Thursday, May 16, 2013

Devolution of Music Part 3: Real Innovation is Difficult and Complex

Part of the reason that the whole human race is devolving is because, when it comes right down to it, real advancement and innovation is difficult, time-consuming, tedious or simply too complex. As such, it is usually avoided in favor of easier, simpler, less mentally strenuous endeavors.

This is Part 3 of the Devolution of music Series. If you haven't read Part 1 or 2, then you can start at the beginning by clicking the link here! Or backtrack to Part 2 here!

Why does it have to be difficult? Music is only as complex as you want it to be. Some take the view that playing an instrument is just background noise for the vocals, anyway, that the message/poetry of the words is what's important. Play a beat, drone on in one key and sing or talk over-top of this sound....and done. Others seem to think there's really no reason or need to advance musically when the truth is that what we already have is...well...pretty good. Sure, you might have to go back twenty years for something truly unique and powerful to listen to, but that's what libraries, internet, vinyl/tapes and computers are all for: to store all the music of history so you can listen whenever you want. But what if that twenty years of cheap, bad music turns into fifty years of bad music or perhaps into a hundred years...will you suddenly admit we're devolving and go pick up your guitar and write a masterpiece? Probably not.

     You see, despite all the many changes in taste, styles and fashion associated with music, it's our opinion (@VeryUsMumblings) that there have only been two real mental/academic advances in music in the last hundred years or so. One of those advances is the use of odd time signatures. The other is improvisation.

Odd Time
   Those funny little fractions at the left side of a bar of sheet music are indicators of the time-structure of that piece of music.  The top number is the number of beats per bar and the bottom is the denomination of those beats (4/4 would mean the 4 beats are each quarter notes). And not much has changed with those for hundreds of years.. Basically, rock, reggae, disco, funk and just about anything that you can listen to on the radio is in basic 4/4 time. And to be realistic, the vast majority of all of the music in recorded history is written in 4/4 time, too.
   Sure, there's such thing as a waltz (3/4) or a jig(6/4) or even a polka (2/4), but in the vast scheme of things, most are even numbered timings and 4/4 is king. All the rest are much less used and often shunned.
   But somewhere around the middle of the 20th century, musicians started using odd time signatures in their music. Discordant notes aside, it didn't catch on so fast that it has displaced your king 4/4, but the toes are placed firmly in the door. Now, I don't know how to express the effect changing the timing has on the music itself. It's unmistakably odd, yet, if done properly, can sometimes make a song seem greater or more important simply because the riffs and melodies can't be broken down into groups of four. It's a bit like adding a dimension to music that many people wouldn't normally consider.
   Perhaps people like things to be resolved, rounded up, evened-out, and odd-timed music just goes against their instincts. Perhaps they just don't like the fraction and have trouble moving along with the music, so they can't feel the rhythm the way they can when they clap their hands on the 2 and the 4. But I've found that odd-timed music just doesn't suit some people. They just don't like it and never will. Is it devolution? perhaps. Or perhaps they just don't want to try it because it's too weird and complex to them. But there are many excellent and beautiful examples of odd-time music, and most of them aren't more than 2 generations old.

    The simplest and most often used odd-time signature is 3/4. Yes, it's technically the same time signature as a waltz, but if you can count to three, then you can hear why Jimi Hendrix's Manic Depression stood apart from other heavy rock songs of his day. Unfortunately, Jimi's version is under the most strict copyright enforcement ever (gigantic police offers suffering from andropause and nicotine withdrawal) on the internet, so here we've posted an excellent version by a Japanese rock group named Char


   When you start talking about odd time signatures, you have to start talking about a guy named Dave Brubeck. The Dave Brubeck Quartet released a jazz album in 1959 called simply "Time Out" which was, from beginning to end a very successful experiment in changing the basic timing of a jazz arrangement. Sometimes the timings would change in the middle of a song and then back again.
Dave Brubeck passed away just this past December (Dec 5,2012) and the legacy he and his quartet leaves us is inextricably linked to one particular song named 'Take Five' which, of course, is written in 5/4 time.
  
Sure, it was the jazz musicians that really started experimenting with odd timings, but then came Progressive Rock:
'Back in N.Y.C.' by Genesis is, for the most part written in 7/8 and I've posted a live performance by a group called 'District 97' for two reasons. One is that Peter Gabriel left Genesis in 1975 and since his departure, they rarely perform this song live. The other reason is that this group  actually do a really great job on this very difficult song, and to see such top-notch live performance of this tune with high-quality sound is a real treat. Part of the reason this song is so difficult is because parts of the song have a different timing structure(Yet, again!). The first part of the chorus counts as 7+7+3, which, of course equals: 17/4 time and the second part counts out as 7+7+3+7+7+4, which means Dammit, I'm f***ing lost ! (actually 35/8)

   Sometimes screwing with time-signatures almost seems like screwing with the reality continuum. Things start to sound weird and difficult to follow. Everything seems normal and fine for what you perceive to be one or two bars and then BAM, you realize you're in a Bizarro-world, one long bar of 65/8.
    The one strange side-effect of all this time-shifting in music, is that it exposes which member of the band is the least devolved. And, appropriate to my opinion on devolution, it's the one that has long been believed to be the neanderthal of the band that is in fact the most advanced. It's the drummer! Odd-timings and time-changes in the musical narrative place high emphasis on the drummer to keep a clear idea of what position of the song the band is moving through and give structure to whole ensemble. So let's give a listen to Mr. Smartypants Mike Portnoy (Drummer from Dream Theater, though he's left the band since this video was made) and see if he can explain some of the odd-times that he uses. (If you can still understand what he's saying after watching 3 min of this video, you're less devolved than most. If you get too confused, turn it off and try not think about it while operating your car. Remember: it's only arithmetic.) 

