Melody, harmony and rhythm are generally considered to be the major building blocks in the making of much of the music we enjoy. We think of the great tunesmiths from Mozart to McCartney. The importance of rhythm, especially in dance music, from the ballets of Stravinsky to the funk and disco of more recent times. And its fundamental defining importance as a component of so much modern music from minimalism to reggae.
But the importance of harmony is rarely mentioned, yet is often of crucial significance. By harmony, I’m including the chord progressions and riffs that provide accompaniments for melodies as well as the ways in which we harmonise a tune with a counter melody. And it’s two tracks in particular from our “Spotlights” collection which got me thinking of the importance of harmony.
The first one is a song by Sam Forrest, Somebody Else’s Dream – where a distinctive four chord pattern introduces and underpins so much of the song. Sam rightly acknowledges his debt to The Beatles and, indeed, it is their often idiosyncratic chord progressions (breaking out of the diatonic ‘three chord trick’ straight jacket) which help make some potentially ordinary songs sound much more special. Simple things like using a C major chord in a song which is in D major. Norwegian Wood and Hey Jude both employ this device. And there are many songs in their catalogue where harmony plays a crucial part. I suspect, like most guitarists starting out, once they had learned a basic bank of a dozen or so chords, they would mix them up freely on the basis of what sounded good to them, rather than an awareness of moving in and out of keys. And then there was their eclectic musical background, which owed as much to music hall as it did to blues/rock and roll.
David Bowie was another artist who took this even further. Life on Mars is a song which is built on a great chord sequence. It is this sequence of chords which make it such a classic. And the same goes for many of our greatest songs. It’s what is going on in the background that makes the foreground sound so good. Hotel California, Pinball Wizard, House of the Rising Sun, Creep … it’s all about the chords!
And this is just as important in classical music. In my Spotlight on Sulk Station’s “Dheere”, I reference Satie and Debussy. In Corey Mwamba’s Presenting the past as the future, I mention Debussy and Ravel, referring to the overtones and harmonics generated by the resonating vibraphone. These more ambiguous layers of sound – mysterious harmonies which are not so easy to define, but nevertheless easy enough to appreciate …
Which brings me on to my final point. It’s not just about the melody, harmony and rhythm. Modern music often prioritises texture – those layers of sound, these days often generated by synthesisers, which provide living, breathing and always moving and shifting combinations and overlaps of notes which build harmonies of mesmerising subtlety and charm. What’s really interesting is the fact that these electronic explorations are feeding back into acoustic music making. Listen, for example, to Georgia Denham’s ghost: eighty four to appreciate music which shimmers. Not much melody or rhythm , but an emphasis on ephemeral harmonies – beautifully moving and atmospheric layers of sound.
The ‘good enough’ parent is a concept deriving from the work of D. W. Winnicott, in his efforts to provide support for what he called “the sound instincts of normal parents…stable and healthy families”.The idea of the good enough parent was designed on the one hand to defend the ordinary mother and father against what Winnicott saw as the growing threat of intrusion into the family from professional expertise; and on the other to offset the dangers of idealisation.
From this there came the idea of the good enough teacher – telling teachers that they shouldn’t beat themselves up if they have the occasional off day. Days when it all goes wrong are bound to happen, so don’t worry too much about it.
So let’s take this a step further and talk about the ‘good enough’ musician. Yes, as musicians, we need to strive to be our best and achieve a certain level of competence in going forward, but perhaps we shouldn’t worry if we don’t make it to the dizzy heights reserved for some of the exceptionally gifted. A good enough musician can still have a happy and rewarding life making music.
The problem is that we are still, to an extent, living in the age of the cult of the virtuoso; those rare and exceptionally talented musicians who set the standards to which the rest of us feel we must aspire. And this is exacerbated by the increasingly sophisticated studio recording techniques which can easily ‘airbrush’ any sonic blemishes and give the illusion of perfection and impossibly high performance standards..
This is something which is a problem across a wide musical spectrum, but just one example is needed to outline the potential pitfalls which can have a detrimental effect on the lives of musicians – working in a range of genres.
