Friday, August 6, 2010

Why "Slow Descent into Alcoholism" isn't close to being the New Pornographers' best song

Over at Quomodocumque, Jordan Ellenberg has reviewed a recent show by the New Pornographers, my favorite new band of the last 20 years. But much as I admire Jordan, I totally disagree with his claim that “Slow Descent into Alcoholism” is the band’s best song. In fact, by Carl Newman’s (admittedly high) standards, it’s pretty boring.

The song starts (“My ... my slow de-”) on 1, or do, “a very good place to start,” as they say in The Sound of Music. After a bar of do, it moves up a step to re, or 2, which it also sits on for a bar (“scent into”). Two bars, two notes. Then in bar three, on “alcoholism” it walks on up to 4 and back down, ending, at the beginning of bar four, back on 1 for “went.” So basically, in the first four bars of music, the melody runs up and down the scale across the small span of a fourth.

That’s a pretty unadventurous opening, particularly when accompanied, as it is, by the three most basic triads in the key. But melodically, starting small can be a good strategy, as it leaves you enough room to build toward an expressive climax. I particularly associate that technique with the Bowie of Diamond Dogs, in songs like “Rock and Roll with Me” or “Sweet Thing”.

But unfortunately, that’s not Carl's gambit here. The second phrase of the song -- “to my head, where I really need it”, etc. -- just repeats the first one, running up and down the same four notes. The third phrase starts promisingly, leaping up from 1 to 5 -- on “my, my” -- and expanding the melodic range from a fourth to a fifth; but then it leaps back down to 1 again and continues pretty much as the first two phrases did. Indeed, the leap of a fifth simply sounds the two most basic tones of the tonic triad, which is the most basic of the aforementioned three most basic chords. It doesn’t introduce any tensions between the melody and the harmony; it’s about as static as a leap can be.

So after 12 bars of running up and down the same four or five notes, we finally get to “something like this”, in which the melody leaps up -- from 5 to 1. It’s the same inert outline of the tonic triad that we had at the beginning of phrase three, except that the 1 is an octave higher. True, Carl has expanded the melodic range from a fifth to an octave, but again, he’s done it in about as static a way as possible. And then he simply repeats the same banal leap two more times. Fifteen bars of music in which almost nothing has happened.

The melody -- and the harmony -- finally starts to go somewhere with the words “salvation holdout central”. But it’s too little too late, and even that one interesting bar of music is simply repeated three times, which drains it of some its novelty, before we’re back to running up and down a four-note scale.

As I said in the comments section of Jordan’s post, “Descent” wouldn’t crack my list of the top 10 New Porn songs, arranged there in chronological order. (It probably wouldn’t crack my top 20, or even my top 30.) But just for fun, let’s compare it to the first song on that list, the magnificent title track from New Porn’s first album, Mass Romantic.

The song opens, as the third phrase of “Descent” did, with an upward leap of a fifth. But rather than drop back down a fifth, it wobbles downward a half-step on the “man” of “romantic”. That wobble has a destabilizing effect. In the first place, it does introduce a tension between the melody and the harmony. But more important, it raises doubts about just what key we’re in. The listener’s default assumption is that we’ve started, as “Descent” did, on 1 and have leaped up to 5. But in that case, “man” would fall on the 4th scale degree, a whole step -- not a half-step -- lower than “ro”. So there are two possibilities: either “mass” did fall on 1, and we’re in an unusual mode -- the lydian, to be precise -- or the opening leap is not from 1 to 5 but rather from 4 to 1, and the opening chord is (confounding expectations) the subdominant rather than the tonic.

In either case, the ensuing harmonies would probably look fairly similar. If the first chord, C# major, is the subdominant, we’d expect D# major and G# major to show up pretty soon. If we’re in the lydian mode, we might expect to slip back into the parallel major, in which case F# major would turn up instead of, or in addition to, D# major. But in fact, the next chords are A and E, which don’t fit with either of our original hypotheses! After the third upward leap of a fifth -- “Grants, his books on tape” -- the melody does indeed descend a whole step rather than a half-step; but then it descends another whole step, outlining a major third -- from “his” to “on” -- rather than the minor third that either of the original hypotheses would imply. The melody then continues on down to “true”, which expands our melodic range to an octave: remember, it took 13 bars for that to happen in “Descent”, without any departures from a rudimentary three-chord harmonic scheme. Finally, with the words “love you” we get our F# major, which brings us home to the key of C# major, and on the words “radio, radio”, the melody falls first a whole step then a half-step -- outlining the minor third from 5 to 3 -- which we expected but didn’t get on any of our previous forays to 5. It’s a magical effect*.

