(Picture from here.)
In Part 1 I talked about hacking music back in the Baroque Period and did a quick leap forward into the sixties.
I’m very interested in new musical idioms and forms. It has to be clear that I tend to view music in the narrow lens of my own musical upbringing. This makes me a bit blind to some distinctions that others might find earth shakingly important and excited by what some might thing trivial changes.
I had great hopes in the 80s when rap started showing up. I even made a passing reference to it in a story of mine called Boulder Country. I view punk, rap, hip-hop, dub, etc., as musical venues that sacrifice complexity to pursue a specific goal. Sort of like how Mondrian was interested in the play of light and shadow and went from painting trees to painting horizontal and vertical lines. It’s a perfectly acceptable artistic approach. Still, if you sacrifice everything for rhythm and lyrics then you need to make double damned sure that rhythm and those lyrics are terrific. By now I was expecting the Iliad or the Odyssey or Ulysses. It’s never wrong to hope, I suppose.
Instead I’m going to talk about Hatsune Miku, J-Pop and musical changes I think are interesting. I’m not going to be talking about the lyrics– it’s the music that interests me. Besides, I think the lyrics… suffer in translation.
I’ve been following her, or at least, the music that she sings, for about two years now. Seeing the Miku concerts are interesting but I’ve decided the real interesting thing about her is that she is enabling technology. Miku is a singing machine– the same sort of machine as the Synesthesia piano synthesizer. Or any other means by which those of us with Stupid Fingers and the itch to play or compose music can circumvent our handicap. She is enabling technology. She is an organizing principle around which music can be made to crystallize.
One of the implications of this is when you hear Hatsune sing you’re hearing the sum of every choice a composer made. Every jot and tittle, warble, breath, speed of attack and fade was the artistic decision of a human being. The same is true for any Synthesia piano value. In fact, some vocaloid songs are essentially untouched by any human performs. Here is Happy Synthesizer as a somewhat repetitive example.
When I first heard the concert footage of the Hatsune ensemble I was more impressed by the performers than the animation. I mean the animation was fun (see here.) but that band was tight. They have to be tight. They’re essentially playing against a recording. If they miss a beat or a note it doesn’t matter. Hatsune’s not going to be able to cover them. She’s going to be singing her note right on time. (See here.)
This has a knock on effect of forcing the supporting musicians to plan their music just as precisely as what the vocaloid is doing. This gives a precision to the performance. There is no winging it or jams in a Hatsune song. For better or worse, this is how it is.
Hatsune is, therefore, a tool. Most of its use has been in the cultural and musical context of J-Pop, Japanese pop music with which I’m only passingly familiar. Most of the music I’ve been hearing originated in Nico Nico Douga— the Japanese equivalent of Youtube. But I can’t read Japanese. What I do is have a little agent troll Youtube for vocaloid music– most of which are posted from Nico Nico Douga. I go over that and decide what is interesting. From this I get music that was written for a vocaloid, popular J-Pop (usually) songs covered by amateurs using a vocaloid and vocaloid songs covered by actual performing human beings. So when I use the word “Hatsune” in a musical context I’m really talking about a whole swath of music much of which may or may not directly involve the Hatsune Miku vocaloid. I’m trying to get at something bigger.
From this I’m going to comment on a musical movement. Right. That’s like saying listening to a couple of albums by the Stones and Beatles enables me to speak authoritatively about sixties rock music.
But knowledge has never stopped my opinions before so let’s continue.
There’s a polyphonic aspect to this music that reminds me of Baroque music. I mean we’re not talking Bach here but there’s something going on.
Polyphony has been around since the Renaissance and it’s been a component of pop and rock music for a long time. That’s one of the things that eventually attracted me. Anytime you hear a counter tune in the back, that’s polyphony: harmonic but independent melody lines. One of the features of the Baroque period is the transformation of polyphonic music to contrapuntal music, a distinction I can hear but am unable to describe.
We have polyphonic pop music but it sounds, to me, like it’s largely in harness to the melody line. That makes it weaker. The polyphonic aspect I’ve been hearing in the Hatsune music is stronger, more independent. For example, here is Owl City’s Good Time, as standard a pop song as there ever was. There’s polyphony here but it’s completely subservient into harmony and there are only two voices. Here’s what I think is a comparable pop song, Futarboshi.
I’m not saying that one pop song is better than the other. I have my own opinion on that but it’s irrelevant. I’m saying in Good Time the polyphony is subservient to the emotion and kinetics of the singer. In Futarboshi the vocal line and other lines are more independent. The voice is just one more instrument of the ensemble. Owl City is centering the attention on the vocals. Futarboshi is more of an ensemble piece. Not that American pop music isn’t capable of sophistication. Here’s Owl City’s Fireflies, a much more interesting song.
I chose two light pop songs just to show the difference in approach. But there are things going on more deeply.
The first song I heard that really got me excited was Ai kotoba. Go here and listen. Here is a slower piano version. Listen to the intro baseline and later in the chorus. Sound familiar? Now listen to Pachebel’s Canon here. This is the same chord pattern. That’s what started me digging.
Ai kotoba was written by DECO*27 about which I could find absolutely nothing. (His version is here.) This wasn’t the first time I ran into a blank wall regarding these composers. Are they creating an identity and hiding their biography? Is it a language wall so that I’m asking the wrong questions? I don’t know. I am convinced that the connection between Ai kotoba and classical forms is no accident. Over the last couple of years I’ve been pursuing this material I keep finding very accomplished musicians. Musicians that appear classically trained. I don’t know if more Japanese study music than contemporary Americans but I am finding a lot of sophisticated musicians there.
