Peak melody

The blog Tampon Teabag (yes I know) posted the following very interesting (and long) piece back in September 2005. I missed it first time round, so here it is (language and all) in case you did as well.

"Every society throughout history and throughout the world has made and enjoyed music! But we, now, here, in the west are unique… in our hunger for ever more, new music. Music surrounds us: in our houses, blasting out of radios, CD players, computers. It wakes us up, and it sends us to sleep. Outside we pump music into our ears through up-to-the-minute mobile phones and MP3-players...

"We cannot get enough of it! We hear it in our supermarkets, and we sing it in our churches and in our karaoke bars. Rock anthems in pubs, and recorder-concerts in schools. We chant it at our football matches, hum along to it in our cars, and dance to it in our nightclubs. We go to Sing-Along-Sound-of-Music evenings. There is no getting away from music. Our lives are musical lives, and our world is a musical world. Musical. Music."

So wrote the philosopher Jacob Applebloom in his suicide note.

Just as so often in his life (not least in his decision to end it) Applebloom was right: our western appetite for new music does indeed know no bounds. Music is now officially the fourth most important factor in our lives, after food, drink, and sex. Chillingly, it even comes above our own children, and going to the toilet.

And central to western music, is melody.

But melody is a finite resource: the number of distinct melodies of a certain length which can be composed from the few notes we have at our disposal, is limited, and experts agree that we are getting through the various possible combinations and permutations at an alarming rate.

So how much longer can we continue to plunder melody reserves like this? The plain fact is that we’re already running out: the production of genuinely new melody peaked in late 1996, and has already started to fall away, reciprocal-logarithmically speaking. Experts predict that if the rate at which the rate of increase of consumption of melody increases continues to increase at its current rate, then by 2027 every single repeatable tune lasting less than 30 seconds will have been recorded.

An overhaul of the copyright law is urgently needed if total economic prolapse is to be avoided. But that is only the first, and easiest step.

The serialist movement of the early 20th century led by Arnold Schoenberg was one of the first concerted attempts to locate new reserves of melody. Schoenberg searched for tunes in the atonal wilderness, but he met with only limited success. Experiments in microtonal technology (initiated by the likes of Carillo and Ives in the late 19th century) are ongoing, but so far they also show little prospect of producing anything approaching a memorable, repeatable tune. Others have searched further afield: Olivier Messiaen searched for melody in birdsong. But it seems that birds and humans have different ideas about what constitutes a good tune. John Cage in his infamous piece 4’33”, posed the paradoxical question “is silence actually the best melody?” But the world was not convinced, and the rate at which the rate of increase of consumption of new, audible, melody increases continued to increase unabated.

Greater success has been achieved by the world-music movement, and by the melody-conservationists of the minimalist movement. The likes of Steve Reich and Philip Glass have discovered techniques to make melody go further: Reich, for example, has composed single pieces of music of over an hour in length, which feature only one or two snippets of simple melody. Significantly, this approach has now crossed over into the mainstream (in for instance the music of Kylie Minogue, and in the dance-clubs of Ibiza).

All genres of music (excluding the extreme avant-garde) are struggling to come to terms with the impending melody-crisis. Hip-hop for instance has managed to dispense with melody almost completely, but unfortunate knock-on effects of this have been felt in the world’s dwindling stocks of rhythm and swear-words.

As the crisis deepens, mainstream pop-music will be the first to be hit hard, and record-producers have now adopted a policy of containment, and are trying to saturate the market with endless remixes, covers, and re-covers in a desperate attempt to maintain public interest whilst getting more mileage from fast-disappearing melody stocks. But consumers will not put up with this state of affairs indefinitely. Mohammed Propane from the music watchdog OFFPOP struck a threatening note in an interview last month: “At best these singles are indistinguishable from the originals, but more often they’re just inferior copies. Have you heard Britney Spears' version of "I love Rock and Roll"? It’s an insult to the taste and discernment of the general public, that’s what it is. And do you remember All Saints' cover of "Under the Bridge"? And then there’s the Crazy Frog. Fuck-a-duck that thing irritates me, and I’m not the only one. Studies show unprecedented levels of public anger with the music industry at the moment, and if record producers think they can fob off audiences with this sort of childish crap for much longer, then they’ve got another thing coming. I tell you this: if things don’t improve, we’ll begin by blockading CD-factories, and end by burning their fucking studios to the ground, in the name of Allah.”

It is beyond doubt that when future generations look back on the 20th and early 21st century, they will view it as a time of disgraceful musical profligacy. And the court of history will undoubtedly reserve the most serious charges of melody-wasting for jazz-musicians. In a single gig a competent jazz musician can utilise up to 100,000 notes of melody. It is estimated that Charlie Parker alone expended over 1% of the world’s melody supplies during the course of his 23 year career.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for the goatee-stroking foot-tappers: Jazz also takes pole position in the only realistic attempt to forestall the effects of the global melody-shortage. For although melody is an essential component of western music, it has been discovered that suitable alterations in the harmony, rhythm, timbre, volume, tempo, or lyrics can allow a single line of melody to be safely reused several times over.

