THE SINGER AND THE SONG.
Part 1. Female Singers and Songs
The Aim Was Song.
Before man to blow to right
The wind once blew itself untaught,
And did its loudest day and night
In any rough place where it caught.
Man came to tell it what was wrong;
It hadn’t found the place to blow;
It blew too hard – the aim was song.
And listen how it ought to go!
He took a little in his mouth,
And held it long enough to north
To be converted into south,
And then by measure blew it forth.
By measure. It was word and note,
The wind, the wind had meant to be –
A little through the lips and throat,
The aim was song – the wind could see.
A brief preamble.
‘Singers and songs,’ here being mainly songs of yesteryear, state of pop music being what it is today…There’s a survey doing the rounds says that pop music is louder, dumber, less harmonious than in days of yore. Hmmm, look, I don’t need a survey to tell me about pop music today, hear enough of it in shopping plazas and emporiums, on TV, ‘The Voice,’ you hear it on the radio every time you switch on a dial. I could play some of it for you from the internet, but life’s too short to suffer that mechanical beat, the banal repetitious chorus, that signature two-note whoop, ‘ Eey-oh – ee-ey-oh’ that’s taken up everywhere by frenzied, arm-waving, adolescent audiences.
Well, I suppose, having mentioned the survey, I should give some details, but with these provisos…In recent times there’ve been quite a few flawed surveys out there, even, gasp, pre-supposed, scientific surveys – observed to fail on grounds of bias, poor measurement techniques or design to produce some designated marketing outcome. And this one, too, likely has its flaws. When you’re dealing with the arts, interaction of music and lyrics, say, nullius in verba and be wary of number crunching data. And so, herewith…
Researchers at the Spanish National Research Council ran recordings from all genres of popular music from the period 1955-2010, (the ‘Million Song Dataset,’) through a series of algorithms to analyze harmonic complexity, timbral diversity and loudness. Their study, ‘Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music,’ http://www.nature.com/articles/srep00521 found that since the 50’s there has been a decrease in harmonic complexity, not only in the diversity of chords in songs but also in the musical pathways between chords, less inventiveness in linking their harmonies together, less creative and more commercial production, The study also found that timbres or distinct textures produced by different instruments playing the same notes have become more homogenous over time, and when it comes to volume, surprise, surprise, music is becoming, on average, steadily louder.
Doing the rounds there are also a few word-count studies of song lyrics in pop music, drawing a similar conclusion regarding complexity, a conclusion that ‘less equates with worse.’ One study by William Briggs measures repetition and ratio of unique words to total words of the most popular song in each year from 1950 to 2010, with the idea that, on average, a song that is more repetitive is worse than a song with more expansive lyrics. http://wmbriggs.com/post/4405/ He finds that, post 1980, there’s been quite a considerable drop in word uniqueness per song, with 2019 and 2010 favorites, ‘Boom Boom Pow’ and ‘Tik Tok’ lyrics matching the titles’ sophistication. Hey, while limited vocabulary may not necessarily equate with awfulness, in these two songs it does.
Now it follows that one swallow does not a summer make, nor does one top-of-the-pops song reveal all beneath the event horizon. And in judging artistic value, a statistical approach is unlikely to tell you much. However the above studies do suggest a problem of declining choice in the devices and means of artistic creation, limits of means to an end for the artist, limits of engagement for the audience. And highly significant are those references to market control by just a few dominant companies in the music industry in the last three decades, companies that commercially manufacture songs to promote the familiar and push their products to make them popular, by way of controlled outlets, to the least discerning of audiences.
The fusion of sense and sound.
Relating to complexity in language, there’s a rather highbrow study by Professor Russ McDonald http://research.gold.ac.uk/13363/ ‘ The Language of Tragedy,’ that examines the language of Shakespeare and his debt to Christopher Marlow. Marlow invented the iambic pentameter line that Shakespeare developed, using metre of varied beat and line enjambments to create the exceptional speech of his tragic protagonists, a fusion of figurative language and complex rhythms, like these lines from Macbeth …‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time. / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death.’
As Russ MacDonald argues, ‘The burgeoning of tragedy owed much to the invention of a poetic language suitable for it, unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse.’ Writers prior to its development were hampered by prosodic forms like the fourteen syllable line that tended to split in two, producing a clumsy monotony, and a defined line ending necessitated by the demands of rhyming verse.
Say, the rhythm of good verse is the rhythm of thought. Listen to Alexander Pope:
‘True ease in writing comes from Art, not chance,
As those who move easiest who have learned to dance.
‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.’
Adding another gamut.
As in poetry, likewise in music, thanks to what Ernst Gombrich describes as ‘the infinite elasticity of the human mind,’ our use of metaphor, of finding ‘equivalences in disparate phenomena and of substituting one for another,’ ( ‘Meditations on a Hobby Horse,’ P 14.) Because of our predilection for metaphor, we are able to respond to a musical experience as the equivalent of a moral value or a transference from one sensory experience to another, -‘a noble chorus,’ ‘ a velvet tone,’ ‘cheerful polka’ or even ‘a grim scherzo.’ And thanks to the evolution of music’s means, musical structures, chords, major and minor keys, all the symphonic and instrumental developments of classical music, even a song without words can suggest to us aspects of the human condition, from deep, elemental, human emotions to ordered, harmonious, ‘civilized’ experience. And sometimes, says Kenneth Clark, speaking of opera, that which is ‘too silly to be said may be sung.’(‘Civilization.’ Ch 9. The Pursuit of Happiness.) The fusion between sense and sound in music can be complicated, even ironic.
