Friday, April 11, 2008

Welcome back my friends to the debate that never ends...

Growing up as a saxophonist and guitar player (raised by a classical piano teacher), I took an "inside baseball" view on music. On the side of inferiority and evil, there was U93, the South Bend pop station, which had to be despised. On the side of righteousness and good, there was WAOR, "album-oriented rock," which played Led Zeppelin, The Who, Rush, Yes... all the bands my musician friends revered.

We loved these bands because they were challenging to mimic. They played fast. They changed keys and time signatures. They weren't afraid to create rock operas or release entire albums consisting of four 20-minute tracks.

I was comfortable in this space until I heard a song on WAOR that began, "Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends." The song was epic, fast, difficult. It seemed to modulate on every measure. It probably had a passage in 13/5 time. I thought Rush's "La Villa Strangiato" was hard. This song, which I now know as Emerson, Lake and Palmer's "Karn Evil 9: First Impression, Part 2" from Brain Salad Surgery, should have inspired me. Instead, and to my great surprise, it struck me as absolutely ridiculous.

An insight followed: For great musicians, which ELP are, to crank out a song like this is easy. If you have the skills, it's not hard to create a piece that breaks into a chromatic scale in 32nd notes.

Isn't it actually more difficult to come up with a simple, catchy melody?

Thus began a debate that has plagued me ever since. Which has greater value: something like "First Impression, Part 2," which shows master musicianship, or a work like Paul McCartney's "Yesterday," whose melody is so simple and complete that it's hard to imagine the world without it?

This came back to me on a filmic level as Anne and I watched "Half Nelson" last weekend. Here's a fantastic movie, wonderfully un-Hollywood, centering on two troubled characters who need each other. As with most movies I like and respect, it ended unresolved. The drug-addicted teacher is still drug-addicted. The teenage girl with the drug-dealing relative remains "unsaved."

But then it hit me. Is this ending brave or cowardly? Because we're inundated with formulaic tripe most of the time, I interpreted it as brave. But try an experiment. Flip reality. Take away the mainstream machine (the villain), and imagine every movie ending as "Half Nelson" does. Now it seems cowardly. Why not write a script brave enough to complete the story... not stop before the pain and drama that leads to resolution (keeping in mind that resolution doesn't mean "happy ending"; it could mean that everybody dies and the world ends)?

Fittingly or ironically, I have no resolution for this debate--which covers music, film, writing, painting, and which I could write about for days. The truth is, I now love "First Impression" and appreciate that it has a great melody amid all the musical grandstanding. I watch mostly indie movie fare and listen to obscure singer-songwriter music, but I also insist that "Titanic" is superior to "Magnolia." I've heard people use the melody/structure angle to argue that Def Leppard's "Photograph" is a better song than "Hey Jude." Um, no. But I will argue that no matter how jaded Bruce fans are to the "Born to Run" album, from start to finish, it's his best and most completely realized work.

And the truth is, it was just as easy for Paul McCartney to write "Yesterday" (or for Mozart to compose Eine kleine Nachtmusik, for that matter) as it was for ELP to write "First Impression."

It's not about hard or easy. It's about something else.

3 comments:

Mike said...

Okay, you've roped me in, Conk.

Your first take on "Karn Evil 9" is correct: it's bombastic, overwrought, precious, [fill in your choice here]...

"Yesterday" is, was, always will be, brilliant. Spare, engaging/arresting, heart-droppingly beautiful.

What's wrong with BOTH in the world? Upon reflection, "Karn Evil 9" still works because ELP are winking at us: "Hey we can do this, it's this detailed exploration of exploitation in the entertainment biz [thank you, the great Pete Sinfield --http://www.songsouponsea.com--, who also brought us the lyrics to KC's "In the Court of the Crimson King," etc.], so as the rock music that I used to remember being: humorous, fun:

"And if I am elected
I promise the formation of a new party
A third party, the Wild Party!
I know we have problems,
We got problems right here in Central City,
We have problems on the North, South, East and West,
New York City, Saint Louis, Philadelphia, Los Angeles,
Detroit, Chicago,
Everybody has problems,
And personally, I don't care."

Re: movies, well it's all of a package. Does the film achieve what it set out to do organically, or is it merely reacting to audience (and by extension, filmmaker) expectations?

Marc Conklin said...

Can you really separate "audience expectations" from a creator's vision? If you're working in a medium that by its very nature has an audience, then you want to communicate to that audience. No matter how you look at, you want to please them on some level.

Mike said...

Not sure there has to be such a strict demarcation. Audiences are so diverse (even pared down from the standard "four-quadrant": old, young, male, female), depending on many, many factors, not the least of which can be time.

Look at one of your favs: "It's a Wonderful Life" -- for all its great qualities, it FLOPPED at the box office. From our ever-"trusty" wikipedia:

"The film's break-even point was actually $6.3 million, approximately twice the production cost, a figure it never came close to achieving in its initial release. An appraisal in 2006 reported: "Although it was not the complete box-office failure that today everyone believes... it was a major disappointment and confirmed, at least to the studios, that Capra was no longer capable of turning out the populist features that made his films the must-see, money-making events they once were.'"

Maybe it's just the perception at its release, but a boost from late night TV and it's a "movie classic" (and deservedly so)... or what about Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" --had 'em rushing toward the aisles on its debut (The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Spring in 1913).

Guess getting back to your question, the creator was once an audience member and considers audience, but hanging too close to that mindset results in formulaic art. Chasing down audience approval is an exercise in futility.

Funny, but your post hit me like the random speaker at a Quaker meeting: "I was just thinking about that too!"