Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Summer Series: 5. Our Musical Identities

This final entry in the Summer Series was composed soon after returning home from a road trip through the south-eastern United States. My friend and I, visiting friends and family and key historic sites, passed through 11 states in seven days, which meant a lot of driving. And all that driving meant we had plenty of time to talk and listen to music.
A few thoughts:

Which is it more, that Man makes the music or that Music makes the man?
It would probably be – Well, wait, Who gives a fan?
Of course it goes both ways.
Take The Moody Blues, for instance. All five band members – Ray Thomas, Mike Pinder, Graeme Edge, John Lodge, and Justin Hayward -- took part writing, playing, singing, and composing.
They’re living in the late 60’s / early 70’s, doing LSD, touring with the Beatles, learning to play the Mellotron, throwing their heads together (not literally), and trying to come up with a unique sound. And they end up making these albums that sound slightly psychedelic with obvious classical*slash*orchestral influences and with pseudo-philosophical lyrics thrown in to boot.
The most I can say about them is, “They sound pretty cool.” (Well, isn’t that swell?) And I like their witticisms and funky titles, like “Thinking is the Best Way to Travel.”
All other comments, to be honest, are indebted to others.
Most particularly, I’m re-iterating what I’ve heard from my dear friend J---, who long ago introduced me to the Moody Blues, having inherited his love for them from his father. We were recently road-tripping it together down South, and along the way, my friend gave me a sound education in the Moody Blues’ magic.
He says,
he likes the harmonies the Moody Blues come up with, and he likes their uniqueness. He also likes the story-quality coherency of their albums, as it exhibits skillful deliberation in interweaving songs that revolve around a single concept. He took note of the band’s definite interest in Eastern thought, alongside their equally apparent whimsy. And he decried the seeming haphazardness of nineties bands, patching together pop songs that sounded catchy but say very little, and just really don't exhibit the same musical talent as do, say, the Moody Blues.
What makes the Moody Blues so great is they've given their songs real thought and crafted a distinctive sound. Who else incorporates sounds of flute and harp with a rolling guitar strum and hallowed, vocally harmonic reverberations in such a way that one might just say the music “glows”? Who else, besides medieval monks, would singthe hours of the day? And what other rock band chants “Om” half-seriously -- and therefore also half-facetiously – (unless it’s Edward Sharpe and the MagneticZeros)? Yes, it seems, the Moody Blues are spiritual in a way that’s neither too religious nor too solemn. After all, they are just singers in a rock’n’roll band. What more can we expect of them?
In the course of my friend enumerating what he liked and disliked about the Moody Blues and music in general, I realized I was learning as much about him as about the moody musicians.
See, my friend has also long liked the music of classical artists like Beethoven and Schubert. And recently he’s had a real penchant for Renaissance tunes, especially the stuff produced by the likes of William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, and John Taverner in England around the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries -- turbulent times to be sure, politically speaking.
It’s stuff meant to be played on the harpsichord or lute, or sung by a forty-person choir! Ridiculous stuff, really. And difficult to perform today, especially when all we’ve got to go on in most cases is one or two incomplete manuscripts, the music written down in a manner that had obviously yet to be standardized. And it’s complicated yet again by the fact that in their day Thomas Tallis and William Byrd seem to have had a monopoly on the rights to music publication. So who knows what else was being played on the streets at the time, and how popular (or unpopular) Josquin des Prez was in comparison?
It’s also hard to assess these guys’ skill level, them being dead so long now, though the experts reassure me polyphony takes talent. (and after looking at the sheet music, I’m apt to believe them.) Their music is, however, rather inaccessible: it takes a certain amount of education to appreciate. And by then, who’s to say your sound tastes haven’t simply been brain-washed to think that what you’re hearing is the best of the Renaissance and is better than the punk and indie rock of today? Hmm?
Well, I don’t know. I’m an amateur after all.
One word my friend used to describe this sort of music is Polyphony. It’s a big word, and fun to say, but a little difficult to understand. And that in itself is impressive.
Polyphony, it seems to me, means there’s one melody going on on one line, and then another one starts up on another line, and the two then complement, or harmonize with, one another, as in a dance. (or in ice-skating, when the pair are able to move together, but separate – one twirling, while the other stands still, and then both together, weaving in and out, and then one tossing, while the other jumps and spins, and then both again in line, intertwined.) For the listener, especially of the twenty-first century accustomed to hearing only one melody line, to follow two or more lines of melody takes training and practice.
So, that’s English Renaissance music.
Another one of my friend’s favorite bands are the Byrds. Like the Moody Blues, they’re a little off the beaten path, though undeniably successful, and very distinctive in their sound. Or at least that’s how he portrayed them to me. They’ve also got a folksy touch with a jolt of eerie psychedelia mixed in. I haven’t really gotten a feel for their significance yet. It’s enough now to say, my friend likes them.
And so it seems, while this isn’t all of who my friend is, it is a substantial part of him – the vocal harmonies, as of a choir; the sound of swirling psychedelic colors; a classic appreciation for the past and its obscurities; a sense of fitting in by being unique. This is the kind of thing my friend enjoys listening to, and it’s also seems to have somewhat shaped who he has become.
So I'm wondering, What sort of music has shaped you?

1 comment:

  1. Lynyrd Skinner, Led Zepplin, David Bowie, Bad Company, Doobie Brothers, Crosby Stills and Nash, Dan Foglberg, Little Feat, Aerosmith, James Taylor, Carol King, Jackson Browne, Bob Marley, Peter Frampton, Dave Mason and of course, Cat Stevens to name a few...