Improvisation
So, let's say you're not one try to 'push' at the corners of time. You don't want to 'expand' the alternate dimensions of timing and toy with the basic structure of music. You're not a 'music-nerd' and you think you'd like to try that other mental/academic breakthrough in music....what was that again?  Improvisation?
Yes. Improvisation is, in it's simplest explanation, having no formal pre-written arrangement to play. A basic chord progression and rhythm is usually involved, and there might even be a bridge to the song, sure, but no one is going to tell you exactly what to do with it. You make it up as you go. It's really up to you. So what do you do?
Well, some of us just twiddle away indiscriminately on a guitar, playing whatever set of tricks we know for about a minute and a half, then post it on YouTube, such as this girl has done, calling it improvisation.  (She has speed and skill, but this is not what is meant by improvisation (except by dictionary definition of the word)) Some might want to talk about 'Freestyle' which is improvising rhymes instead of musical notes. Nevertheless, here's the problem with the whole idea of improvisation: I called Improvisation a mental/academic breakthrough in music, and some people seem to think that just isn't the case. Some people think improvising is...easy. 
  Just like any other form of music or art, improvisation has every potential to be done quite badly. And when it's bad, it can be very bad. Every 'open jam session' seems to have one player that just keeps playing one or two riffs, because they're simply incapable of doing anymore than that. Some singers 'improvise' the lyrics to 'I will survive', instead of offering anything of their own. Freestyle rap-battles often degenerate into roast-the-other-guy rhyming contests. And metal-lover guitar-players who really can't improvise are often called 'twiddlers' because their playing is off-key but they try to cover it up by playing faster or using a lot of wah-wah and effects. Worse still, some guitarists simply play one or two high-pitched notes over and over, thinking they're 'soloing'.
  The thing about improvisation is that, although the basic structure of a typical song is not actually required, staying on-key and on-time ...actually is required.

  So let's focus on the really good improvisation and get another explanation. Let's see what a truly great jazz player Oscar Peterson can do with about eight minutes of improvisation. Here's what to watch for: For the first minute or so, there's no backbeat, no tap of the drum, no chord progression. So how is he able to  work without all of that while playing along in a way that sounds as if it's going along a progression just like a normal song. Well...it's in his head! It doesn't exist anywhere else. It certainly isn't on a piece of paper in front of him. He's playing as if there's a back-beat and chord progression when there really isn't one there. When the bass and drums finally kick it at 2min 40sec, it's almost as if the audience can finally, physically hear what Peterson knew was there all along. From there on, the improvisation becomes much more of a collaborative effort, the bass and drums backing up Peterson's improvisation, and the degree of difficulty is increased by not knowing exactly when to ramp up the volume or whether to end on the same note.
    And finally there this. Cream's 'Farewell'  concert in the late 1960s. In this example, there is certainly a basic structure to the song Crossroads. It's a basic blues chord progression that has to be followed in order for the song to work and for the players not to lose their place in the song. Nevertheless the three members of Cream play two different beats during the verses and when three verses are complete, at about 1min 30 sec in ...all three of them begin to improvise simultaneously, as if to abandon that chord progression completely. It seems almost structureless by the time they have to return to that basic rhythm in order to sing the fourth verse. After the 4th verse, they all start improvising again, each of them playing more or less whatever the f**k they want. What chord progression? Where? Gone! They are all three improvising and after a little while it becomes incredibly confusing and you think they've certainly lost their place. And yet the song continues, on-time and on-key, exactly as it should and completes positively and ends almost with a soft touch.
    No, fellow devolving beings, I'm afraid improvisation is hard. Really hard. It's great musicians that make it seem easy. To do it as well as Oscar Peterson, Eric Clapton and their accompanying bass players and drummers, you have to be really good. And that takes ingenuity and effort and passion and time and brains. ('True Freestyle' is similarly difficult, and rappers often get accused of having prepared little rhymes or 'punchlines' ahead of time.) Whether you're writing & playing in an odd time signature, or making it up on spur of the moment, you're choosing the more difficult route. You're innovating, experimenting, risking potential disaster, perhaps the breakdown of the song in the middle of a live performance. Frankly, it's much easier not to try. It's easier to do what other people have already done, or let technology do it for you, and that's what most people are doing.
     And this could be why music is devolving. I mean, this really could be the main reason, couldn't it? It's frightening to think that we might not have the brains to make music anymore, but it could be true. Most people don't seem to think of music or the arts as anything truly important. They think that the arts are simple and easy. Maybe some people even think that it should be easy, preferring not to 'waste' time trying to understand complex pieces. Perhaps the lack of musical education has finally taken its toll, and our new and young musicians simply don't have the knowledge or training to outdo their predecessors. Perhaps the music consumer is also diminished in his or her capacity, unable to differentiate the sublime from the mundane. Simply put; maybe musicians aren't very clever anymore, and maybe the rest of us just don't know any better.

   At this point you might be scratching your head in confusion. Maybe you're surprised at the level of sophistication of some musicians that you thought were just good ol' hard-rockers. Perhaps you want to show me a middle finger and think I'm a being some kind of a music elitist. Maybe you just think I've set the bar too frigging high (We can't all be Mozart fer crying out loud!). But just because all this stuff is difficult doesn't mean that you shouldn't try or that you're not capable. Maybe you already know how to do that. Maybe you don't know until you try....

Next... the Devolution of Music series takes a break with:
Intermission: The 70-year-old Pop Song