Take the aspiring concert pianist, who from a very early age leads a quasi-monastic existence controlled by the practice regime. A lengthy number of years and vast amounts of money are spent on getting the best tuition and instruments. It starts promisingly enough. The pianist wins a few awards, garners some promising reviews, but eventually the harsh reality becomes clear. If the global ‘market’ for concert pianists is, say, x players – and there are at least x performers who are better than you (and perhaps have better agents), then you are not going to succeed. Same goes for opera singers, conductors, and so on. And, of course, the same goes for wannabe Hendrixes, Coltranes etc.
So unless you are confident that you are good enough to join the ranks of the select elite, and you really are happy to accept the consequences of the pressures of that lifestyle, you might be better advised to settle for and embrace being ‘good enough’. Because the life of a good enough musician might be even more rewarding. All the fun of making music – without risking making the big sacrifices.
I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could “Win” at them.” – Kurt Vonnegut
A couple of years ago I went to a concert to hear the Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra performing Beethoven Symphony no.1. Now this is not an orchestra comprising full time professional players, but they are certainly good enough to give a thoroughly convincing and hugely satisfying performance of this music. And the fact that I didn’t have to travel a long distance to see them play, and pay out a lot of money for a ticket, was of course a welcome bonus. OK, the major professional orchestras may have a slight edge, but do I really want to have to travel down to London for an evening out?
Of course instrumental skills are important and all musicians should aspire to playing to a high standard, but there are other attributes which are just as important – an empathy for the music being played, an ability to work well with other musicians, rapport with audiences and so on.
And then there is the importance of community. The virtuoso musicians may be travelling around the globe, staying in the best hotels etc – but they are still living out of suitcases and often not able to develop much more than a fleeting relationship with their audiences.
Those good enough musicians who work towards establishing a strong base in their local region, playing the smaller gigs, working with others, helping to set up the equipment, manning the CD/merchandise stalls during the breaks, doing interviews for the local mags etc. may well find that they lead richer and more rewarding lives with more stability and security, coupled with many memorable musical experiences.
So by all means aim for the stars, but be aware that this is not the only pathway. And it might not be the most suitable. So I’ll end with a poem by William Martin who shows that perhaps I am not alone in thinking this way. Some may dismiss this attitude as being defeatist, but I think it is deeply and powerfully affirmative:
Do not ask your childrento strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonderand the marvel of an ordinary life.
Reading through Patrick Gazard’s thought provoking article again got me thinking about the changes that may need to take place in the performing arts ‘industry’ in post pandemic times. The biggest challenge that current restrictions impose on musicians are, of course, the lack of performing opportunities. However, the deeper challenges go well beyond this and, now that we have the time to stand back and reflect, perhaps we should consider a wider contemporary picture.
Digital technologies have had a profound effect on the way that music is made and consumed, bringing more opportunities for many more aspiring musicians than ever before. But while this is of course to be welcomed, it does bring a range of challenges. It is now easier than ever to make, record and distribute music. No longer do musicians have to rely on getting those elusive recording contracts, and having to accept all the conditions that usually come with these opportunities. But there are a whole range of different barriers for musicians working independently of record companies. The first is to do with the sheer numbers. Because far more people are releasing their own music through the various download and streaming services, it becomes so much harder to get your voice heard. Even the really good quality music is likely to be submerged under mountains of mediocre musical mush.
The record companies have sophisticated and well connected PR departments who can effectively promote their products. The DIY musicians, without the experience or contact networks, have to take on these demanding roles themselves. And even if they do manage to get a respectable trickle of downloads and/or streams on Spotify etc., it is rarely going to be enough to provide a sustainable income.
As I said in last month’s article, an additional problem (and perhaps a distraction) for today’s musicians is that making music has become ever more bound up with a world of ‘celebrity culture’. The notion that success in music making can only be measured in terms of fame and popularity on a global scale. I’ve lost count of the number of well meaning celebrities who come out with fatuous remarks such as “dream your dreams – aim for the stars – stick to your guns and one day your dreams will come true”. We hear it all the time on reality talent shows and in other celebrity contexts. Just recently, Lewis Hamilton, on receiving a well deserved SPOTY, comes out with “… follow your dreams … never give up on yourself because you have what it takes to be great”. A fine sentiment, and of course we should be encouraging youngsters to do their best, but the reality is that very few will become superstars and more importantly be able to sustain a comfortable lifestyle from pursuing dreams. And just last week on Twitter, Hannah Peel says “anything is possible … so if starting out or hitting a brick wall, please keep going. There is always a way”. She’s right – there is always a way. But that way is not necessarily to keep banging your head against that brick wall. That way will nearly always lead to headache and heartache for most.
