did not personally select which sound went where on the finished tape. Consequently, listening to it, you hear an extraordinary patchwork of unconnected noises.

Ironically, if you listen to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Gesang der junglinge”, another piece for tape, the impression you get is exactly the same. It’s ironic, because Stockhausen, as an avant-garde composer, pre-determined every aspect of what you hear using a fiendishly complex compositional technique[16]. His work used human and electronically generated sound, a complex but less varied palette than that used by Cage.

Two very different methods of composing. Two very similar results. Both works are examples of the tape manipulative method known as musique concrète, a term coined by the French composer Pierre Schaeffer for his early experiments in rearranging and manipulating recorded sound.[17] The closed groove that endlessly repeats ‘never do see any other way’ at the end of Side 2 of the “Sgt. Pepper” LP is in effect a hommage to Schaeffer who developed his first musique concrète works using phonograph records. (His first work being a series of manipulations of the sound of a steam railway train called Etude aux Chemins de Fer composed in May 1948[18]).

But it was music such as the Cage and Stockhausen that interested The Beatles so much in 1966. And it was the sound of those recordings that most involved them. The conceptual leap, though, from listening to music such as this and applying it to a pop song (albeit a very unusual pop song) is simply breathtaking. Furthermore, it was done in an extremely effective manner. The five tape loops woven into “Tomorrow Never Knows” are extraordinarily well placed. If there was ever an example of the band’s (and I think we must include George Martin here) intuitive genius, this is it. This song, with its Indian drone influence, not just the tambura but Ringo’s drumming, a ‘cosmic tabla played by a Vedic deity[19]’ as McDonald puts it (although it sounds more African than Indian to me), Lennon’s extraordinary vocal sound, automatically double-tracked for the first half of the song, fed through the rotating Leslie-speaker of a Hammond organ for the second, the chant-like structure, the actual “Tibetan Book Of The Dead” lyrics, is simply astonishing.

Avant-garde and experimental compositional innovations influenced another Beatles’ track, “A Day In The Life”. The extraordinary orchestral glissandi leading into the middle eight and towards the final piano chord were played by musicians who were given no more than indication of what note to start and what note to finish with (with a few signposts on the way). How they got there was up to them. George Martin amusingly recalls that it was difficult to get the musicians into the frame of mind to carry this out successfully.[20] Being given a beginning and an end but not the details in between is another example of experimental music, and such ‘indeterminancies’ go back as far as the American composer Charles Ives in first half of the 20th century[21]. But not in popular music – this was another Beatles innovation. To my ears, though, the glissandi of “A Day In The Life” sound most of all like the work of composer Györgi Ligeti in a work such as 1961’s “Atmosphères[22]”, which does not contain indeterminacy!

While we have woefully self-deprecating George Martin’s orchestration in mind, it worthwhile to point out that the string arrangements for “Yesterday”, “Eleanor Rigby” and even “She’s Leaving” home introduce a clarity of texture and a ‘Classical’ sensibility (‘Classical’ as in the sense of referring back to composers like Haydn) that was novel. The string quartet on “Yesterday”, the double string quartet on “Eleanor Rigby” sound fresh and contrast favorably with the clichéd Romantic-style orchestrations prevalent at the time (e.g. Phil Spector’s arrangement for “The Long And Winding Road”). “Eleanor Rigby”, with its incisive, rhythmic string playing has an almost minimalist feel, a compositional style that was in its infancy in the 1960s. George Martin deserved a song-writing credit on this, and many other Beatles songs for that matter!

The avant-garde and experimental concepts introduced into the Beatles music were certainly part of broadly innovative if hardly popular movements in modern music. Both Cage and Stockhausen were considered preeminent in the field. Cage was familiar with and had been influenced deeply by Eastern religious concepts since the late1940s when he first became interested in Zen Buddhism. (The same interest fueled much of the Beat poetry and arts movement of the 1950s and into the 1960s). Stockhausen began to reach out to the East at about the same time as The Beatles with compositions such as Telemusik (1966) and Stimmung (1968)[23]. Influences were flowing in every direction, although it would take some time for ‘serious’ composers to acknowledge rock music influences.

1968 also saw The Beatles produce their most experimental work, the musique concrète of “Revolution 9”. Stripped completely of anything resembling conventional rock music, this has to be the single most widely heard work of its type ever recorded. One can only hope that at least some of the millions who heard this were sufficiently intrigued to delve further into experimental music.

“Revolution 9” ’s compositional techniques are not new, but they are used effectively to weave a discomforting sound portrait of turmoil punctuated by the dispassionately spoken “number 9” and other interjections. Now on the same turf as the little-heard music of the avant-garde and experimental movements, it invites direct comparison. Part of the problem with that is the difficulty in actually hearing comparable pieces – the “Non consumiamo Marx” by Luigi Nono that McDonald compares unfavorably to “Revolution 9[24]” is unavailable as of the moment. Other contemporary works of Nono that are available, such as “La fabbrica illuminata” reveal Nono to be an excellent, politically committed (rather more so than Lennon) and moving composer. “Revolution 9”, at the very least though, fits neatly into a year of assassinations, riots, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the escalating war in Vietnam, and student protests worldwide.