Americans used to do the same. Back in the fifties and sixties many children had piano lessons. It wasn’t all that unusual. We’ve lost that.
Time Machine (Listen here.) starts in E-flat major and then appears to change to the key of B-major in the middle. Turns out, B-major is the parallel key to E-flat minor. A parallel key is when two keys have the same notes but different starting point. If you play out B-major starting out on B it sounds like a major key. If you play the same notes but start on E-flat it sounds like a minor key. Minor keys tend to sound mournful and sad. Major keys tend to sound more upbeat. But not always. What’s interesting in Time Machine is the drop from major to minor and playing the minor as if it were major.
Time Machine was written by 40mp. He married Chano, a singer. That’s about all I was able to find out.
There’s another Miku piece called Stellar (Listen here.) Starting around 17 seconds there’s a strange staggered heartbeat rhythm.
Dub. -space- Dub. -space- -space- Dub. -space- Dub. Dub.
Hear it? Notice that it doesn’t quite fall on the beat? The rest of it is just a sweet little pop song. With an odd sort of static in the background that turns out to be a complex rhythm that barely registers to the level of consciousness. It’s like a pop-jazz. Add in to that the fact that by the nature of using a vocaloid everything must be planned. That means in a competent song (such as this one) that “misstep” was planned. The off beat is intentional. And I couldn’t find out who wrote this little piece.
This gets even more interesting in a vocaloid song called Leucocoryne. (Listen here.) I was driving home listening to this trying to figure out the rhythm. There’s an obvious surface rhythm: 3/4 time. Waltz time. Oom pah pah. Okay, fine. But that didn’t explain a sort of odd under rhythm, a single beat followed by a space followed by a triplet:
Dub -space- fiddlebit
“Fiddlebit” is my shorthand for the triplet. This does not fit with the 3/4 time. But this song is making it work. Leucocoryne appears to be written by someone named Ryuryu. Another individual about whom I can find little.
Then I ran into the song 1/6 or “Out of Gravity”. (Listen here.) Here is a bit of the beginning:
Note the three note repeating pattern. This is called an arpeggio. It’s a chord that is played sequentially rather than all at once. This chord is a triad– three notes. However, this is a four beat song. So the arpeggio is stamping out a three beat at the same time the song is using a four beat. That’s what gives the odd hopping rhythm to the song.
1/6 is quite a fun little pop song written by someone named “Bookariodo P (noa)” of “Vocaloid-P” depending on where you look. He writes these songs. That’s about it.
So what am I seeing?
If this is hacking music, none of it at the level of the Baroque period. Not even close. At best, these are hints and foretellings. Scents in the wind. Distant murmurings. Am I just noticing a blend of cultural material that only seems new to me because I haven’t witnessed it before? Am I just seeing a phase delay of old material suddenly exposed because of inter country barriers? These are five minute songs, not symphonies.
With the possible exception of Isao Tomito‘s usage of Miku in a recent concert (See here.) I have seen no larger work. Tommy came out in 1969. Could anyone have expected it from The Who when the formed in 1964? The Hatsune Miku software was released five years ago and J-Pop has been around longer than that and I’m not seeing any works more ambitions than the five minute song. Am I projecting? Maybe I’m so desperate for complexity and novelty I’m making this stuff up. After all, how many times can I listen to Beethoven’s Ninth? Bach’s Art of the Fugue?
On yet another hand, maybe I’m blind to an important cultural context. In Japan there are few barriers between different sorts of artistic expression. Fine Rock is attached to Anime, television shows and video games. There appears to be no sense these might be lesser venues. Music that is written for a video game is just as good as that written for any other public consumption. Good stories and art are not precluded from being represented in comics. (Manga.) Some of the songs I’ve been seeing had their first life in video games or cartoon shows. Some of the songs have science fiction themes– no one would take an SF song seriously in the USA. That would make many paying venues for competent musicians.
Or maybe I’m getting excited about the Japanese equivalent of Gilligan’s Island.
The electric guitar was invented in 1931. Yet we didn’t see serious work using it until the 1950s. Longer work written especially for the electric guitar it had to wait for the late 60s and 70s. By that measure, Tommy was written nearly forty years after the invention of the instrument that made it possible. Perhaps we’re just in the equivalent of the 50s regarding vocaloid technology– or for that matter synthetic music software of any stripe. It’s early days. Should I be more patient?
I have no idea.
But I’m excited about what I’m hearing the same way I was excited back in the seventies when I pulled out Tales of Topographic Oceans and put it on the stereo and heard in it echoes of Mahler.
Additional fun bits people might like:
- Error: Interesting song where the melody is played and repeated against a shifting scale.
- Spinal Fluid Explosion Girl: One fast song that goes in odd directions. It’s Jazz! It’s Rock! It’s hip hop! It’s avant garde! Who knows?
- Misemono: Rhythm doesn’t quite match the song. Yet it works.
- Counter Clockwise: Another Ryuryu song. This is just pretty. Reminds me a little of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Father Christmas.
- Sekiranun Graffiti: Fun dance tune that for some reason reminds me of Radar Love.
- Odds and Ends: I counted five different themes last time I heard it. There may be six.
- Girls Dead Monster: Go to Youtube and put in Girls Dead Monster. It’s a fictional band from a cartoon show. But the band then was actually organized and went on tour. It kicks ass.
- Supercell: a band and composer (Ryo) who made Hatsune Miku central to their work. Odds and Ends is a Supercell song. Curiously, their most recent album Today is a Beautiful Day uses a human singer. Go to Youtube and listen.