The reality is that many aspiring and struggling musicians will be living in extremely modest circumstances, struggling to pay bills, praying for grant applications to come good, for the Spotify hits to shoot upwards and for the offer of gigs to come flooding in. The problem is that the mathematics are against this happening. Because so many musicians are now able to record and release music directly from their laptops, the supply of music is considerably in excess of demand. An album is probably released on Spotify/Bandcamp etc every few seconds.
Many musicians starting out hope to improve their lot by applying for the various competitive awards and grants opportunities. Again, demand substantially exceeds supply. The grant awarding bodies are usually hopelessly oversubscribed meaning that, for most musicians, the time and effort expended on grant application will often come to nothing.
And even when it becomes possible to perform live again, this is unlikely to provide a steady reliable income stream for the majority of performers. The costs associated with performing and touring often result in modest profits. So this is the gloomy picture we face at the moment.
So what can we do about it?
Firstly, we can support those who are lobbying for better deals from the big download/streaming services so that musicians get a fair percentage of the profits. And we can lobby for more opportunities for gigs which provide adequate remuneration for performers. But the reality is that change in these areas is likely to be slow and incremental.
So what aspiring and more established musicians really need to do, is to take stock of the world for what it is – and work out how best they can aim for satisfying and financially comfortable careers in this world in which we find ourselves.
The first hard truth is to accept what has been obvious for so long – that only a tiny percentage will achieve fame and fortune making music. For those who put everything into ‘gambling’ on this unlikely outcome, there will inevitably come disappointments and modest standards of living. So we have to work out how we can secure financial security yet still manage to achieve satisfying careers in music.
As Patrick suggested in his article, a ‘portfolio’ career is likely to be the most pragmatic option. Most aspiring musicians will usually consider activities which are music related, such as teaching, arts admin, publishing etc. These are fine so long as they still leave the time and flexibility musicians need for doing their own stuff. A demanding full time job may not leave enough time for more music making. And flexibility is important. You won’t be able to take a contract on a lucrative tour if you are expected to be giving clarinet lessons in a school every Tuesday morning. Alternatives such as ‘gig economy’ work may provide flexibility, but income from this type of work is often low …
It is interesting to note that some of our most successful contemporary musicians, such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams, did have successful portfolio careers for much of their working lives. And they chose to take this work outside of music, becoming part time plumbers, electricians, removal men etc where the work was flexible and reasonably well paid. So my advice to young aspiring musicians would be to aim for the stars if you really need to, but also consider the alternative of a supporting additional income source. Train to do something which is well paid and flexible. Work for which there is always likely to be a healthy demand. I can think of many colleagues who have made this work for them, including a freelance yoga teacher, a part time radiographer, a counsellor and a theatre technician. Yes, it’s possible to see this as a compromise, but these scenarios are better than the one where a musician in his or her late middle age is still living in a damp, poky rented flat whilst watching the work opportunities slowly dry up.
And what of the implications for your music making if you are eschewing the fame and fortune route? Well that’s for next time …
[As ever, I’d be interested to hear some feedback to any of the issues I raise in this article. Just click on the ‘LEAVE A REPLY’ box at the bottom of this article and share your thoughts!]
My work as a musician has often taken me into schools to work on music projects in classrooms with children. One of the questions I was always asked was “Are you famous?”
The answer was of course “no” – it was not something I had ever seriously considered. The simple answer was that I became a musician because I enjoy making music. I came to realise they were asking this question because, for many of these young children, their usual experience of musicians was via the television and other media, where all the musicians they encountered were presumed to be rich and famous. And this view is further fuelled by the plethora of X Factor type ‘talent’ shows where the emphasis is definitely on becoming a famous celebrity. The music is seen merely as means of achieving this goal.