To finish, a brief mention of the use the Moog synthesizer by The Beatles on their final recorded album, “Abbey Road”. The synthesizer was created as a consequence of developments in the field of electronic music, an area of interesting intersections with popular music. Electronics, being only a means of making music, is not innately predisposed to any one musical style, but, given the essentially conservative nature of popular music, they were little used in this area. The first pop/rock band to make full and innovative use of electronic instruments was The Beach Boys, using the theremin both on the “Pet Sounds[25]” album and the single “Good Vibrations”. The Byrds, on the album “Notorious Byrd Brothers[26]” made use of the first Moog, a clumsly patch-cable affair. At the same time, Walter Carlos released the awful “Switched-On Bach” LP,[27] that became a best seller and put the Moog firmly in the public eye. Meanwhile, George Harrison was also experimenting with the instrument, collaborating with Bernie Krauss to produce a far superior piece of real music, “Electronic Sounds[28]”, released in 1969. The Beatles adopted it for “Abbey Road”, using it largely for instrumental color on a number of conventional tracks. The exception is “I Want You”, the last piece of experimentally influenced music the band recorded. The Moog is used to generate and process white noise that is laid in progressively heavier layers over the repeating guitar figure until it almost drowns out the sound of the band. Then snip, and song is abruptly cut off.

Noise or non-musical sounds had been a component of experimental compositions by artists such as La Monte Young, George Brecht and other members of the “Fluxus” group, a multi-disciplinary organization[29] that also happened to include Yoko Ono. La Monte Young had already given the rock music world John Cale, the influence of whom on The Velvet Underground had provoked the most radically dissonant and noisy (as in use of noise elements) rock music to date (“European Son[30]”, “Sister Ray[31]”). “I Want You” does not approach the wild abandon of those songs, but it does show that even at the very end, the urge to experiment was still strong in The Beatles.

[1] Sleevenote to Shawn Phillips, Contribution/Second Contribution CD Gott 17

[2] Ian McDonald Revolution In The Head Pimlico 1995 p. 132

[3] Allan Kozinn The Beatles Phaidon 1995 p. 133

[4] Ian McDonald Revolution In The Head Pimlico 1995 p. 132

[5] In India – 4. Rhythm and tala Grove Music Online, George Aviakian, Liner Notes to Ravi Shankar, India’s Master Musician Angel CD 7243 5 67023 2 5 and Ian McDonald Revolution In The Head Pimlico 1995 p. 155

[6] In India – 2. Raga – The concept Grove Music Online

[7] George Aviakian, Liner Notes to Ravi Shankar, India’s Master Musician Angel CD 7243 5 67023 2 5

[8] In India – 2. Raga – The concept Grove Music Online

[9] e.g. See Matthew Bannister The Beatle Who Became A Man in Every Sound There Is, ed. Reisling, Ashgate 2002 pp. 188-189.

[10] George Harrison Within You Without You © 1967 Northern Songs published in The Beatles Lyrics Hal Leonard Corp. p. 139

[11] George Martin With A Little Help From My Friends Little, Brown & Co 1994, pp. 124-130 and Ian McDonald Revolution In The Head Pimlico 1995 pp. 193-194

[12] George Harrison The Inner Light © 1967 Northern Songs published in The Beatles Lyrics Hal Leonard Corp. p. 160

[13] Ian McDonald Revolution In The Head Pimlico 1995 p. 175

[14] Michael Nyman Experimental Music Cambridge University Press 1999, p. 4

[15] Michael Nyman Experimental Music Cambridge University Press 1999, p. 48

[16] Karlheinz Stockhausen, Music and Speech in Gesang der Jünglinge, 1957 (reprinted in the notes to Stockausen – Elektronische Musik 1952-1960 Stockhausen-Verlag, Germany CD 3)

[17] Michael Nyman Experimental Music Cambridge University Press 1999, p. 48

[18] Paul Griffiths, Modern Music And After, Oxford University Press, 1995 pp. 17-18.

