Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Musical Morass

A few months ago, I wrote a Facebook note detailing why gangster rap and classic rock were essentially the same thing in different packages. Both were or are the rebellious, catchy music of their generation; both employ similar musical devices to "hook" people into listening to them and both can have very powerful (or very generic) lyrics. I want to expand upon that today by saying that both are part of a larger category, that of music which seeks to engage the listener. Classical music, on the other hand, seeks to envelop the listener. Let me tell you what I mean.

The first way to understand this difference is to look at the way percussion is used in both types of music. In the several genres I'm referring to of "hooked" music, which include alternative rock, classic rock, rap, etc., drums set the beat. Usually, any musical creativity they might have is secondary to this duty, which is the backbone of the song. This is what generates the headbanging seen at countless concerts, the jumping and shouting on dance floors and the gyrations at parties. This is what "hooked" music is built on. The drums are nearly always urging the crowd on at all points during the song.
In a classical piece, for example a symphony, the drums are there for emphasis only. The percussionist (not the 'drummer') generally doesn't play very much, but when s/he does his voice is definitely heard. A pair of cymbals crashing together like breaking waves in the middle of a piece provides a fantastic climax to a swell of music, as does the thunder of the drums whenever the percussionist is allowed to turn them loose. By doing this, they get the audience more emotionally involved with the piece.
The second huge difference is the use of lyrics. Obviously the majority of classical music has no voice parts (we are not counting choral music here, majestic though it be, for the simple reason that I know nothing about it other than there are altos, basses and sopranos involved), but it usually has either the strings or the brass section taking the melody and providing the "face" of the music. Meanwhile, rappers and lead singers provide the face time and the lyrics of the songs.
Obviously the singer doesn't have total power to determine the way the song will be received, based on the style of the instruments, but swap James Hetfield of Metallica out for Carrie Underwood and see what you get. Singers have tremendous power to shape their songs, much more so today than twenty or (my God!) thirty years ago. Back then, in traditional rock, lead guitarists had the jaw-dropping guitar solos and the fiery riffs to inspire and seduce their young fans, regardless of the song. In the majority of songs, mostly ones about rock'n'roll itself, the singer essentially put the band on cruise control and showcased his talent in the choruses. Only in the ballads could singers truly capture the youth with their soulful voices. Granted, the singer was instrumental in developing the music (wink), but the band didn't rely on him to hold the song together. Nowadays, teenagers demand more than music from the musicians; they also demand a message, something to inspire them beyond the drudgery of high school. With the lack of an accompanying mythos such as classic rock had, it is singers who had to fill the void. And fill it was what they most assuredly did. Guitar solos are now optional, as are creative bass parts and drum experimentation. The singer is what is most important, as we see in bands like My Chemical Romance, Yellowcard and especially Nickelback, where the guitarists get minimal time to do anything but strum the same chords over and over for the entire song.
Keeping that in mind, what is the role of the singer? He (usually) must take over the task of making fans jump and shout. He has to inspire them, make them scream, create a sweaty vortex of bodies to mosh in front of the stage. This is the singer's job and no one else can fill it. If he can't, the band gradually fades away for want of fans who need inspiration.
Classical instruments try like hell to avoid this. Swelling and falling through their scales, the violins and the woodwinds seek to draw the listener in. Jumping, screaming fans at a classical concert would give half the regular audience conniptions. Really, there's nothing to jump to, no inspiration that thrusts itself before your eyes. The charm of classical music lies in the subtle interplay of the instruments, for after all there can only be one lead singer. As in the beginning of Pictures at an Exhibition, where the trumpets carry the high-flown theme and the violins swell around them only to give way to woodwinds, this is the beauty-no other word will do-of classical music. The best metaphor to describe it would be that of a river, varied in turbulence but always changing. One current supersedes another, flowing over and under and enveloping its predecessor, just as the audience is enchanted by the music and slowly drawn in. This requires a patience unheard of in contemporary music, and only glimpsed in prog-rock epics such as "Close to the Edge" by Yes or "Supper's Ready" by Genesis.
The final criterion is sheer length. In a novel, say, you have time to develop themes as the book progresses. In a newspaper article, you're lucky if you can tie the piece together with a nice catchphrase. That is why there are no modern bands who make a living with 20-minute pieces, or even 10. If it's that long, it's not getting on the Billboard Top 100. Analogies aside, classical music can afford to take its time and to draw the listener in. Bands don't have that luxury; I've been to modern-day concerts by such luminaries as Linkin Park and Shinedown that were shorter, in their entirety, than a single Mahler symphony. (Okay, bad example.) To hide the lack of depth possessed by classical music, modern bands have to disguise it with flashy lyrics and overdone stagecraft.
The premise for this note may seem self-evident at first glance: going to a classical music concert and a modern rock concert gives you all the information you need, right? Well, I've been trying to figure out what this all means, and aside from proving that the audiences 400 years ago had significantly longer attention spans, what it shows more than anything is the generation gap. Young people want to make life their own, to stand up and shout and take what's theirs, to hold their lighters high (at least, if that hadn't fallen by the wayside to be replaced with cell phones) and sway to the beat. Older people and retirees, the usual devotees of classical music, have had their time. In large part, they seem to be content to be passively accepted by the music. Let's hope that similar maturity comes earlier rather than later, because we'll need anything but hotheads entering the real world in the next few years. It'll take patience and time to fix the economy, and we need to draw upon that instead of the quick fix.

1 comment:

Post a Comment