Thursday, March 25, 2004

Inspiring Arts Writer of the Week: Alex Ross

From Alex Ross's New Yorker article about French composer Olivier Messiaen's 'Quartet for the End of Time,' a piece that was composed while he was being held in a German POW camp during WWII:

"There shall be time no longer." How did Messiaen understand this eerie phrase? First, it had for him a precise musical meaning. By 1941, this composer no longer wanted to hear time being beaten out by a drum -- one, two, three, four; he had had enough of that in the war. Instead, he devised rhythms that expanded, contracted, stopped in their tracks, and rolled back in symmetrical patterns.
I had never made this connection between the two meanings of "time" before, or considered what reason a modern composer would have had for abandoning time signatures other than to be different or difficult.

Prior to reading this article, I never knew the circumstances under which the Quartet was composed. Quite remarkable. In fact, the only reason I ever downloaded anything by Messiaen was because I had read in a previous Ross article that Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood was a huge fan his music...

I really admire how Ross writes articles that make me think about music at a deeper level than the personalities of the singer/songwriters. Somehow, he always manages to throw in a littleabout theory and structure without getting too technical (for a guy who played a little piano and five years of trumpet, anyway).

Here's a passage from his incredible article on Radiohead that changed the way I listen to OK Computer:
In the middle of the set, Radiohead played a song called "Airbag," which showed why this band is taken as seriously as any since the Beatles. It was a rugged ritual, full of cabalistic exchanges, with each player taking a decisive role. Jonny started off with a melody that snaked along in uneven time - one-two-three-one-two-three-one-two - and swayed between A major and F major. O'Brien added leaner, brighter curlicues on guitar. Selway came in with a precise but heavily syncopated beat. Then Yorke began to sing, in a well-schooled, plaintive voice, an oblique account of a near-fatal collision: "In the next world war / In a jackknifed juggernaut / I am born again." At the mention of war, Colin let loose a jumpy bass line, giving a funky spin to the hymns in the treble. The music cut through a jumble of verses and choruses, then held fast to a single chord, as Yorke fell into synch with O'Brien's chiming lines. Just before the end, Colin grinned, leaped in the air a couple of times, and seized hold of his brother's tune, the one that had set the song in motion. The doubling of the theme had a kind of thunderous logic, as if an equation had been solved. The interplay was as engaging to the mind as anything that has been done in classical music recently, but you could jump up and down to it.
And these two paragraphs changed the way I listened to everything else by Radiohead:
Radiohead's ticket to fame was a song called "Creep." It became a worldwide hit in 1993, when grunge rock was at its height. The lyrics spelled out the self-lacerating rage of an unsuccessful crush: "You're so fucking special / I wish I was special / But I'm a creep." The music was modelled on Pixies songs like "Where Is My Mind?": stately arpeggios, then an electric squall. What set "Creep" apart from the grunge of the early nineties was the grandeur of its chords?in particular, its regal turn from G major to B major. No matter how many times you hear the song, the second chord still sails beautifully out of the blue. The lyrics may be saying, "I'm a creep," but the music is saying, "I am majestic." The sense of coiled power is increased by several horrible stabs of noise on Jonny Greenwood's guitar. Radiohead have stopped playing "Creep," more or less, but it still hits home when it comes on the radio. When Beavis of "Beavis and Butt-head" heard the noisy part, he said, "Rock!" But why, he wondered, didn't the song rock from beginning to end? "If they didn't have, like, a part of the song that sucked, then, it's like, the other part wouldn't be as cool," Butt-head explained.
"Creep," as Butt-head must have noticed, was the first of many Radiohead songs that used pivot tones, in which one note of a chord is held until a new chord is formed around it. (In the turn from G to B, the note B is the pivot point.) "Yeah, that's my only trick," Yorke said, when this was pointed out to him. "I've got one trick and that's it, and I'm really going to have to learn a new one. Pedals, banging away through everything."But a reliance on pedal tones and pivot tones isn't necessarily a limitation: the Romantic composers worked to death the idea that any chord could turn on a dime toward another. Yorke's "pedals" help give Radiohead songs a bittersweet, doomy taste. ("Airbag," for example, being in A major, ought to be a bright thing, but the intrusion of F and C tones tilts the music toward the minor mode. "Morning Bell" sways darkly between A minor and C-sharp minor.) It's a looser, roomier kind of harmony than the standard I-IV-V-I, and it gives the songs a distinct personality. It also helps sell records: whether playing guitar rock or sampling spaced-out electronica, Radiohead affix their signature.
Alex Ross, ladies and gentlemen. Inspiring Arts Writer of the Week here at On the Fence...

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