Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lateral Transmissions: Steam Engenious

The Beatles got it right at the end of Sgt. Pepper, ending A Day in the Life – the contemplative fragmented waltz – with a dissonant orchestral crescendo.

I think that the next great step in pop music will be to integrate dissonance.

It’s almost ironic that The Beatles were the first – and possibly last – band to have such a famous song centered on dissonance. And even though it's only the end of the track that's notorious, the whole song really is structured around that climax.

Pop songs have clean melodic structures that are as condensed as possible. No one knew this better than The Beatles. From Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da to She’s Leaving Home, they had an uncanny ability to immerse you in a whole world in only a few minutes, catchy, compact like poetry, almost dense, like a song from a musical but better.

It’s fitting that on A Day in the Life, they went to such lengths to try to snap you out of their pristine songs, ending on a nightmarish almost unsatisfying crescendo, as surreal and dirty as their songs tend to be pleasant and sweet.

Wrote producer George Martin about that famous last chord:
What I did there was to write ... the lowest possible note for each of the instruments in the orchestra. At the end of the twenty-four bars, I wrote the highest note...near a chord of E major. Then I put a squiggly line right through the twenty-four bars, with reference points to tell them roughly what note they should have reached during each bar ... Of course, they all looked at me as though I were completely mad.

This proved to be only the start for John Lennon, who later went to absurd lengths to embody a sort of over-realism: his experiment with psychotherapeutic primal screaming – it sounds as odd as it looks on paper – and posing nude on an album cover.

Dissonance is an odd term, at once technical and completely subjective. It simply refers to a combination of notes that sounds unstable or unpleasant. You know it when you hear it, yet what is considered dissonant shifts across culture and time. Like all things when you study music, it’s about context, structure and temporal relation. When it’s employed well, it can provide a sort of driving force to music. Roger Kamien (quoted on Wikipedia) has a stimulating explanation:
An unstable tone combination is a dissonance; its tension demands an onward motion to a stable chord. Thus dissonant chords are 'active'; traditionally they have been considered harsh and have expressed pain, grief, and conflict.
You can hear dissonance here and there on the radio, but surprisingly few rock and roll bands have really integrated it into their songs. Used well and it’s as if an artist is harnessing a wild force.
Used poorly and you have nails on a chalkboard.

Going back to Kamien’s definition, when I’m in the right mood – say, listening to the right song while driving my car at night – it seems like there’s an underlying dissonance which drives intelligence and clarity of mind. In a sense, the drive for knowledge is predicated on not being content with the current state of things. In a world of perfect contentment, there’d be no need to learn more. In this sense there’s a truth to the archetype of the happy idiot, though I’m not sure whether it says more about man or knowledge. The inability to just be content seems to have a biological correlate as well.

I just finished Robert Clark’s In Defense of Self: How the Immune System Really Works, and like the best of books it left me both satiated and thirsty for more. The first part of the book is theoretical – it lays down the general principles, introduces you to the main characters, etc. And the second, and longer, part is applied – it covers disease and immune conditions.

Naturally I assumed that the second part would build on the first, by applying the theory. On the contrary, the applied portion of the book simply went on and on like the theoretical portion. I doubt this is a shortcoming of the author, as it’s more likely a reflection of the beast itself. But I found it rather thought provoking that there should be such a sharp disconnect to begin with.

It was a bit like learning English – or what I imagine learning English must be like: There are principles, structures, and rules, but after you master them, you then spend even more time learning about nuances and exceptions.

Certainly there are theoretical principles and natural laws, but the impression that one gets is that based on some primitive defense-system, mother nature was just making shit up as it went along, constantly responding to new threats and stumbling upon new weapons, necessity giving birth some pretty wild inventions, a patchwork quilt of defense systems.

The analogy to dissonance of course is a stretch – but it’s not as much a stretch as one might think at first. Both lend creed to the a-posteri ever-changing being-at-work-staying-onself/coming-into-being approach to knowledge.



Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Album cover of Beatles' 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; (2)Moon up, 07/05/2009, [kane]; (3)Ralph Steadman, self-portrait.

Video: (1)Music video of the song Forever by Drake; (2)Music video, Two-Headed Baby channel, of the song Steam Engenious by Modest Mouse from their 2007 album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank; (3)Music video, cdiamond channel, of the song A Day in the Life by The Beatles from their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
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  1. "mother nature was just making shit up as it went along"

    You have no idea how much I wish that I had thought of using that phrase! :-)

    I have just caught up with some of your recent articles. Top notch, as usual!

  2. Thanks for the complements, glad you're enjoying them!

    I haven't had too much time for consistently updating them, though I keep coming across books that continually threaten to rearrange my thoughts (& will probably inspire a few posts here or there). 2 particularly influential ones of late, which I'd recommend or be curious if you've read them - are GK Chesteron's Orthodoxy, and Thomas Sowell's Intellectuals & Society.


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