Hacking Music, Part 1

(Picture from here.)

My Dad had a theory. He thought that if you raised a child listening to classical music the child would grow up to be musical. So he played a lot of music when I was growing up. When I was old enough he gave this tiny record player and a stack of 78 rpm records of classical music. I don’t remember any of this but when I was in high school I found the stack of records. They were worn completely smooth.

When I was four he started me on piano lessons and I’ve been playing some sort of music ever since. Guitar. Banjo. Piano. Mandolin. Lute. However, like Fry in Futurama, I’m cursed with Stupid Fingers. I’m lucky to master a belt buckle. Think of me as a determined, gifted amateur– minus the gifted part.

I got deeply into Baroque music.

What’s exciting about Baroque music is that they were creating modern forms. Concerto? First created as the concertato and honed to perfection before Mozart ever came on the scene. Symphony? Derived from the sinfonia that originated in the late Renaissance (almost the Baroque) which transformed into the sonata from which the near-symphony later concertos sprang. (Think the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Bach.)

My point is these guys were creating the very structure of modern compositions. They were creating form. They were hacking music. Bach even wrote Canon 1 and 2 in his Musical Offering that could be played forward, backwards or played forwards and backwards at the same time. (Listen here.) Tell me these guys couldn’t have worked for Anonymous.

I found this tremendously exciting.

There’s a deep divide between “serious” music and “popular” music. It’s a curious thing. It wasn’t there at the end or the Renaissance– common people listened to the same music as the aristocracy. Now it’s likely true that the aristocracy had more influence on the music than the common people. Musicians and composers are like bank robbers. They go where the money is. Much of Bach’s work is expressed in churches– a mixed venue. Mozart managed both extremes. The Magic Flute was in a popular theater but Don Giovanni was in a more serious local. There is a lovely story about Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The Ninth begins very softly but has an abrupt loud point later. (Listen here.) Apparently a woman was sitting in the audience with her groceries on her lap and was so startled she spilled her groceries over the aisle. The story may be apocryphal but the idea that a woman is in the audience with her groceries suggests that the divide between elite and common was still narrow even then.

Modern classical music took a sharp turn at the beginning of the twentieth century. It veered into a sort of abstract cacophony in an attempt to delve into the heart of what made music music. This was going on elsewhere as well with such examples as Mondrian’s abstract work and poets such as T. S. Eliot. While these works were fascinating in the environment of artist commenting on art they required a level of understanding that was difficult for non-artists. One can appreciate an aria in both Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute without a problem. But a poem requiring the audience to have a working knowledge of Greek has a more narrow appeal.

Ragtime, Tin Pan Alley and Jazz were right there to step into the niche and modern popular music was born

But a curious thing happened after World War II. Popular music got simpler. Less varied. Musically unsophisticated. Ragtime was never simple. Jazz was complex– Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is worthy of Claude Debussy. Someone to Watch Over Me plays some very interesting dissonant games. One arrangement I have plays a chord for which I have no name. (See left.) Nothing trivial about that.

Yet a lot of music the fifties and sixties was incredibly simple. Repetitive. And it sold very well. Now, it did seem to have a lot of emotion in it. Trivial emotion but strong and lots of it. (Think Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog.) Jazz fell from grace. Ragtime was forgotten. The most complex popular music around was in show tunes. (Think Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.) Rock and Roll was powerful but simple.

When the sixties came along. I was steeped in Baroque music, Beethoven symphonies and show tunes. Popular music didn’t interest me even though there were some interesting ground swells. Then, again, I never heard them. I was living in the south and the edgiest music available was Tom Jones and Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head. I did manage to listen to the wispy sounds of WLS Chicago on those rare ionospheric nights it could reach us. Little hints of something going on out there.

When I did get into popular music it was the attraction to those bands that were themselves hacking music: The Who’s TommyDeep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra. The continuing Yes attempt to rebuild rock idioms using classical forms: Close to the Edge as concerto. Tales of Topographic Oceans as symphony. Many of these attempts were failures– but then I suspect there were a number of Baroque failures. We don’t know them because only the good get recorded. But they were still hacking music.

