Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Music Tied to Its Time

The turn of the year gets me thinking about time and timeliness. In an interview connected with the reunion of Cream back in 2005, Ginger Baker talked about the "gift of time" which yes, the members of Cream certainly had/have. Being on time in music means being exactly on the beat, or exactly the right amount before the beat--or after, for that matter. The problem with mechanical assistants like drum machines or autotune is that real musical expression often demands that we not hit the beat exactly--or the note exactly!

We talk a lot about music that transcends it time or the circumstances of its composition: music like Bach's Goldberg Variations or Beethoven's string quartets. But let's take some time and talk about music that is tied to its time, music that emphatically does not transcend the circumstances of its composition. Music like "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" by Iron Butterfly, a psychedelic rock band from San Diego. I'm reminded of this one because it was used in an episode of House MD a few seasons back to accompany the administration of psilocybin mushrooms. Groovy! Don't miss the obligatory drum solo that occupies the middle of the song.

One thing we know for sure about the 60s is that everyone seems to have had a lot more time than we do now. Time to listen to seventeen minute songs that just meander on and on--with that big drum solo in the middle. Herman's Hermits are another group from the 60s--one of the lesser lights from the "British Invasion". This is pre-psychedelia so it's a little sillier and a lot shorter:

It is not just a lot of pop music that seems to be tied to a particular time and place--sometimes classical composers are as well--ironically, it is the ones that think of themselves as the most 'progressive' that seem to be most linked to an era. Take Harry Partch (1901 - 1974), for example. He is one of the most eccentric, individualistic composers in all of history, but his music does not seem to transcend its time. One of his many innovations was to invent entirely new systems of tuning. Once he did that, he had to invent new instruments that could play these notes. Alas, neither the instruments nor the music written for them quite took off and the only instruments capable of playing Partch's music are the ones he built, now residing in a special archive. Here is the first part of a BBC documentary on Partch that gives a bit of an introduction.

It is hard to imagine someone like Partch in the musical world of today. Another unusual figure in music history is Carlo Gesualdo of Venosa (1566 - 1613) whose biography seethes with the intrigue and violence of late-Renaissance Italy when families like the Medicis dominated the church, finance, culture and politics--and occasionally poisoned those who got in their way. Gesualdo is most famous for two things: writing passionate and very chromatic madrigals and murdering his wife and her lover when he discovered them in bed together. Here is one of those madrigals, "Moro, lasso, al mio duolo," which means, "I die, alas, from my pain".

The observation is often made that this degree of chromaticism is not seen before the late 19th century. Not really true as there are also striking chromatic passages in Orlande de Lassus and John Dowland. The idea that this foreshadows in any way the chromaticism of later times should be resisted. This music did not lead anywhere: the next stage in music history was very much towards tonal harmony--the opposite direction! No, this music is very much tied to its time. Its overheated passion suits the drama and intrigue of life in Italy in the late Renaissance.

One of the biggest musical trends in the early 19th century was the incredible rise in the popularity of the piano. This was accompanied (or stimulated by) a host of piano virtuosi, most of whom are largely forgotten today. The music of Frederic Chopin is still very popular as is that of Franz Liszt, but what about Ignaz Moscheles (1794 - 1870)?

I think we can see why this is not popular nowadays--but Moscheles was a very big name in his time.

It does make one wonder how some of the most popular music of our time is going to be regarded a hundred years from now...

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