Thursday, July 28, 2005

Words in Art Songs, Words in Pop

With a mighty groan - muscles taut under sweat-grimed skin - I heave once more and there is a gunshotting, ear-hurting CRACK! The pig-iron bonds of my own laziness thus sundered, I get back to writing this harmonic analysis diary after over a month of idleness. And, really, if anybody actually does read this, you have my sincere apologies for not keeping up with it more regularly. Also, if, like I said, anybody actually does read this, please leave a comment or two just to let me know you exist.

In part of my last entry - the one about the relationship between academic definitions of sonata form and the current state of popular song - I had a throw-away line about how the pop song in its current form has been elevated to a refinement that surpasses that of Schubert's Vienna.

"Hey, jackass- which aspect of Schubert's Vienna?" I hear you cry. That, in retrospect, was the problem- did it really make sense to compare songs to sonatas? I didn't pay any attention to academic attempts to classify classical art songs ('lieder' or 'chansons' or whatever you want to call them), and the premise of the whole entry was arguably a very earnest comparison of apples and oranges.

The songs of Schubert's era are, of course, often just as structurally varied as modern pop songs. Which is to say that, sure, you get a lot of boilerplate intro/verse/chorus/verse/chorus/coda songs but, on the other hand, you also get stuff like "Erlkönig." The important thing to consider about this, though, is that you get "Erlkönig" as a response to a particular poetic text that inspired its composer to devise appropriate programmatic effects.

(Note to Readers Who Were Learning to French Kiss Instead of Practicing, For Instance, the Oboe: 'programmatic' in this context means music where certain musical events are supposed to call to mind 'literary' ideas like cannons firing or a river burbling or a bear dancing- in other words, music that tells a story instead of just being 'absolute.' This note is in itself problematic, because if you don't know what program music is, you probably don't know what I meant about the Erlkönig's a great Schubert song that switches between musical textures to tell a story from the points of view of three different characters, and also manages to be very catchy and dramatic.)

This is the key difference, I think, between contemporary pop songs and 'art songs.' For art song, the 'text' (as it's solemnly called) is sacrosanct. If you're composing in the classical tradition, your first task is hunting up an appropriate fragment by Shakespeare or Goethe or St. Vincent-Millay, which you are thereafter expected to treat - rather in the manner of ancient Judaic temple priests - as a mystically perfect text which is not to be altered.

I once submitted a big choir piece based on a set of three poems to a composition competition. One judge gave me favorable comments but noted, ominously, that I had appended a line that wasn't in the original poem, which was a very Wrong Thing to Do. (Actually, I'd just repeated a line from one of the earlier poems in the set in such a way that seemed to tie the whole thing seemed justified by the musical form, by she saw it as a violation of textual integrity.)

Pop music does it differently. The words and music of a pop song are almost always written by the same person (or, in more traditional vaudevillian working arrangments, by a team of composer/lyricist who actively collaborate). This is considered an extremely suspect and, stangely, hubristic act by the 'classical' composer. Writing the words for your own songs or - worse - writing your own opera libretto is a great way to set yourself up for derision. The writing of words and the writing of music, it is argued, are two completely different skills, and therefore best left to their respective experts.

The differences don't end here. Beyond the aspect of who is responsible for writing the words, pop music takes a completely different approach to words in general. Words and music are often written simultaneously or even - completely alien to the classical mindset - written after the music is already done. As such, there's an extreme variety in their importance to the overall artistic effect:

1) Words can be chosen for their sound quality and impressionistic overtones. (Consider the vaguely Kipling-esque use of vowel sounds and images in the opening lines to "Night Boat to Cairo" by Madness: "It's just gone noon, half-past monsoon, on the banks of the River Nile / Here comes the boat, only half-afloat, as it reaches its last half-mile".)

2) Words can be chosen for their literal meaning, speech rhythm willfully stretched out of shape. (consider almost anything by Stereolab, a band who never feel compelled to rhyme and cheerfully turn a word like 'barriers' into 'buh-REERS'.)

3) Words can be used in a traditional poetic sense, with rhyming poetry and careful use of meter. (Consider, I suppose, Joni Mitchell or Stephin Merritt or countless other 'singer-songwriters').

4) Words can be used as animal ullulations, unintelligible. (Consider the cheap, easy examples of Nirvana, early REM, or any other band that gives you the nagging suspicion that it's probably better than you can't tell what they're saying.)

