November 18th 2017


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Full audit can end dual-citizenship fiasco

CANBERRA OBSERVED High Court high handed to 'foreigners' in Parliament

MANUFACTURING Auto industry loss result of government policy failure

AGENDA FOR AUSTRALIA Financing infrastructure for development and jobs

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Behind the indictments of ex-Trump campaigners

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY Beersheba charge enabled a pivotal victory

ECONOMICS China intends to party like it's 1949 ... again

ENVIRONMENT Core of climate science is in the real-world data

U.S. HISTORY Why Americans stick to their guns

MUSIC New styles: Dipping into the melting pot

CINEMA Loving Vincent: A mystery in oils

BOOK REVIEW Just what is the conservative idea?

LETTERS

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MUSIC
New styles: Dipping into the melting pot


by David James

News Weekly, November 18, 2017

The contemporary musician is exposed to a dizzying array of musical styles. Students of music can learn all forms of jazz or blues, and anything in classical music from Palestrina’s harmonically simple plain song through to Bach’s endlessly variable counterpoint, to Schoenberg’s atonalism, Messiaen’s imitation of birdsong or Bartok’s tone clusters.

 

 

Then there is the variety of ethnic music, whether it be the complexities of flamenco, the diminished scales of Middle Eastern music or the many different types of indigenous music.

The usual response to such diversity is the creation of what is called world music: a musical category encompassing many different styles from all parts of the world. It is a form of syncretism. The musicians look for commonalities from which they can develop a new language, an endeavour that typically requires a high level of skill and research.

Joe Zawinul

The results can be impressive. Take, for example, keyboardist-composer Joe Zawinul. He developed wonderful textures in his compositions, at first in the band Weather Report and then later as a solo artist. He was able to develop highly effective sonic textures plucked from diverse sources, including simple radio recordings and synthesised sounds of weather events.

Many other bands have gone down the route of fusing different traditions in an effort to find something new. What does not seem to have been done to any extent, however, is the development of pieces that include within them different styles. The approach has been to blend influences into one homogenous whole, rather than to exploit contrasts between the styles.

Such contrast is part of everyday musical experience. Think of a radio, or listening to music on the internet. Listeners can flick through, in rapid succession, a Mozart symphony, an Elvis Presley ballad, a heavy metal number, a rap song (for the sake of argument we will call that music), a piece by an Indonesian gamelan orchestra or some ambient electronica. Whereas in the past listeners would have been shocked to hear such a range, because they were only exposed to what was available locally, we are now inured to it.

What has not been explored to any great extent is how to make that diversity part of the musical texture. When a rock band does a song, it is just a rock song. When a classical composer pens a symphony it is just a symphony. When a rap singer records a track, it is all the same tuneless gibberish. What is rarely heard is an alternating within the piece between styles.

American composer Charles Ives did have two pieces playing at once. In the marvellous piece Three Places in New England, he quoted familiar musical excerpts in different keys from the main theme. Ives got the idea when he heard two different marching bands, and could still hear one band marching away while the other was marching towards him, which sounded like two pieces simultaneously played in two different keys.

A similar kind of contrast is possible with genres. Just as Ives heard that effect and produced music from it, the modern listener can produce something from the enormous stylistic diversity.

This writer did hear a performance by a band, which included guitarist John Scofield and saxophonist Dave Liebman, in which the soloists moved through the decades with their improvisations: starting with bebop and finishing up with more polytonal, dissonant playing. It certainly made for an intriguing journey for the listener. A similar journey is possible with styles, by moving across the genres.

There is a darker side to world music, and indeed to globalisation itself. The development of idiosyncratic, culturally discrete musical styles, such as blues or flamenco, requires relative isolation. In the internet age, such isolation is no longer available. The consequence is homogeneity and, eventually, sameness.

Worse, the genres have become largely rusted on: the music has to be identified with a label – such as rock, alternative, soul, jazz, whatever – to be considered marketable.

Originality that develops in geographical and cultural isolation is now all but impossible. We are all connected, for better or ill, and all differences seem to be fading. But new spaces can be found from that very fact. It may eventually lead to entirely new sounds and styles.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.




























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