I could -- and if I get enough requests, I will! -- perform similar analyses on any of the songs in the list I posted in Jordan’s comments sections. “Descent” just isn't in their league.

*If you’re interested, I do something similar -- but less dramatic -- in my song “Old Haunt”. In the excerpt found here, the harmonic shift occurs on the words “disks gives a sheepish smile”.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Last Word?

I e-mailed the editors of Dissent to point out the error I discussed in my last post, and they asked me to expand my remarks into a 250-word letter, which appears in the winter issue of the magazine. Here's what I wrote:
Barry Gewen’s review of Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise (Winter 2008) contains a factual error that illustrates the flaw in his argument. He describes the Beatles song “Norwegian Wood” as having a “pentatonic melody”--a melody restricted to five notes--which he says gives it a “skeletal quality.” But the song’s uncanniness comes from its use of an eccentric scale called the mixolydian.

The mixolydian scale is exactly like the major scale--the do-re-mi scale from The Sound of Music--except that the seventh note--ti--is lowered by a half-step. After its E mixolydian opening, “Norwegian Wood” modulates abruptly into the key of E minor, adding yet an eighth note to its melodic palette.

Gewen emphasizes the pentatonic scale because he equates tonality with simplicity. But as the surprising sophistication of “Norwegian Wood” demonstrates, that’s a dangerous mistake to make. And while Gewen is right that African music frequently uses the pentatonic scale, it just as frequently has a rhythmic complexity that’s daunting to even the best-trained Western musicians.

The twentieth century’s classical music was not all one atonal shriek. Its best composers and its best songwriters were largely mining the same vein. Alex Ross knows this, which is why he devotes whole chapters of his book to tonal composers like Sibelius, Copland, and Britten. Portraying Ross as a champion of atonality is as gross a distortion as portraying the Beatles as na├»ve rubes. Lennon and McCartney, like Shostakovich and Britten, were tonal composers constantly testing themselves against the limits of their inherited forms.
And here's Gewen’s reply:
Larry Hardesty is correct about “Norwegian Wood” and I apologize for the error. But I believe my general argument still holds. Hardesty’s analysis either parallels or is derived from Wilfrid Mellers’s analysis of “Norwegian Wood” in his 1973 book, The Music of the Beatles: Twilight of the Gods. Mellers too noted that the song is in the mixolydian mode (hardly an “eccentric scale”). But he also offered many examples of Beatles songs that are pentatonic either in whole or in part—“She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Wanna Be Your Man,” “I’m Happy to Dance with You,” “Things We Said Today,” “Help,” “Michelle,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “A Day in the Life,” and ... but why go on? As Mellers observes, “the nature of the tunes (both of folk soloists and of rock groups) is conditioned by their origins. ... The melodies tend to be pentatonic, or at most modally heptatonic.”

As for Hardesty’s other points, I wasn’t aware that I portrayed Ross as a “champion of atonality” but of modern music that grows out of the crisis of the European classical tradition. (If anything, I find Ross too eclectic.) And when Hardesty says I equate tonality with simplicity, I confess I don’t recognize either myself or my argument. The B-minor Mass simple? Don Giovanni? My point, rather, was that tonality, both diatonic and pentatonic, grounds us in a universal humanity in a way that music written from within the modern classical tradition does not.
It was probably a mistake to say that Gewen "equates tonality with simplicity," as it invited the rhetorically effective rejoinder "The B-minor Mass?" But my point was basically the same one my friend Kim made when I forwarded him the exchange above: "if tonality and modernity (or 20th century-ness) are not exclusive, his [Gewen's] last sentence makes no sense." Indeed. Why don't Copland and Shostakovich count for Gewen as tonal composers, while Lennon and McCartney do? The answer, it would seem, is that in some obscure way they fail to stick closely enough to the pentatonic and diatonic scales, a failure that can be fairly characterized as one of "complexity". On a piano keyboard, the span from C to the B above contains 12 notes: the pentatonic scale uses five of them, the diatonic seven. Gewen's charge against Shostakovich et al appears to be that--shades of Amadeus--they use too many notes.