Yet for me, and I guess most musicians with their feet on the ground, the aims were always more modest – to enjoy making music, to have that music appreciated by others, to make a decent living, and to make some friends along the way.
But the view that being a successful musician can only be measured in terms of wealth and fame can nevertheless be a distraction. We may become so focussed on developing a bigger fanbase, more prestigious gigs, more record sales and more Spotify hits that we tend to lose sight of what is important.
Other professions and vocations may have associated ambitions and aspirations, but they are not usually measured in terms of glamour, glitz and fame – goals which are almost impossible to achieve because fame can only ever be achieved by a few in the profession. If we were all famous, well – we would no longer be famous, because the term would inevitably lose any meaning. And the unfortunate outcome for most who aspire to fame as a goal … is going to be disappointment.
Fame and fortune have always been and always will be for a very small percentage of music makers – so what might more realistic and satisfying goals look like?
To be considered in a week or two in a followup post.
When we want to find out more about a given genre of music, we will often veer towards the specialist writers, critics and publications. For example, with classical music we might listen to a Radio 3 podcast or consult Classical Music magazine. But sometimes it can be more enlightening to look outside the field to absorb the insights of a non-specialist. They can often bring fresh ears and insights to the music – also making connections with music from other places.
Take for example, the writings of Richard Williams – a journalist and writer perhaps best known for his articles on jazz and F1 racing. Yet if you visit his website https://thebluemoment.com/ you can browse through a vast collection of his writings on all manner of musics and beyond. Take any at random from the extensive list of categories listed and savour the writing quality from a writer who always manages to engage your attention. For example, writing about classical music is not something he is particularly well known for, yet the few entries he puts into this category are all well worth reading.
One blog in this section zooms in on the final chord of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion. He freely owns up to not getting the instrumentation or even the notes in the chord quite correct, but his article still makes for a compelling read. He rounds off the entry with this:
The chord has already been played, so unemphatically that you might almost take it for a mistake, three times throughout the eight minutes of this finale to the oratorio; on each occasion it concludes a passage, and the effect grows increasingly unsettling. Its reiteration as the closing chord of the piece carries more emphasis, the grace-note this time held long enough to remove all ambiguity. The dissonance, not the resolution, is what hangs in our minds. The inventor of western harmony wants to disturb us as the Easter story unfolds, and he succeeds.
A more classically trained writer might have little trouble analysing the chord in question, but would s/he then get to the heart of what is really happening here?
Another blog, “In Underground London”, is ostensibly a review of a CD compilation which attempts to recreate, through a mosaic of recordings, the feeling of being a certain kind of person in London in the first half of the 1960s. And in his final paragraph, he makes such a good reflection on the value of the often maligned ‘sampler’ album:
There’s a lot of completely wonderful stuff here, some of it revealing new qualities when isolated from the context of its original full-album setting (an underrated virtue of anthologies or compilations). And practically everything is on the edge of something, some new discovery, some unexplored territory worth taking a risk to reach.
Agreed – we are so used to listening to music in genre defined bubbles, we miss out on the opportunities of putting a particular piece into a different context, which can often reveal new perspectives.
And hot from the presses, this latest blog on Keith Tippett’s extraordinary album, The Monk Watches the Eagle:
… a series of slow movements featuring lean a cappella vocal writing, a dissonant slow upward swirl of voices and reeds giving way to a glowing melody emotionally related to John Tavener’s “The Lamb”, Julie’s mbira (thumb piano) and her wonderfully poised vocal solo over saxophone harmonies, and the return of the choir, with Biscoe’s soft baritone tiptoeing gently between their legato phrases.
The sheer range of his writing is astonishing. I know of no one else who can comment over such a wide compass with such insights and perception – from African to Ambient music, from Bluegrass to Bossa Nova, from Disco to Doo Wop, from Folk to Funk. It goes on …
Let’s hope he drops into the cafe one day. It’ll be well worth the price of a cappuccino.