“Melody-recycling” has become the buzzword, and the most successful examples of melody-recycling in action are so-called Trans-Genre Arrangements (TGAs). Jazz leads the way. As long ago as 1934, blind-in-one-eye piano virtuoso Art Tatum stunned the musical establishment with his sublime jazz-arrangements of compositions by Massenet and Debussy. This approach was continued by gauloise-smoking left-banker Jacques Loussier, most famously in his arrangement of Bach’s “Air on a G-String”. More recently Django Bates’ anarchic arrangement of “New York, New York” came to symbolise a new chapter of British jazz. These days TGAs are stock in trade for jazz musicians, with the likes Brad Meldau covering several Radiohead songs, and The Bad Plus tackling everything from Aphex Twin to Queen.

But TGAs are not the domain of jazz alone. Punk’s history of musical vandalism has given us a host of iconoclastic and humorous reworkings of classic songs, including the most notorious of all TGAs: The Sex Pistols’ version of “My Way”.

Electro-music too has taken on the melody-recycling mantle, and whilst the charts heave with lazy remixes, samples, and plagiarism, more imaginative experiments in “bootlegging” are beginning to turn out some worthwhile results. As often as not though, this melody-saving innovation finds itself on the wrong side of British copyright law, as in for instance The Evolution Control Committee’s song “Rocked by Rape” in which the voice of CBS newscaster Dan Rather is set to riffs by AC/DC.

Interestingly Paul Anka who wrote the lyrics to “My Way” is now in the vanguard of the TGA-movement. His recently issued disc "Rock Swings" features classic rock songs being played by a swing-band. His arrangement of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has made a particularly strong impression on the public consciousness, and suggests that the future of the TGA may be bright, even in the mainstream.

Critics agree that to be successful, a TGA must fearlessly deconstruct and rebuild a well-known, and well-liked piece of music. The greatest TGAs of all time are widely considered to be Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along The Watchtower" by Bob Dylan, and The Easystar Allstars’ “The Dub Side of the Moon”, in which the entirety of Pink Floyd’s seminal album “The Dark Side of the Moon” is reworked in the reggae genre. Many more bold efforts like this are needed if the world is to avoid total musical-meltdown in the near future.

But one man’s imaginative re-arrangement is another man’s sacrilege, and further down this road, danger certainly lies. Imagine a world where all the music sounds like William Shatner’s cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, or even more frighteningly, like Barbara Cartland’s nauseating rendition of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. As the amount of available melody dwindles, the musical establishment is going to have to regulate itself with increasing sensitivity, whilst trying to keep the market afloat. Some are already calling for government intervention to prevent a glut of novelty records by the likes of Weird Al Yankovich or the Dangleberries’ bagpipe version of “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath.

But econo-musicologists such as Honey Jezebel warn that further tightening of music laws could spell disaster. “What we desparately need is more albums like "Maximum Rockgrass" by Hayseed Dixie [an album of classic rock songs performed in the blue-grass genre]. Sure, a few purists are not going to like it, but we’ve got to look at the bigger picture here. We’ve got major melody-problems here, people, major problems, and if we’re not careful it could be game over for music as we know it.”

Unless new reserves of melody can be found, by 2020 the face of music is going to look very different from now. A terrifying hint of what’s to come can be found in the music of London-based sound-artist Xper.Xr. Such is his dedication to melody-conservation, that he painstakingly transcribed the song “No Limit” by 90s dance act 2-Unlimited, before arranging it, and translating the result into traditional Chinese musical notation. Xper.Xr then hired traditional Chinese instrumentalists to perform the work. By 2020, such elaborate and extreme techniques may be the only option left to music-makers struggling to satisfy humanity’s never-ending thirst for new music. So at least thought Jacob Applebloom:

“We just cannot conceive of life without music. But music is not eternal. Music, like humanity, needs to evolve to survive. But what will happen when the wells of melody, harmony, and rhythm run dry as they must? Our delicate world of songs and symphonies will die, and a nightmarish dystopia of industrial machinery and radiation-burns will be born in its place: an apocalyptic place where gun-runners whistle Stockhausen, and whores hum techno. This is a world I cannot bear to witness.

“So I shall bid farewell to this planet with its musical richness and diversity still in tact, and as I swing from the strings of my grand piano, I shall smile, and feel glad ever to have lived, and listened, in the land of Elgar.”

Reblogged from Tampon Teabag

Picture credits: Steve Reich - Glass pages John Cage - Kunstradio Paul Anka - Encore4 Bob Dylan - Blind Pig Music Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Is classical music too cheap?


Larry Teabag said…
Thanks for the re-blogging. Your link to the original post is knackered, it's at:

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