But perhaps I can clarify this point by taking a closer look at the rest of Gewen's reply. For there, he makes exactly the same type of mistake he did in his previous foray into musical analysis. His list of Beatles songs leans heavily on their early work; but of course, if that's what their reputation rested on, history would remember them, if at all, as the 1963 equivalent of New Kids on the Block. In passing, however, I'll just note that, e.g., the line "How could I dance with another" spans six notes, so even as simple an early song as "I Saw Her Standing There" is not pentatonic "in whole".

But let's consider the examples drawn from the Beatles' mature work. The first four bars of "When I'm Sixty-Four"--"When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now"--do, for the most part, adhere to what in Western music is the "standard" pentatonic scale. (The problem of just what Gewen means by the pentatonic scale is something I'll get to in a moment; for now, let's just take a pentatonic scale to be any collection of five notes.) In fact, the note sung on "I" is a chromatic alteration: it's a half-step higher than it ought to be and thus adds a sixth note to the melodic palette. But let's ignore that, too, for the moment, and concede that the song is, as Gewen puts it, "pentatonic in part".

How, exactly, do four bars of melodic material that adhere to a pentatonic scale distinguish "When I'm Sixty-Four" from "music written from within the modern classical tradition"? The first six bars of the famous "invasion theme" from Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony (bum, bum-ba plink plink; bum, bum-ba plink plink, etc.), to cite the first example that springs to mind, adhere to the same pentatonic scale. The first seven bars of the "Danse Russe" from Stravinsky's Petrouchka simply run up and down a string of five notes three times--spanning an interval of only a fifth, as opposed to the ninth that McCartney's tune covers. (If the same note occurs in different registers--i.e., an octave or several octaves apart--it counts, for music-theoretical purposes, as one note.) I browsed around in my score of Bartok's string quartets--pieces I don't know as well as I do Stravinsky's ballets and Shostakovich's symphonies--and quickly found that the first five bars of the second movement of the Second Quartet repeat the same five-note figure twice, then invert it, with a sixth note introduced only on the last half-beat of the sixth measure. Starting at bar eight however, the next fourteen bars use only five notes--in the melody and in the accompaniment. If I spent a couple more minutes listening to some of Copland's "prairie style" ballets, or some of the sing-song boy-treble chants in some of Britten's operas, I'm sure I could find further examples of 20th-century concert music that uses a restricted melodic palette. But, as Gewen would say, "why go on?"

The point is that, in the same way that "Norwegian Wood" turned out to be more complicated than Gewen allowed, "music written from within the modern classical tradition" can, for bars at a time, be as simple as the simplest folk song. The salient question is, what happens next?

Well, what happens next in "When I'm Sixty-Four"? Bars five through eight set the lyrics "Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greeting, bottle of wine?" The first note to sound--on "Will"--lies outside the standard pentatonic scale, so that's the end of the song's petatonic-ness--which, of course, was actually compromised by its second note, anyway. But "will" is still a note of the diatonic scale that "grounds us in a universal humanity": it's ti in the do-re-mi system. The "len" of "valentine", however, adds a seventh note to our melodic palette--and it's a note that lies outside the diatonic scale. But then, so is the "gree" of "greetings": it's yet an eighth note, which falls into the crack between do and re. Finally, the "tle" of "bottle" is also outside the diatonic scale, a ninth note, falling between re and mi. (Actually, it's the same note as the "I" of "when I get older", an octave higher.)

So not only is the melody of "When I'm Sixty-Four" not pentatonic "in whole", but neither is it "heptatonic" (i.e., constructed of seven notes; the diatonic scale, the do-re-mi scale, would be a special case of the heptatonic). It in fact uses nine distinct pitches, three of which do not fit into the diatonic scale determined by the other six. What has become of our universal humanity??

But of course, "When I'm Sixty-Four" doesn't sound weird to us. It doesn't sound like Schoenberg. That's because its slinky little chromaticisms are perfectly familiar from the musical tradition in which McCartney is working: not the folk tradition that this Mellers person identifies (and no, I do not need the aid of an obscure 35-year-old book to recognize the mixolydian mode when I hear it), but rather the tradition of the English music hall, which McCartney plumbed far more fruitfully in the songs "Your Mother Should Know" and "Martha My Dear".

Here, I was intending to move on to a similar analysis of "Michelle", but I've probably already taxed the patience of the few people who've bothered to read this far. I'm sure the points I've been trying to make are pretty clear: use of the pentatonic and diatonic scales for bars at a time is perfectly common among composers working "within the modern classical tradition"; deviation from those scales is perfectly common among the better pop songwriters; and I grossly overstated the case in my last post when I said that "Gewen actually seems to know more about music theory than most pop-music critics do".