March 2020: the world changes and nothing is normal, but it’s OK because we have ‘The Arts’ and they will get us through – especially musicians, playing on their doorsteps for the neighbours (I did it myself through my front window) or singing opera from Italian balconies – lovely. And the world watched and approved – thank goodness for musicians, dancers and actors.
And there so was so much to see online – The Shows Must Go On indeed – and they did, sort of. I loved The National Theatre’s ‘One Man, Two Guv’nors’, and watched lots of put together online videos. I joined the RPS Award-Winning ‘Stay at Home Choir’ and ‘sang with’ The Kings Singers and Voces 8 – what a wonderful opportunity, and something I never would have done under normal circumstances.
All free of charge of course: OK, they asked for donations (sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t) but the attraction was that it was free. Nobody really dared ask us to pay for this – how could they, when it is so different from the ideal artistic experience?
And then ( somewhat apologetically) they started charging a fee for access – Jason Manford’s show Curtains’ was one of the first I think, and I felt virtuous as I was ‘doing my bit’ for the theatre with my £15. And there was Southwark Playhouse’s ‘Last Five Years’ for £10.00 and I paid again. And three of us sat down and watched it in our front room.
Yes, that’s right; 3 people, for a total of £10.00. And still we discussed beforehand whether it was worth it.
I have just signed up and paid for Opera North’s Seven Deadly Sins (last weekend) and The Sixteen’s series of 5 Concerts (online and available to watch until 31 January). Not free, true enough, but still only around a tenner per concert, and at least 2 of us (maybe 3) will watch, and we can watch as many times as we like until the deadline. I’d say that’s pretty good value for money. This is great.
Or maybe it is not that great.
How on earth are these arts organisations going to get the public back up to West End prices in the blink of an eye, and who is going to pay that when they are used to such bargains? £7.50 each? Multiply that by ten at least to see Lloyd-Webber’s new take on ‘Cinderella’. Sure, the live experience is very different from a screen – I get that – but is it different enough to persuade people to leave their sofas/travel/pay for parking/have a meal etc? We all know that adds up, and for the last 9 months nobody has had to do any of those things and yet they have been logging on in their thousands. Ironically, companies such as the National Theatre have generated far more interest and been seen by far more people than would ever be the case – the email data alone must be a marketer’s dream – but they have gained very little financially from it and are unlikely to do so in the future. Only a tiny minority of those that watched will ever attend a production at the National Theatre.
It is a well known fact that West End shows need to hit around 80% box office to break even, and that is not going to be possible for a while. Even when it is, is there a danger that the public may baulk at how expensive the tickets are? It is easy to say they can offer early-bird discounts, but how? If anything, they will need to charge more if half their seats are necessarily empty.
As a born cynic, I recall saying to my wife, when this all started and people started giving away their art: “This is all very well, but the last thing we want in this country (or the world for that matter) is to give the impression that the arts are free.” How many banks, or accountancy firms, or lawyers, have been offering their services for free over the last 6 months? None I assume – why would they? It was not a smart plan. But ‘The Arts’ have been, and widely promoted at that, and it all been wonderful and uplifting, but at what cost?
Yes, there are many of us who make music for pleasure,, or at least it is not our sole income, and that is fine. I have a portfolio career and can ‘afford’ to play background piano on my lawn for free to entertain the neighbours on ‘VE Day’ (and yes, many were surprisingly appreciative!). But for those who sing and play and act and dance for a living, how do they feel about this ‘Arts for Free’ perception? How will that help them when there are no shows for them to be in?
There is no doubt that The Arts have helped many people through this worldwide crisis, and I have been very happy to do my bit, but by next Summer we will somehow have to persuade all these new found ‘fans of The Arts’ to part with significant amounts of money (money many of them do not have) and gamble on events being sold out again. Some aspects will of course be fine – stand-up comedy has to be performed and experienced ‘in the room’ – but other art forms will find it harder I fear. And in an inevitable economic downturn, with high unemployment, will The Arts once again be perceived as ‘for the wealthy only’? I very much hope not, but it is going to be a long haul to overturn that perception and it is going to take some very brave companies and producers to take the plunge. I wish them well.