[19] Ian McDonald Revolution In The Head Pimlico 1995 p. 152

[20] George Martin With A Little Help From My Friends Little, Brown & Co 1994, pp. 56-59

[21] Michael Nyman Experimental Music Cambridge University Press 1999, p. 39-41

[22] Gyorgy Ligeti Atmosphères from The Ligeti Project II Teldec 8573-88161-2

[23] In Stockhausen – Works Grove Music Online

[24] Ian McDonald Revolution In The Head Pimlico 1995 p. 234

[25] The Beach Boys Pet Sounds Capitol C2-48421

[26] The Byrds The Notorious Byrd Brothers Columbia 65151

[27] Walter (Wendy) Carlos Switched On Bach CBS 63501

[28] George Harrison Electronic Sounds EMI 855239

[29] Michael Nyman Experimental Music Cambridge University Press 1999, p. 72-88

[30] The Velvet Underground European Son from The Velvet Underground & Nico, Verve CD 823 290-2

[31] The Velvet Underground Sister Ray from White Light White Heat, Verve CD 825 119-2

Monday, July 04, 2005

If There Is Something

I can remember the first three LPs I ever bought, beyond that the recollection gets hazy. All were bought in 1972. The first was "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", bought not only because it was considered at the time (and still by many today) as the greatest rock album of all time, but also because it was the only rock record I was familiar with from my childhood.

The second was "The Night Is Still Young" by Sha Na Na, bought solely because I had recently seen them perform on TV and they looked cool. It was the first, but not the last, disappointing record I ever owned.

The third was "Roxy Music", bought before I ever heard "Virginia Plain", largely on the recommendation of a school friend who said you will have never heard anything like it.

He was right.

"Roxy Music" was the first record that became special, eventually establishing itself as one of my favorite records of all time (easily beating "Sgt. Pepper", by the way") and setting the scene for greater, wider and deeper explorations into rock music.

The album was in large measure despised by most of my contemporaries. It was frivilous stuff, they thought, in comparison to the real progressive music being made by the likes of Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer. Ironically, time would prove "Roxy Music" to be of far greater importance and influence that anything made by those aforementioned bands, and the band itself was the first significant home of electronic and ambient music pioneer Brian Eno.

In those early days, my favorite track was the mid tempo rocker "If There is Something". A three part song, with a country flavored beginning, a classical/jazz middle section and a rock 'n' roll ballad finale. But these descriptions do scant justice to the song, which sounds like no country rock, classical/jazz improvisation, or rock 'n' roll of the early 1970s or any other time for that matter. Much of this has to do with the sound of the band. Guitar, oboe, keyboards were all played and processed in unorthodox, even atonal ways, and synthesizer textures and musique concrète constructions wash in and out of the band's music. The production, with prominent bass and drums and everything else mixed together in the middle, gives the music a swampy and muddy ambience quite unlike the crystalline textures that were coming into vogue as recording technology rapidly improved with Dolby noise reduction, 16 part multitracking and beyond. In some ways, the sound was a throwback to the tightly compressed recordings of "Revolver" period Beatles.

But I knew little beyond "Sgt. Pepper" of The Beatles at that point. And knowing makes little difference. Even today "Roxy Music" stands as an unique musical statement, one of the few that inspires imitation but nobody has been able to duplicate.

Chance Meeting

There is no substitute for the impact that music makes on you when you are a teenager.

Never mind that for the rest of your life you hear more and more widely varied music than you ever even knew existed; the songs and bands that captivated you when you were young take on special place and meaning.

No doubt this explains much radio programming, a carefully selected set of familiar songs guaranteed to elicit maximum teenage flashback in their aging audiences, all the while bombarding those listeners with exhortations to spend their adult incomes on this and that.

Listen to such radio for more than a day, and any truly meaningful emotional impact of remembrance and association is crushed. For that reason, I do not listen to music radio at all any more.

But even if I did, the number of songs of any period that would actually be destroyed by overexposure is extraordinarily limited. A playlist of no more than 300 songs often suffices for these targeted radio programs. A stunningly small number, even accounting for the restrictions placed by the date of origin of the music.

Of course, such a limited playlist forces the same songs to be overplayed even more. I can happily say that I hear, for example, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven" perhaps once a year and solely because I want to play it. At that frequency, it is actually a very powerful and enjoyable song.

No, my own 'radio' consists of my own record & CD collection, transferred to hard drive and played back using WinAmp's random shuffler. I have no idea what I am going to hear. All I know is that I own it, and have heard it at least once before.

The astonishingly thing about such a system is that these randomly chosen songs - out of 1000s of songs - more often than not seem completely appropiate to my listening wants. It is a rare session where I do not hear something that I am very glad that I did. Many times I had even been thinking of it beforehand.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

I Never Knew Magic Crazy As This

I was introduced to the music of Nick Drake by my friend Mark Judd around 1976 or so, thereby being part of the second wave of Drake discoverers, just missing him while he was alive and recording.

Subsequently, Nick Drake has been nearly forgotten and then rediscovered several times - the last that I am aware being when the song "Pink Moon" was used in a Volkswagen commercial!

As much as I dislike overtly commercial use of rock music, usually beyond the control of its creator, I was pleased that many more people became aware of Nick Drake as a result. My co-worker would never have heard him without this introduction, and she now loves his music.

And music to love it is. My favorite song is the ethereal "Northern Sky" featuring a sublimely creative harpischord and organ arrangement by John Cale and a melody to die for.

Perhaps I will write more later. Right now, I will just let the tune resonate in my head and go to bed.