Sunday, January 11, 2009

A note about notes

When it comes to music, there are three basic groups of people. For the first group, song lyrics are mere sounds, and music, i.e. sound, is mere background. It's a "good beat easy to dance to"
American Bandstand kind of appreciation; the kind that, when a certain performer or song title is mentioned, will get a nod and a Yeah, I think I like that one.

For the second group, lyrics are discernible and have meaning, in the sense that they flow in something like forward syntax that sounds like a series of statements. There might be recognition of breaks between intro and verse, verse and bridge, bridge and chorus; the components might even be whistled on demand. The technicality of a composition can be admired; the notes are well arranged. Things are becoming more...
musical for this group.

"Sama Guent Guii," Youssou N'Dour

But for people in the third group, music is the essence of human experience. A single strategically-placed note, perfectly sustained, is more devastating than all of Shakespeare's tragedies combined. A sudden minor chord shift instantly becomes a memory of great loss; were the musician to dwell on the notes too long, the pain would become unbearable. The listening body itself becomes an instrument, with each note reverberating through a separate channel of nerves. A main melody goes A-C-E, A-C-E, A-C-E, lulling listeners into a comfortable, familiar place — and then, for only a brief moment, becomes A-C-F, changing the whole narrative, re-setting the tone, dissolving any prior comfort and replacing it with something like fear mixed with anticipation. A-C-E, A-C-E... anticipation becomes longing. And then, at the precise moment when longing turns to despair, there it is: A-C-Ftwice.

"Song for Bob," Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

Nick Cave's soundtrack to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford works like this. Tangerine Dream's soundtrack to The Keep does, too. The last eight notes of Apocalyptica's "Farewell," the soaring string interlude in Rammstein's "Ohne Dich," the muted guitar trills in Youssou N'Dour's "Sama Guent Guii," the collision of minor notes from Djivan Gasparyan's masterful duduk in "Moon Shines at Night" — all are musical passages that act like razors across the wrist, arrows into the heart. And we won't even talk about Slash's wrenching guitar solos in Guns N' Roses' "November Rain."

A zillion years ago, Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey tried to describe the dynamic in "Pure and Easy":

There once was a note, pure and easy
Playing so free, like a breath rippling by
The note is eternal, I hear it, it sees me
Forever we blend it, forever we die
I listened and I heard music in a word
And words when you played your guitar
The noise that I was hearing was a million people cheering
And a child flew past me riding in a star.

"Farewell," Apocalyptica

Problem is, people from the third group can't communicate anything about this with people in the first group. And people in the second group might smile politely, maybe even nod in agreement, because they understand that such a response to music is, technically, possible. But it's not a shared experience. Meanwhile, people in the third group sit in solitary corners with their iPod headphones, occasionally wincing and clutching their chests when a series of notes comes around to stab them in the soul.

Gortoz A Ran-J'Attends," Danez Prigent & Lisa Gerrard


G-Fab said...

What a cool post. All 3rd group folks should swap out their stock iPod headphones for something real (keep the iPod, just upgrade the 'phones).

Love this blog.

Anonymous said...

For me, lyrics *can* be an inextricable part of what makes a given piece of music pierce the soul. But so often when I look closely at lyrics, I'm not all that impressed. That doesn't necessarily sink a piece of music for me though.

On the other hand, I think of Townes Van Zandt's song "Nothing" and realize that minimalist lyrics, paired with a musical landscape that works in counterpoint can be searingly effective.

I recall heart-stoppingly mythic music I've either participated in, or witnessed/heard. These experiences involve body, heart, soul, and mind, all responding in—well—concert, and there is no way to repress it.