Live looping is not a new phenomenon. Recent interest in the procedure was probably stimulated by the work of Steve Reich and his contemporaries. Using traditional instruments for the most part, ensembles of musicians would repeat (and develop) fragments of music of various lengths, combining them in different ways to produce coherent pieces of music for recording and live performance.
It was inevitable that these musicians and others would go on to explore making use of technology to facilitate these procedures. Dedicated hardware, in the form of loop pedals, allow the musician to record phrases on the fly and have them repeat at designated points through the ensuing performance. Software applications, in particular loop based sequencers, were developed specifically to emulate these procedures.
Solo performers found they could generate live multilayered performances without the hassle and expense of putting together a band. Pop artists such as Ed Sheeran and ‘classical’ performers such as Zoe Keating have made effective use of hardware and software applications respectively in their work.
This comprises the tip of a very large iceberg. Musicians around the globe are exploring ways of working with live looping using technology. The benefits are obvious, but to paraphrase the buddhist proverb “In each loss there is a gain, as in every gain there is a loss”. And this is often the case where technology is concerned. In this article, I want to consider some of the challenges and pitfalls we may encounter when working with loop based procedures – and how we might address these challenges.
The first and most obvious challenge concerns composition. The performer can only play/record one loop at a time, so compositions have to be built up by adding loops one by one. This can be a laborious and tedious experience for performer and listener as we wait for a bass part to be added to a percussion loop, followed by some chords and then eventually a tune… An ‘artificial’ procedure when compared with other musics where layers of sound are often added simultaneously. So more natural organic ways of making music can be compromised.
Then there is the problem of the loops themselves – they go on repeating perfectly – and with perfection there often comes a robotic monotony. When musicians play a repeating riff in an ensemble there are always going to be variations as the players respond to the sounds from their fellow players. Listen for example to the work of bass player Dave Holland on the Miles Davis album In a Silent Way and you will hear small infections of rhythm, attack and tone as well as subtle variations on the riff. In other words, they are playing musically.
Then there is the problem of musical schizophrenia. Youtube is full of looping performances where dextrous musicians are grabbing for a bass guitar to lay down a two bar riff before throwing to one side and switching to a djembe before swivelling round to a keyboard, taking in a few clangs on a cymbal as the chair rotates … And all the while twiddling knobs and pressing switches on the array of electronic gizmos liberally scattered around the performing space. This can be fascinating to watch (as the viewing figures attest) but is often ultimately a distraction; we are looking rather than listening. Take for example this clip. https://youtu.be/LjNPBZXFhRM It is an enjoyable watch and full credit to the performer for pulling off this remarkable feat. But try instead switching off the visuals and just listen to the music. Yes there are some fine moments, but overall it simply does not hang together as a coherent and unified piece. There are too many instances where the natural flow and development are compromised.
Another problem area is to do with the design of the looping procedure whether it is done in a hardware or software application. There is a real danger that the tail of technology wags the dog of musicianship. And the more sophisticated the application, the more of a danger this becomes. Take for instance this example: https://youtu.be/4TpMLmO_JJc It is very sophisticated and offers the user lots of control and flexibility … but how do you set about writing a piece of music with this framework?
So those are some of my reservations. But despite these, I do believe there is a promising future for working with technology based looping procedures. Let’s consider some instances where they are being used well.
Let’s begin by considering the work of some pioneers. Terry Riley, Steve Reich and John Adams have all made effective use of looping. They often use ensembles of live musicians, but have also worked with tape loops and early synthesiser/sequencers. Early pioneers working more exclusively with technology include Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram. In the popular music arena we think of the various collaborations between Brian Eno, David Bowie, Robert Fripp and others. All these musicians worked with technology we might consider fairly basic today, but their strength lies in the considerable musicianship and craftsmanship they all bring to their work.
Musicians who are making a success with using live looping include David Scarth, Zoe Keating, Caro C and Hannah James. These musicians avoid the pitfalls outlined above. They keep things simple, often using just one instrument and perhaps the voice. They increase the range of sounds by using extended techniques – harmonics, percussive tappings, bowing/plucking techniques etc. A judicious search on Google will bring up fine examples of their work. In addition, David Scarth has also devised his own method for live looping using Ableton Live which works very well in overcoming some of the concerns outlined earlier . You can check it out here: https://youtu.be/AEiOL6qQ5Ws
I think the conclusion I am moving towards might be encapsulated in a general principle regarding the use of technology which is this:
if I am considering using a technical device, will I be using it in such a way that does not compromise the music making?