So, what is the upshot of these very obvious observations? Well, this: due to its considerably more sophisticated approach to various uses of words in music, current pop music erases the line between 'vocal music' and 'instrumental' music that is so rigid in the classical mindset. In other words, it's not so silly to compare a sonata with a pop song because contemporary pop songs can't be crammed into the same little text-is-supremely-important ghetto that characterizes classical music.

And all of that, of course, is once again prelude for a flimsy little Haydn song intended for 'domestic use'. In this case Devoto offers as 21. a. from "Mostly Short Pieces":

JOSEPH HAYDN- No. 5, "Die Verlassene" from XII Lieder für das Clavier, Part I (Hob. XXVIa/1-12, 1781)

This song sets an anonymous three-stanza poem from the viewpoint of an abandoned woman. The general idea of the text is that, o woe, some guy has cruelly ditched her, but she still loves him somehow and would 'glady betray' herself again. Not exactly a literary conceit foreign to a lot of pop songs being written today.

Haydn opens with a six bar introduction, very stark and dramatic Adagio in G Minor. A potentous opening figure, doubled at the octave, descends to the dark lower half of the piano where it shifts via C-sharp accidental to D Minor (the dominant, natch). The right hand typically has two-voice harmony in thirds while the bassline gently murmurs a semitone up and down between D and C-sharp, resulting in the chords: (in D): iii6/4 dim-vii7 Nea II7 (enharmonically) I. This progression gets repeated twice, creeping upwards to finally cadence on a strong D chord which forms, naturally, a dominant that acts as the anacrusis of the G minor melody of the vocal line which is about to start.

As with the last song, there's no vocal line per se in this song- the lyrics are crammed between the staves, implying that we are meant sing along with the melody. The vocal line isn't too difficult, but the shifting 6th and 7th scale degrees of the melodic minor, modulations, and delicate trills demand a style of singing that wouldn't come easily to anyone today who hadn't had a few voice lessons.

What happens, harmonically? Well, it reminded me of Bach's tricks a little: Haydn ratchets up the angst and tension by using lots of diminished sonorities within otherwise standard progressions. So, we get dim-vii7/V V IV dim-vii7/IV IV - progressions that have been 'enriched' with these extra jolts of dissonance. For the middle section of each stanza, Haydn offers some relief with a mild 6-bar passage in B-flat Major, all burbling sixteenth notes in the left hand (thirds now instead of the sad semitones of the introduction) and a melody line that gradually climbs from serenity to (she couldn't stay happily reminiscing for long) an agonized fully dimished cry that serves as a transition to C minor (the subdominant, natch). The C Minor passage takes motives of the B-flat major portion and turns their warm nostalgia to ice, culminating in yet another fully-diminished cry of anguish. Haydn then rounds off the piece with five bars of solemn G minor that incorporates fragments of the motives that defined each of the respective key areas above.

As you might have gathered, this is a hard piece to write about. It is, after all, simple, melodramatic fluff (albeit well-constructed melodramatic fluff). It lies well under the fingers for even a miserable pianist like myself- this is no mean achievement, since it manages to sound rather sophisticated while still being very easy.

What would a modern audience think if the opening band at a club sang this? They would be confused, I think, primarily by all the diminished chords. As I explained in my last post, modern pop harmony doesn't really care about tonal function and modulation, and outside of that context the diminished chord sounds either pointlessly complex and dissonant (in a jazzy way) or just antique. To the ears of the modern audience the diminished chord (since it still possesses its tendency to strongly 'lead' to a chord) seems to comment on the subsequent tone in a melody and therefore takes the audience momentarily outside of the flow of that melody. More on that later.

Next post: a little Haydn piece for piano..


Blogger cancersurg said...

I am a drummer teaching myself the rudiments of theory over the last several years. My band mates mostly bore me now, as I'm becoming bored by 4/4 pop progressions, and obsessed with alternative time signatures and "progressive" rock. My guitar player shares my disease, and now we have the singular-minded urge to create our own creature of music, to our own fevered imaginations. Mind you, I have not the sophistication nor the experience to even approach classical music.

The problem is how to sound unique yet not alienate an audience.

I found a fascinating site by Muglin, which breaks down what is "expected" by the audience into an amazing chord flow chart:

Are you aware of any like-minded instructors who might have web lessons on song writing analysis?


10:19 AM  
Blogger Jamila Sahar said...

i enjoyed reading your blog ! look forward to reading more

5:34 PM  

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