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing

I recently came across this article in Dissent, a magazine I've lately been reading online chiefly because its editors just republished this article to commemorate Richard Rorty's death. The Gewen article is a response to Alex Ross's new book The Rest Is Noise, and while I'm sympathetic to much of what it says, it also illustrates one of the reasons I bother with this blog (and why I went through the trouble of all those music primer posts last summer).

Gewen's thesis is, basically, that rock music is where the tonal tradition that stretches from Bach through Mahler went to hide in the second half of the 20th century, and I think he's largely right. I also think he's entirely wrong to portray himself as somehow rebutting Alex's thesis in The Rest Is Noise. Gewen claims that
Ross demands the Gershwin of the concert hall. He stresses the man’s sophisticated musical training and twice tells us the story of an encounter with Alban Berg. Gershwin, Ross reports, was “awestruck” by Berg’s compositions, which may have given him “a glimpse of something new, a deeper synthesis than what he had achieved to date”—which is to say, only “Rhapsody in Blue,” the “Concerto in F,” and a slew of songs like “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” “The Man I Love” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” (Poor, poor pitiful George.)
But Gershwin could not have written his best songs without his sophisticated musical training, any more than Burt Bacharach could have written his, and when Alex mentions Gershwin's glimpse of "a deeper synthesis", he's talking about Porgy and Bess. You don't have to be a musical snob to believe that Porgy is more ambitious than "Someone to Watch over Me". Indeed, Alex's verdict on Porgy is that it's precisely because it was a new synthesis that it didn't get the reception it deserved: neither the classical snobs nor the jazz musicians could cotton to it. Anyone who's read Alex on the topic of Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday", or on Bjork, Radiohead, or Dylan in the New Yorker, knows that he's not trying to shoehorn pop music into the classical tradition.

Gewen also heaps scorn on Alex's claim that in 20th-century music, "the rain of beauty never ended." "Who knew?" Gewen replies.
Young audiences, he writes, now “crowd into small halls,” presumably to be drenched by beauty’s downpour. Well, hope springs eternal. But it has been almost a hundred years since Arnold Schoenberg devised his twelve-tone system to free the West from the chains of tonality, and the West continues to embrace its chains. During the 1970s, Pierre Boulez, as head of the New York Philharmonic, made it his mission to instruct New York audiences in the beauties of modern music. Instead, he found that instruction was difficult when the pupils refused to attend class.
But the beauty Alex champions in his book is not only, or even chiefly, the beauty that some people find in the work of the most austere serialists. Alex devotes whole chapters to Sibelius, Copland, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and Britten, composers singled out precisely because they composed in a tonal idiom in the midst of the serialist frenzy. If young people prefer Radiohead or Metallica to Shostakovich and Copland, it has nothing to do with tonality or atonality; the same young people also prefer Radiohead or Metallica to Brahms and Mahler. Indeed, the average Metallica fan might find a lot more to appreciate in the savage portrait of Stalin in Shostakovich's Tenth than in the closely argued development of solid Germanic themes in Brahms's symphonies.

Anyway ... I didn't actually begin this post intending to defend Alex from Gewen. I really just wanted to discuss a remark Gewen makes toward the end of his essay:
Songs written in the [pentatonic] scale above may be in the key of C or the key of G; without an F or an F#, there’s no way of knowing. Pentatonic melodies have a more skeletal quality, as with Dylan’s “Percy’s Song” or the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”
This is totally wrong. The main melody of "Norwegian Wood" is, like a lot of music by the Beatles and other English rock bands of the sixties, in the mixolydian mode. Unlike the pentatonic scale, which, as its name would imply, uses only five notes, the mixolydian mode uses the same seven notes that the major scale does; it just starts on a different scale degree. The bridge of "Norwegian Wood" modulates into the parallel minor of the main melody's mode, adding yet an eighth note to the seven of the preceding section. (For an example of what pentatonic melody really sounds like, listen to the chorus of Michael Penn's "No Myth". The verse melody also starts out using the pentatonic scale, but it can't help throwing in the leading tone--the "ti" of the do-re-mi scale--at the end. In music in the Western tonal tradition--and I agree with Gewen that both the Beatles and Michael Penn fit into that tradition--it is hard to avoid the leading tone and the harmonic implications it carries.)

