In an era when
musical context has been subsumed in a sea of listener playlists, on-demand streaming and the general obsolescence of the album, who creates the larger context for a single piece of music? You do! Until I do.
Composers, songwriters, and performers of a certain age grew up experiencing, thinking about and creating music in larger formats—primarily the album. Sure, we, like the rest of you, bought 45s, assigned ourselves as DJs at dance parties, and selected songs on jukeboxes. We listened to the radio where the DJs spun hit after hit (sometimes what they were paid to turn into hits.) We even made mixtapes, transferring songs via electronic analog signals from our LPs onto cassettes.
But mostly we listened to albums because a) it was cumbersome to keep switching between songs on a single, let alone switching among multiple discs; b) we understood that with the serious artists at least, each album was meant as a cohesive artistic statement. Or at least artists aimed for that goal. It didn’t always work: there’s plenty of lofty and pretentious rock and pop from the 1960s and 70s. Still, you loved that artists were trying.
Now? Artists still think (often reluctantly) in albums. Some albums, like Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Kanye West’s best material even feel like fairly cohesive artistic statements. Most do not for the simple reason that it almost feels like it’s not worth the effort when hardly anybody listens to an album as a unit.
Do you? I don’t. Or at least not very often.
The King’s Speech Music
Maybe none of this matters. Maybe it’s just the natural evolution of the music industry—how we experience, relate to music and artists. Or maybe it’s just me being old, out of touch, not getting it. I am all of those things, but another thing I am is this: a musician with a deep knowledge of music itself, and it’s evolving role in the broader culture.
I’m not a musical scholar; I’m a working, creative musician, and my experience tells me something is wrong. Something is wrong with music itself when it has no context larger than the individual song. More to the point, the full potential of music as a powerful, emotionally rich storytelling language is diminished when all we are left with is “singles.”
And I don’t just mean “singles” in the normal sense of the word, e.g. a hit pop song. I mean “single” in the generic sense, as in a single piece of untethered music, regardless of style, period, or it’s original place in a larger structure.
So that can just as easily be a movement from a Beethoven symphony as it can be a pop song from a great album. I recall thinking about this when watching the very fine film, King’s Speech. In a scene near the end, King George VI, after much training to ameliorate his stutter, makes a live radio speech announcing the declaration of war against the Nazis to the nation. The accompanying music throughout the scene is the 2nd movement—the Allegretto— from Beethoven’s 7th symphony. That movement, in an of itself, is one of the most moving pieces of music ever written. And the way it underscores the scene is beautiful. The director lets the music carry the emotion—as it should.
But I couldn’t help but think of the larger context of the movement as it was originally concieved—the dangerously wild first movement whose repeated bass figure in the coda led Beethoven’s contemporary Carl Maria von Weber to call the former “ripe for the madhouse.” That bit of looniness perfectly sets up the Allegretto. And the two movements that follow that complete the story of what Richard Wagner called, “the apotheosis dance.” The point is, most people will never know or care about the rest of the symphony. Most people will probably call it “the King’s Speech music” or something,
The Album is Dead, Long the live the…
There’s nothing I can do about that. The technological cat is long out of the bag and we’re not going back to a time of four-movent symphonies or even concept albums that matter. The only thing we, as musicians, can do is create new larger contexts for our music. That could be in the form of an Instagram story album, serial television (a new form of opera?), or, perhaps, something like this podcast, where I seem, in the end, to have found a context for this lonely, disembodied nocturne.
That is until someone else finds another place for it.
Episode #18 Transcription
This is Nocturne number four and it’s out of context.
Nocturne number four in, I dunno what key it’s in, maybe a minor. The thing is, Nocturne number four implies that there are at least three before it and possibly more after it. But the truth is I’ve only written Nocturne number four and Nocturne number nine, which by the way it was in episode 14, sad movie theme gone bad. I did begin a nocturne number one and it was going nowhere so I immediately jumped to Nocturne number four bypassing two and three and that’s it.
Now you’re wondering possibly first of all, what the hell is a Nocturne? Well, you know nocturnal, it’s a piece of night music in theory. The most famous nocturnes for piano anyway are those by Chopin and they are truly gorgeous pieces of music and he wrote those in the whatever, 1840s and if you want to hear a truly wonderful performance of those, go check out Arthur Rubinstein, complete set. Now those are very moody pieces, in some ways nocturnal, but they’re pretty dramatic as well. And in this particular Nocturne I went for a stark evening. Let’s put it that way, because you have this heavy bass staccato against this rather lyrical melody.