Asking this question is nothing new. For centuries, whenever musicians have considered advances in musical equipment design, it is a question they have been asking implicitly or explicitly. Time often proves to be a reliable arbiter – those that do not have a true musical potential either fall by the wayside or lead to more positive developments. So my advice would be that in order to avoid going down blind alleys or musical cul de sacs, keep asking the question above …
A review of ‘Radiohead and the Resistant Concept Album – How to Disappear Completely’ by Marianne Tatom Letts
Let’s start with a story. On the 2nd October, 2000 (after a hard day in the office and scampering round a few schools) a ‘friend’ frog marched me and one or two others down to York railway station where we were made to purchase day return tickets to Warrington. A dull journey – but it gets worse. Embarking on a cold, wet, dispiriting evening in downtown Warrington we were then made to walk a mile or so to a park on the outskirts. We queued in a damp, muddy field with many others and were eventually allowed to shuffle into a large tent. The intention was then to stand ankle deep in mud for two hours with hundreds of noisy, high spirited jostling young people and listen to some music. For this ticket price, I had expected to be sitting in a comfortable pre reserved seat in an air conditioned auditorium with excellent acoustics. But no, this promised to be one slog of an ordeal…
But Radiohead hitting the opening notes of their ‘National Anthem’, changed all that. I’d heard one or two RH songs before, but nothing had prepared me for what I was to hear that evening. Strange, wonderful music that would manifest itself in those two seminal albums – Kid A and Amnesiac. I didn’t necessarily understand it – but I loved the sound it made……
Well, listening is one thing, but understanding is not necessarily so easy … cue Marianne Tatom Letts’ “Radiohead and the Resistant Concept Album”
This is a remarkable book – erudite, thoroughly researched, well written in a clear and compelling style. The author freely admits that hers is only one of many possible ‘interpretations’ and certainly there are times when she seems to go out on a limb. But the real importance of the book goes beyond these considerations. What she provides is a remarkable strategy or blueprint for understanding the music of Radiohead.
She begins by a consideration of where we should best place Radiohead in a post prog-rock/art rock context and then provides a clear exposition of what is and what is not a concept album. Concept albums normally fall into one of two categories – narrative (eg The Who’s Tommy) or thematic (eg Zappa’s Freak Out). Letts adds a third category – the resistant concept album. These are ones that ‘stretch the parameters of the traditionally defined concept album ( a clearly articulated narrative, characters, or a musical/lyrical theme) while still conveying some kind of concept beyond a single sequence of organised tracks over the course of an album.’ This is key – treating Kid A/Amnesia as resistant concept albums can help make sense of what are otherwise baffling works.
Some of the book is given over to a considerations of some of the albums’ themes – alienation in post modern society and feelings of desolation in a post apocalyptic wasteland, the ‘threat’ of technology, the contradictions of a band trying to reject the workings of a commercial system in which they as a band thrive etc.
This is probably the most thorough musical analysis of Radiohead’s work in print. The understanding does not come from merely close listening to the music and exploration of the often indecipherable lyrics. Her key contribution is the ‘lens’ through which she chooses to view the musical material. She breaks the recorded sounds into two categories, music and noise, which are constantly sparring against one another in an endless struggle for dominance. Her definitions for music and noise are context specific. Here she takes music to mean those sounds which support the musical ‘argument’ and noise those sounds that ’erupt and disturb the order’. Once you have got you head around thinking of the tangled layers of sound in this way, everything becomes clearer – much clearer.
Another important concept. Although much of the musical analysis is at a painstaking, often fascinating micro level, she counsels against trying to evaluate songs as self contained items. It is only by looking at the structure as a whole ie the whole album, that you can start to make any real sense of what is happening.
This is truly inspiring stuff. I had always known that standing in a muddy field in Warrington was important. Letts helps me understand why.