Gewen emphasizes the pentatonic scale because he thinks of it as a kind of pancultural lingua franca, and in a way, I suppose, it is. But all great musical artists--Brahms, Schoenberg, or John Lennon--try to find some way to expand the musical traditions they inherit. The pentatonic scale may, as Gewen suggests, create a bridge between Western and African musical cultures. But much African music also makes use of complex polyrhythms that only the best-trained Western musicians can keep up with. Slipping effortlessly between counting three and four beats per measure, often in the course of single measure, as West African drummers do, is not something you can learn to do in an afternoon--or even in a college semester, as I learned as an undergraduate. Rhythmically, West African music is every bit as complex as Bartok's music is harmonically.

The mixolydian scale is common in old English folk music; Ralph Vaughan Williams--another aggressively tonal 20th-century composer--uses it all the time in pieces that borrow from folk traditions. The flatted seventh degree, which is the signature modification of the mixolydian scale, is also common in blues music. I'm not sure which route John Lennon took to the mixolydian mode, but once he found it, he certainly made dramatic use of it. Beginning a piece in an unconventional mode and then modulating directly into a parallel mode is not some naive, intuitive gesture. It's exactly the kind of manipulation that 20th-century composers--like Gershwin and Stravinsky as well as Lennon--used to breathe new life into the tonal tradition.

Part of the motive behind my last few posts has been to try to show that the tools of musical analysis can tell us as much about the pop music we love as they can about classical music. Gewen actually seems to know more about music theory than most pop-music critics do. Which makes it all the more disappointing that he couldn't be bothered to actually look at the notes before opining about their cultural and historical significance.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Formalism vs. Contextualism, part two

In my last post, I was trying to clarify the point of contention between Arthur and me by distinguishing what I called formalism and contextualism and explaining how I thought Arthur had blurred the distinction. I'd also like to say a little bit about why I think I tend to fall on the formalist side of the divide.

The first point to make is that I don't always fall on the formalist side. There are some early songs of Bob Dylan's, for instance, that I would be hard pressed to defend on formal grounds but that frequently have a magical effect on me. That effect has to do with Dylan's possibly unprecedented way of singing, which owes something to Woody Guthrie--a loaded association for me already, since my dad was born into the same Oklahoma dust bowl that Guthrie wrote about--and which evokes something of Greil Marcus's "old, weird America," but which, because of Dylan's intimacy with the microphone, infuses the uncanniness of The Anthology of American Folk Music with a new human warmth. Where Dylan borrows lyrics from the folk tradition, that intimacy (which, by the way, disappeared very quickly, only to reemerge in the mid-1980s) recharges them with the romantic longing that must have animated them in the first place, and I associate that longing with the photo on the cover of Freewheelin', Dylan young and charmingly innocent with a girl on his arm, a photo that evokes the excitement of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s--which I also associate with my parents' youth, which coincided with Dylan's, and which I imagine now with the same fond nostalgia I feel when I remember my own, which like Dylan's was marked by musical ambition and coffee house performances and cheap apartments and long, late talks with people who seemed eccentric and brilliant and passionate. But at the same time, I can't look at that picture or listen to those recordings without imagining the haggard Dylan of today, who sings with such rue on Time Out of Mind, "I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down," or without remembering the weird incense smell of the candlelit basement room in my freshman dorm where I listened to Dylan in earnest for the first time, sitting on the floor, and where the discovery of his music seemed like a ritual, a right of passage--all of which add to the swirl of sensations and emotions that the music elicits.

I could probably go on, but the basic point is that this is one case among many where what matters most to me about a group of recordings seems to be "what they mean culturally", in Arthur's formula. I treasure the experience of listening to those recordings for all their associations. But at the same time, I feel that tracing out all those associations will do me very little good. As Arthur put it in his comment, it's "not an intellectual pursuit he [me] is interested in".

That's because any particular, magical confluence of associations is very unlikely to occur in exactly the same way again, so it's not much of a guide to future decisions about what music to buy. I take it as axiomatic that the point of arts criticism is to (1) deepen people's appreciation of familiar works of art or (2) guide them to unfamiliar works of art that they will deeply appreciate. My appreciation of those early Dylan songs could hardly be deeper, so (1) doesn't really pertain. At the same time, I've found that a singer's proximity to the microphone, or the fact that he or she is roughly my parents' age, is not as reliable a predictor of a satisfying aesthetic experience as, say, melodies of wide range that feature lots of leaps and wander out of the diatonic scale.