So if you took that melody by itself it’s in theory lyrical and nocturnal. But I thought of this base as being kind of the noise of my neighbors keeping me up.Maybe it went back to my days of living in New York City in Brooklyn, where the Goddamn upstairs neighbor would come in at 2:00 AM with her high heels and drive me crazy. My wife and I, while we were trying to get to sleep. You hear the knocking
So that maybe the melody is the dream state and the knocking of the bassis that a woman stomping all over her apartment right above us? Something like that. But me still in this dreamlike state. The two conflicting, or it may have nothing to do with that whatsoever.
Getting back to my original point about there only being two nocturnes and there being no real sequence. This is a perhaps my ironic comment on context or the lack thereof in the way we consume, listen to music these days. So context and music as I’ve spoken about before, used to be solely determined by the composer, the performer choosing to put this piece with this piece like on an album and we used to have to, of course, we didn’t have to, but we used to listen to albums of course in sequence most of the time. So I’m just the album that popped into my head that made such a huge impression on me when I was like 13 years old, 12 years old was Innervisions by Stevie Wonder. And the experience of that album with its two sides was a complete musical experience going from Too Gigh to Visions, I believe. Then Living for the City, the extended version going into Golden Lady. That whole first side was this complete larger movement and then the second side, and we experienced it as such as not just individuals songs, but how they flowed into each other and told a complete story. Visions in my mind, isn’t that the song?
Okay, that’s enough of that. Don’t want to pay the licensing fees. So, uh, that context, it was a broader context for the individual songs. However, Stevie may have put those together, maybe he wrote them completely separately, and then strung them together as an album or maybe not. Maybe one song led to another as a part of a larger artistic statement. And it doesn’t matter. It’s not like a, a larger story has to be written in order. All stories, larger stories, news flash, are cobbled together from multiple ends. It’s rare that you’d just write, whether it’s a musical story or literary story or a film or TV show that you just write from beginning to end. It doesn’t really work that way, but however he put that context together, it became Innervisions, the larger work that contained those individual elements of songs. So Nocturne number four and Nocturne number nine are basically making this statement that context has essentially been removed from music or the context is determined now more by the end user, the listener, the fan, the consumer who can put this music in any context they choose including you know, a dance mix to work out to, a playlist you play while barbecuing in the back yard or the context may be determined by extra musical elements like its use in a film or TV show or as a commercial.
All these things are in fact contexts, but in the case of music, unless it’s written specifically for that TV show or that film or that jingle, it’s not the context that the composer, songwriter, performer chose. Somebody else is creating a context for it. And so context itself has become radically unconstrained and fluid. Context has become so fluid that you wonder as an artist sometimes what’s the point of putting together larger works? I know when iTunes originally was becoming a big thing and people started making their playlists and by the way, thank God iTunes is going away. It’s a horrible mess of an application. Just horrid. Goodbye. Thank you. Good riddance.
Anyway, now that that rant is complete, I remember people talking about in the era of iTunes and then the beginning of the era of streaming tunes from sources like Apple Music, Spotify, and so on that the era of the album was over that now you just should focus on individual songs and market them and do all the things you have to do, build a context around the songs perhaps that was more social media driven. So there’s still in that a context, it’s just not necessarily a musical context. And this, believe it or not, is kind of a shock to the system of those of us who grew up on albums or going further back to symphonies and sonatas where these were collections of individual movements or songs that fit together to tell a larger story. And so it was a shock to my system and I know many others that you weren’t supposed to tell larger stories, at least in a purely musical sense. Now it was about your brand and your social media presence and your ability to tweet and of course this is for me demeaning because my values as a musician are inimical to that way of thinking. It’s unmusical. It’s cheap fromr my standpoint. Now I’m not saying somebody can’t make an artistic statement with all those things.
The brand, not saying somebody can’t, although I haven’t seen it and I’m certainly not going to be the one to do it, so this is a long way of saying that the reason there was only nocturne 4 and Nocturne nine is because there’s really no point, there’s no meaningful context to saying nocturnes one through nine, all of them in sequential order as if they’re making some kind of complete artistic statement or even just an individual Nocturne as part of a larger story. But as I say that I realized I have created a context for Nocturne number four which I played for you. It’s this podcast. That’s the larger story for me. That’s why I’m doing a podcast on that song because otherwise that Nocturne is just floating in the non contextual sphere. Huh. Now I’m going to make up a Nocturne and forget about all this.
Let’s call that one Nocture 13a.