At some point in the seventies that seemed to degrade into disco on the one hand and punk on the other. So I lost interest.

At this point in the conversation my son Ben would say, “Dad: you’re talking about music. When are you going to bring up Hatsune Miku?”

That would be Part 2.

Interesting Bits to Listen To:




Hacking Music, Part 1 — 10 Comments

  1. I think rock et al has its roots in music for the common people–which has its own history running underneath that supported by kings and patrons. Musicians, like you say, took themes from everywhere, it’s just that, like folk art and folk tales, so little of it was written down until relatively recently.

    Technology made rock accessible to all. (I also think that rap has its roots in the skalds of the Viking Halls.)

  2. Certainly, folk songs and such are the “songs of the common people” but I don’t think they were necessarily simple. Many of the folk songs that come from the Appalachians are anything but simple. They’re not concertos or symphonies but they’re more complex than a lot of Rock.

    Also, Rock as music is one thing. Rock as mechanism for recording industry millions is another. I think there is a disincentive in the music industry for complexity– it appeals to a more narrow audience and the size of the audience is the source of revenue.

    I’m encouraged by some independent efforts, notably Repo! The Genetic Opera. You can say a lot of things about it but it really is an opera and it is an attempt to write an opera using modern popular forms. It addition, it has the only rock operatic quartet I’ve ever heard. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repo!_The_Genetic_Opera) And I’m encouraged by some material I’ve heard out of Japan.

    That’s for part 2.

    • You are right–I should not have said simple. Accessible, maybe–not as deliberately complicated in execution. Amazing melodies as opposed to a symphony requiring a full orchestra.

  3. Love the term “hacking music.” I’ve been rather obsessed with the invention of electronic instruments and recording equipment, and how it’s altered music over the past 50 years. I’ve watched documentaries about Theremin, Moog, Bruce Haack, Brian Eno, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Reading Daniel J. Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music, Eric Tamm’s Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound, and David Byrne’s How Music Works made me realize how much popular music has shifted importance from tone to timbre. It always seemed to me that early 20th century composers like John Cage desperately flailed against the confines of Classical composition and intrumentation. They stuck their noses in the clouds to search for a platonic ideal, while popular music carried on the experiments, out of pure joy, and passed them by.

  4. One of the interesting things about the transition into Baroque music is how the composers took the tools handed them– polyphony, the fantasia, ensemble playing– and fashioned new forms such as the sinfonia, sonata and concerto.

    I think we can say the 3-5 minute song as we now understand it is a 20th century invention. There were folk songs before and some classical songs in the late nineteenth century but to claim close kinship to them is the same thing as calling birds dinosaurs or mammals amphibians. The difference is now so great as to create a new class.

    What worries me today is I’m not seeing much interest in longer forms. We saw a lot of that in the 60s and 70s but the recording industry was so incredibly profitable that you could put crap on vinyl and make millions. And they frequently did.

    I’d like to see more interest in longer forms.

    I wonder if the fact musicians had to fill those albums is what ultimately drove the the long form experimentation and as we moved away from albums we’ve lost the incentive to create longer material. I hope not.

    • David Bratman has a lot of interesting stuff to say about20th C composers of the long form. I haven’t studied music at all, merely listened in a hit or miss fashion, so am aware that patterns I perceive are probably false.

    • Economic considerations probably play a huge part when it comes to song length. The most obvious consideration is commercial radio playability, but besides that the royalty system encouraged more songs vs. longer. A songwriter would get paid per song (apparently capping at ten) per album, on top of the royalies going towards the performers for a recording. I suspect from the late 70s on, the industry, including the artists themselves, became more mercinary about making money. Even bands like Yes pulled back from the edge of experimental music and went back to a standard hard rock formula.

      My interest has turned to ambient music over the years, and I see plenty long tracks, anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. However, even ambient artists tend to default to the three minute length, as though it’s been ingrained into us over the past century. Will that change as artists realize mp3s have no physical constraints? Perhaps slowly, but it might be as difficult as getting opera singers to stop singing in constant vibrato, being established as the norm only because opera singers altered their vocal stylings due to the constraints of 1930s recording technology.

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