I realize that this could sound like a circular argument: formal properties are better than cultural meaning at predicting what music I'll like, but that's only because, for some idiosyncratic reason, I'm more intrigued by music's formal properties than by its cultural meaning. If that's true, however, then Arthur and I may not really be disputing anything; we just appreciate different aspects of music. But then, I don't really see anywhere for the conversation to go. It doesn't do a whole lot of good for either of us to say to the other, "Care about this thing that you don't care about!" Caring is something that can't be done on demand.

But the reason I write lengthy blog posts instead of just shrugging and walking away from the conversation is that I think that, for most people, formal properties really do make a difference. I think that even the trippiest hippie at Woodstock, who just wanted to make the scene and feel the peace and love vibe, probably recognized formal differences between the music of Jimi Hendrix and that of Sha Na Na, and that those formal differences probably led to aesthetic discriminations, one way or the other. One of the reasons for this blog is to try to develop a more nuanced and precise critical vocabulary for discussing formal differences. The vast majority of pop-music criticism has, in fact, concentrated on cultural meaning; I'd like to at least try to nudge my seven or eight readers toward thinking more about the notes.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Formalism vs. Contextualism, part one

I know, I know, I've started to look like one of those people who start blogs full of enthusiasm but forget about them within months. But since my last post, I have gone to southeast Asia for two weeks, come back to find that in addition to having, basically, started a new job, I'm also editing a new section of the magazine, agreed, nonetheless, to write a story for the next issue on a topic that I didn't really know anything about, found a place to live with my girlfriend, packed up and moved all of my earthly belongings, and gone to Texas for my sister's wedding, for which, in what might laughably be called my free time, I wrote a song. The new apartment is still full of unopened boxes, I'm still behind at work, and Elise and I spent the last two days in New Haven, but dammit, I'm determined to get something up on the blog today. [When I wrote the preceding sentence, BTW, "today" meant November 18.]

My last post prompted a bunch of great comments, which I hope to at least begin to address.

It's true that for years Arthur and I have been carrying on a debate about music, and like him, I've been inclined to think of it as a clash of aesthetic principles, between what we might call formalism (my side, a concentration on the formal properties of music) and contextualism (his side, a concentration on, as he puts it, what music "means culturally").

The distinction between formalism and contextualism is, like most distinctions, somewhat specious. It's probably impossible, except maybe for people with severe autism, to attend solely to the formal characteristics of music; my preference for particular types of melodic or harmonic movement must derive, at least in part, from the cultural contexts in which I first encountered them. Similarly, it seems unlikely that someone could attend solely to the cultural context of music and make no discriminations based on formal properties. Summer-of-love hippies and straightedge punks both considered music vital to the advancement of their cultural and political agendas, but I don't think that you could have swapped the formal properties of the music--psychedelia and hardcore--without also altering the associated cultures.

But, also like most distinctions, the one between formalism and contextualism is probably useful for some conversational purposes. Arthur's comments, however, blur that distinction in ways that I don't quite follow.

That may be because I have the opposite tendency: making overnice distinctions in cases where they're not useful. It's true that, when discussing music, I tend to talk a lot about melody. But most of the melodies I find "interesting"--the one I mentioned in my last post is a notable exception--wander out of their home keys, so they also have interesting harmonic implications. And of course, varying the durations, both absolute and relative, of the notes in a melody can change its character utterly, so it's even more difficult to wall melody off from rhythm. (Again, the Rick Astley tune provides something of a counterexample: the melody of the chorus is fairly straight, with just a little syncopation each phrase. In the first phrase, the syncopation falls on the "eh" of "forever." Interestingly (maybe), if you give equal duration to all of the notes in the melody, you fall into waltz time: to GEH-ther-for EH-ver-and NEH-ver-to PART ... ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, etc.) I think I tend to emphasize melody because, while there's a lot of pop music with good grooves or interesting harmonic features but boring melodies, there's less with interesting melodies and boring rhythmic or harmonic features. Actually, there's less pop music with interesting melodies, full stop.

