02 September 2011 by Published in: rants, theoretical 1 comment

I’ve blogged in the bast about how I don’t believe in a distinction between applied and theoretical math. But there is a distinction, a distinction most of the world has completely forgotten about, between applied and theoretical music. What?

Quick, think of your favorite song. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

No seriously, think of one before reading on. It’s important to my point. If you don’t have a single song in mind, you’ll miss the rhetorical force of my argument.

What resources did you use to answer this question? Maybe you turned to your iTunes library, pulled the iPhone out of the pocket, or you turned to YouTube to answer this question. Maybe you already knew the answer. But I’m betting that you answered the question not based on an abstract idea of all the ways the song could be performed, but on a particular recording of that song. In other words, you made an assumption about my question–that I was asking you what recording you would most like to hear, or play most often. I wasn’t.

The idea of having even a single recording of a song or even a single canonical recording is a very recent development over the course of musical history. Even the idea of associating an artist with a song was rare until the 1900s. For most of history, people have valued and considered the abstract song over the particular performance. The situation we have now is a very new, very strange way of thinking about music.

Let me give you an example. One of my favorite pieces is Rachmaninoff’s Op 43, a 23-minute piece that you can probably recognize some portion of. At the bottom of the Wikipedia article, no less than 7 “Selected Recordings” are listed. The best, in case you are keeping score, is Ashkenazi’s rendition, easily eclipsing Rachmaninoff’s own recording. But in a piece as long as Op. 43, there are sections where most of the pianists on that list shine above each of the others in some manner or other.

These recordings are not within a hundred miles of what we today call a “cover” or “remix”, a blank check for an artist to do whatever he wants to a song. These are the same instruments, playing exactly the same notes and rhythms that Rachmaninoff wrote down in 1934. We are talking about a pianist being slightly more precise here or there, approaching a section of four notes slightly slower or faster for effect, playing the third note most loudly instead of the fourth note most loudly, and so on.

So by which recording do we judge Op. 43? Ashkenazi’s? Rachmaninoff’s? (And he made more than one.) The way human culture has answered this question throughout history is by appealing to the abstract idea of a song–its potential. In capable hands a song can be vibrant and quick, or lethargic and melancholy. It can be bright and clear, or mellow and dark. In 1936, the written musical page was the strictest set of handcuffs available to constrain musical interpretation, but it left open wide fields of interpretive exploration.

There are some songs in our culture today which retain the “old” feel of having no single canonical recording. One such song is Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, in which verses are freely added, deleted, and re-ordered by dozens of artists. Cohen’s original rendition ended like this:

And even though it all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

In other words, Cohen finds meaning from the tragedy. Buckley, in contrast, ends his rendition like so:

It’s not a cry you can hear at night

It’s not somebody who has seen the light

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

This is pure despair. There is no light at the end of the tunnel for him. The same song, two very different ideas.

Another fun example. This is a song that you’ve definitely heard before. See if you can guess the title before you read all the way to the end. Drag across the text for the answer. I’m warning you though, you will never hear the song the same way again. It’s like the end of the Sixth Sense, it changes everything.

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;

By the relief office, I’d seen my people.

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,

Is this land made for you and me?

It puts an entirely different spin on it, don’t you think? It changes the entire meaning of the song from a over-campy gung-ho tune to a parody of camp, like finding out Animal Farm is not in the same genre as Charlotte’s Web. Knowing this fact changed the song from one that I hated to one that I enjoyed.

But the real irony is that the parody is so good that everybody has completely forgotten about it–Imagine if Animal Farm was held up as a key argument for communism!  So now it’s turned into a sort of meta-parody about ignorance and patriotism by the few who know its full lyrics. So by what standard do we judge the song? Do we look at the author’s original meaning? Do we look at the song as it’s used in popular culture? Or do we view it as a critique of the gap between between what it says and how it’s interpreted? Is it fair to ascribe this third meaning to a song that was written long before anyone could have interpreted it in this way?

In reality, a song is a product of experiences.  It’s not only the music and the lyrics.  It’s the rapt attention of the infant across the concert hall.  It’s the acoustics of the room, the soft glow of the lights, the company you’re with, the quiet coughing of the man behind you.  It’s the time of day, how fast you’re walking, the crowdedness of the city street during your commute, the shiver as you hurry home, and those words you never said to that person two decades ago.

Just for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of someone who lived before recorded music.  Unless you were very rich, you could not hear your favorite song when you wanted to.  You would have to wait until it was played, or use your memory and imagination.  You spent more time reflecting, remembering, and thinking about music than actually listening to it.  A fleeting instant it hangs on the air, but in your mind, forever.  Your memory becomes more real than the sound waves.  At some time during your life, you would hear the very best rendition of the very best song, and you would be forever unable to recapture that moment, except by remembering the utter clarity of the second tenor in your mind’s eye.  The real experience, the real song, is in your mind; the sound waves are just the representation.

I don’t want to go full Luddite, and you can pry my iPhone from my cold, dead hands.  There is incredible value in having thousands of recordings in your pocket (not, as Apple claims, thousands of songs).  But I think as a culture we have lost something in the exchange.  We’ve lost the contemplation and reflection, the thinking deeply about music, the meditation at 7am on a calm morning or at midnight in a dark chapel, We’ve lost the quiet mystery, the strained ears searching to find the soft melody at the back of the room, the boredom, the introspection, observation, and celebration.  Today a person has to work in order to squeeze those experiences out of music, if they ever experience them at all.

But we’ve also forgotten what music is.  When I asked you for your favorite song, you opened up your music library.  But your favorite song isn’t in there.  It’s buried deep within your soul.

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  1. Fri 02nd Sep 2011 at 10:27 am

    You argue that my library contains thousands of different recordings, as distinct from songs. But what is a song, if not a particular performance of a combination of notes and lyrics? Change either one and perform it, and you have a different song. The closest example would be an album version of a song vs a live recording of the same. And yes, I consider them to be different songs. Another interesting comparison is Coldplay’s “Don’t Panic”. The recording from The Blue Room EP is strikingly different from their later album release on Parachutes, but it’s not immediately obvious why, because it’s almost the same lyrics and almost the same music. It’s entirely possible that the difference is entirely post-production. Are they the same song? I say no. It evokes a product of different experiences. It’s remembered, reflected, differently. Every recording, every performance, every cover, is unique, with a new and different potential to reach your soul, to become your favorite. How can we ever hear anything but songs?

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