So let’s listen to some popular songs and their singers. I’m starting with the 1930s, one of the great periods of song writers like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin, their classic songs still sung in the decades beyond the 30’s, you’ll hear them today.
So what do singers sing about? The passing seasons, love, loneliness, almost anything to do with feelings and the human condition. Listen to the bell like notes of Ella Fitzgerald, in contrast to the gritty voice of Lois Armstrong, singing the classic Gershwin song, ‘Summertime.’ Here’s a fusion of sound and sense, harmonic complexity, musical pathways, tone, lyrics, things are on the up and up. Hear it in the metre, extended beat of key words ‘ suuhm-muh ti-ime’ ‘ the living is ‘ ea-easy,’ in the images, ‘fish are jumping, and the cotton is high,’ emphasis on words of summer plenitude, music soars, high notes of violins, Louis Armstrong beautiful trumpet and Ella’s voice…
Who can forget Ginger and Fred dancing ‘cheek to cheek,’ one of Irving Berlin’s best songs. That dance scene! https://beththeserf.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/37th-edition-serf-under_ground-journal/ Here Irving Berlin’s song sung by Ella Fitzgerald.
The sophisticated Cole Porter exploits the four-four beat kind in the manner of Shakespeare exploiting the possibilities of the iambic pentameter. His song, ‘Night and Day’ begins with just one note repeated over and over, words and metre combining to express a feeling of incessant longing…
‘Like the beat, beat, beat of the tom tom / When the jungle shadows fall / Like the tick, tick tock of the stately clock /As it stands against the wall, / Like the drip, drip drip of the rain drops / When the summer shower’s through, /A voice within me keeps repeating, /You, you, you.’
Metrical stress falls on the words, ‘you’, ‘the one,’ ‘night and day,’ and its inverse, ‘day and night’ to convey the lover’s state of mind. And Frances Faye gets it and literally ‘plays’ with it, accompanying herself on the piano as she sings Cole Porter’s song with witty improvisations that emphasize the song’s complexity.
In the early forties, young movie star, Judy Garland, singing one of Jerome Kern’s loveliest songs.
Judy Garland does ‘some day’ so well and repeats it in another song, ‘Over the Rainbow,’ composed by Harold Arien. Here she is in 1939 in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ – with Toto.
It’s the 1940’s, can’t have famous songs and singers without Piaf, French chanteuse, and that song, ‘La Vie on Rose.’ ‘Quand il me prend dans ses bras / il me parle tout bas / je vois la vie en rose.’ A song of affirmation in sound and in sense, and Piaf’s distinctive voice!
Passing over some powerful vocalists and songs of the 50’s and 60’s, going for lyricism and poetry here, Astrud Gilberto singing ‘Corcovado.’
‘Quiet nights and quiet stars, quiet chords from my guitar / Floating on the silence that surrounds us. / Quiet thoughts in quiet dreams, quiet walks by quiet streams, / Climbing hills where lovers go to watch the world below, together.’
So lovely, murmuring conversation between voice and saxophone in minor key, falling rhythm, anapestic beat replacing the firm iambic beat, emphasis on and repetition of the word , ‘quiet,’ sound and imagery fuse as metaphor for private intimacy…
If you enjoyed that, then listen to this, also sung by Astrud Gilberto, Roger and Hammerstein’s ‘ It Might As Well be Spring,’ from the musicale, ‘State Fair.’ I can’t present it as a stand alone url, you need to listen the second song in the album., ‘The Bossa Nova Years.’
Generally the song is sung as musicale introduction to the forthcoming teen-age romance, emphasis sentimental. Here in minor key and a fraction off key, a complaining duet by soloist and saxophone, a witty exploitation of the negatives that the lyrics list: ‘It isn’t even Spring,’ ‘I haven’t seen a crocus or a rose bud,’ and of the negative feelings expressed, ‘restless,’ ‘ jumpy,’ ‘vaguely discontented.’ It’s a subversive rearrangement of the original song to focus on the uncertainties and painful emotions of adolescent romance. Notice in those closing bars, the dissonance by singer and saxophone.
Singers and songs of the 70’s, 80’s, you’re getting song plus dance movements here, stagey performance that sometimes distracts from the song. You’ve got soul singers, the powerful voices of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Tina Turner and, gasp, Aretha Franklin. Strong rhythm and assertive performance, not quite to my taste but these vocalists are good! And 1970’s ‘New Wave’ they call it, some quirky singer-song writers of songs with complex rhythms, Lene Lovit, ‘Lucky Number’s one,’ Kate Bush, the lyrical ‘Wuthering Heights.’
Pop music, expect street smart songs about love and battle of the sexes, tough lyrics. What you get with two singer-songwriters, Blondie, Debbie Harrie, ‘Heart off Glass’ and Madonna, ‘Borderline,’ are songs of intricate metre and lovely melody. Madonna is known for pushing the boundaries with lyrics, ‘Like a Virgin,’ but here in ‘Borderline,’ listen to the harmonic arrangement. The film-clip portrays bravado street-culture and brat behavior, but hear Madonna’s refined singing tone, it’s a love song, and look at her expressive acting!
Annie Lenox from Aberdeen where the weather ain’t good. ‘Here Comes the Rain Again.’ Atmospheric, Annie Lennox rich contralto voice, sometimes muted choral back-up, staccato violins, drum beat pulsing like beating rain, harmonic complexities, don’t overlook those musical pathways, lyrics …
Well that’s it, but as every song should have its appropriate ending, so, too, an essay on singer’s and songs. Herewith, Piaf, ‘qui ne regrette rien.’