Anyway, granted that I overemphasize melody in my discussion of music's formal properties, I still consider rhythm a formal property. So I'm a little confused when Arthur says that "Sometimes he [me] admits that he likes a 'groove' or something like that; we once discussed the appeal of Outkast's 'Hey Ya.' But mostly those things seem to fall into some sort of 'visceral appeal' category." Particular types of groove may very well become associated with particular cultural movements, but the same is true of harmony and melody. A bunch of added chord tones can turn almost any pop song into a jazz piece, with all of jazz's contextual associations; and the "blue notes" of blues melodies--the equivocations between the flatted and natural third, fifth, and seventh--virtually define the genre.

Nor do I think that "groove" intrinsically falls into "some sort of 'visceral appeal'" category. All music falls into the visceral-appeal category, at least initially; that's why we get into it. It's only later that we (or at least some of us) begin to analyze its formal properties. If I've spent less time analyzing the rhythmic properties of pop music, it's probably because they seemed less mysterious to me when I started writing my own songs. Jay's right that my "first exposure to popular music was relatively late and that [I] appreciated what [I] heard as a classically trained musician." But on the other hand, the classical music I was listening to was mostly Shostakovich, Bernstein, Stravinsky, and Copland. The rhythms of pop music seemed rather tame in comparison. But the melodies--I didn't really conceive of melody as a separate formal property until I started to realize how hard it was to write good pop tunes.

Okay, I have lots more to say, but I'm going to save it for later. Because otherwise, it could be another two weeks before I get this post up on the blog. But in closing, I feel obliged to point out that it was Vanessa who introduced me to Tay Zonday mere days before I mentioned him on my blog with such casual knowingness. I am justly rebuked for failing to give her credit.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Rick Astley Has Taken Control of Your Computer

It's probably a gross failing on the part of Firefox's developers that when I opened this link in a new tab, I couldn't shut it again without force-quitting the program, but as malware goes, this is pretty benign stuff, and its comedic value probably makes up for any inconvenience it causes.

No doubt this video was chosen as an illustration of all that is most annoying about '80s pop music, and Rick's combination of black turtleneck and weirdly high-collared trenchcoat, his absurdly peppy dancing, and the cuts to the groovin' African-American bartender to give him some street cred are pretty damning -- even if we manage to forget for the moment that he was the most unlikely physical specimen to emit such deep and resonant tones until Tay Zonday. Nonetheless, I would like to say a few words in defense of the much-maligned Mr. Astley.

I find this song kind of catchy, but his other inescapable hit from the '80s, "Together Forever", is one I actually went to the trouble of pirating and uploading to my iPod. You remember it -- "Together forever and never to part, together forever, we two."

That first line begins on the 5th scale degree, moves up to 6 and down again to 4, then leaps up a seventh to 3 on the syllable "for". (Ah, it's so nice to be able to wax technical and know that I'm not losing my audience, because they've all made such careful study of my music primers.) I hope to have occasion in the near future to rhapsodize about melodic leaps of a seventh, but suffice to say that they don't happen all that often in pop music, they're wonderful when they do, and 4 to 3 is a more interesting seventh than the more common 5 to 4 or 1 to flat-7. "Ever" comes down from 2 to 7 -- the 7's relationship to the melody's lowest tone (so far) insinuating a tritone, my other favorite melodic interval. Two words, and we've already covered six of the seven notes of the key. (Compare, for instance, James Blunt's "You're Beautiful", which I intend to slag off on this blog, and which consists almost entirely of three or four notes.) "Never" lowers the melody's floor from 4 to 3 -- expanding the range of notes it covers. "To" is another leap of a seventh (hurray!), from 3 to 2, in what the music theorists call a sequence -- a repetition (or at least an approximate repetition) of the preceding pattern of pitches, but begun on a different pitch. "Part" brings us, finally, to the only note in the scale that the melody has not traversed so far -- the root, the tonic, the "home base" of the key.

I submit that the melody to the lyrics "together forever and never to part" in Rick Astley's song "Together Forever" is about as interesting a pitch sequence as the major scale has to offer. And I think it's because I concentrate, when listening to pop music, more on things like pitch sequences and less on things like the singer's hair and the cheesy synth arrangements that my tastes so frequently confound my friends' expectations. (I sometimes suspect that that's also the reason nobody seems to like the songs I write as much as I do.)

Friday, August 24, 2007

These Are Moving Pictures; the Camera Should Move

In his recent elegy for Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen says,
In film school (I was thrown out of New York University quite rapidly when I was a film major there in the 1950s) the emphasis was always on movement. These are moving pictures, students were taught, and the camera should move. And the teachers were right.
Back when I worked for a film company (1993-1995) and was writing screenplays for movies I planned to direct--none of which ever got made, of course--I hewed to the same principle, although I had arrived at it through my own devices. To that principle--"the camera should move"--I appended a corollary: no shot--no camera angle or composition--should be repeated, unless the repetition itself has some formal significance--to indicate stasis, say, or to recollect an earlier scene.

Few film directors have much allegiance to either of these dicta. They prefer to concentrate on things like story, character, psychology, emotion, whatever. Nevertheless, movie history is studded with the names of directors reputed to be great movers of the camera. The opening shot of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil is justly celebrated; less well known is another one-shot scene later in the movie--the one where Welles's Quinlan plants evidence on an incidental character. Less flashy if no less virtuosic, the second shot is just as well motivated narratively as the first: its continuity allows you to see that sticks of dynamite have magically appeared in a box that was previously empty.

But neither of these shots is the tour de force that was the ballroom scene at the heart of Welles's earlier film The Magnificent Ambersons--before it was butchered by the studio. Welles made Ambersons when he was still riding high on the success of his radio show and commanded the biggest budgets in Hollywood history; the single shot that was to constitute the ballroom scene originally lasted 10 minutes. Much of the scenery was devised to be lifted away as soon as it disappeared from the camera frame, to make room for the track that was being laid down as the camera moved, and for the camera itself. For the most part, the camera followed the movie's two main characters, but there were occasional divagations. One involved a conversation among a random assortment of upper-crust party guests about a recent, fascinating, but also kind of frightening import from Europe, which no one could quite summon the courage to sample: the olive. It's exactly the kind of period detail that novelists relish, and it even had thematic significance, indicating both the opulence of the world in which the Ambersons moved--they were the first to be able to afford an imported delicacy--and its quaint antiquity. The studio complained that the conversation did "nothing to advance the story" and cut it, along with a couple other segments of the shot. It is one of my fondest hopes that I will live to see digital technologies progress to the point that the scene can be reconstructed, from the surviving stills and script and from samples of the movie's other scenes.

The early Renoir was a great mover of the camera, and even devised his own technology for tracking shots, a set of reconfigurable, interlocking, polished wood platforms over which a camera mounted on felt feet could slide, but he claimed he had to stop using it because it violated union guidelines. Tarkovsky, Mizoguchi, Minnelli, Demy, Ophuls -- all were masters of the tracking shot. But to me, the most virtuosic mover of the camera is Luis Bunuel.

Lots of cinephiles are shocked when I say this. Bunuel is thought to have a rather dry style, and indeed, he seems to deal mostly in medium shots, which have neither the drama of the closeup nor the pathos of the long shot. But his camera is always moving. I pointed this out once to a guy who was teaching a class on film appreciation at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, and he said, "That's not moving, that's framing." By which he meant, Bunuel's camera movements are generally motivated by his characters' movements. Fair enough. But who decides the characters need to move? In a lot of movies, they don't. They stand or sit, and the camera cuts back and forth between them, in what, in my film days, I would disparagingly refer to as "composition tennis". Bunuel finds reasons to make his characters move precisely to have a reason to make the camera move.

A good example is the opening of Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, about three minutes into the Criterion disc. The scene in the Senechals' house takes exactly two shots, and the characters are constantly moving about, dragging the camera with them. Indeed, sometimes, when you start paying too much attention to Bunuel's direction, his shots begin to seem incredibly contrived, with characters moving into the background and positioning themselves so that they exactly fill in the visual gaps between characters in the foreground. But of course, if you're watching as you normally would in the cineplex, you hardly notice what the camera is doing. You just find that you have a very clear sense of the three-dimensional space of the scene, and a general impression of elegance.

All of this is apposite because Criterion -- God bless Criterion -- has just released a DVD of Bunuel's Milky Way, my favorite of his films. In it, he makes my corollary to the NYU aesthetic principle -- don't reuse a shot once you've left it -- a structural conceit, disdaining to reuse settings and even, with the notable exceptions of the two protagonists, characters once he's left them. He actually takes this structural principle even further in The Phantom of Liberty. Perhaps he takes it too far -- or perhaps, without the ready-made imagery of the history of the Catholic Church, he's just unable to repeat the combination of comedy and pathos that he manages so brilliantly in Milky Way. Either way, I've always found Phantom the lone disappointment among his late, European films. But The Milky Way is a masterpiece.