In Defense of Medleys

As a composer and performer, one aspect of musical composition that has always fascinated me is the mysterious alchemy by which two ideas, which may have little in common (at least superficially), can be joined together simply by their presence in the same piece of music.  This may seem trivial, but the question of why some ideas seem to fit together and others remain stubbornly separate is an important one for composers and songwriters, and the performers and conductors who do their best to interpret their ideas.  It’s taken me a few months to come around to this directly, but I wanted to get some entries under my belt before I tackled the subject.

Although I intend to keep blogging about comics, movies, musical instruments, and anything else that catches my fancy, Medleyana takes its name from an oft-maligned genre of music: the humble medley—you know, the sort of piece that delivers the most exciting or recognizable bits of several songs or pieces in a self-contained arrangement.  It’s not hard to see why the medley form is underappreciated, or not even acknowledged as a legitimate form at all.  Anyone who has played an instrument in a school band or orchestra, or had a child who did, has suffered through watered-down arrangements of movie themes or pop tunes that are too difficult for students to perform in their original form, cementing an association between medleys and amateur music-making.  For the same reason, medleys are considered an essentially “commercial” form, trafficking in the ephemera of songs and movies that are omnipresent for a season and then forgotten.  Even those medleys of evergreen favorites like Christmas carols or patriotic songs are subject to the whims of changing fashion or the vagaries of the publishing business.  (Bob Lowden’s Armed Forces Salute, a well-regarded arrangement of the service songs of the five U. S. armed forces, and one I’ve played countless times, including a half dozen in the last year alone, recently went out of print.)  Nostalgia and pedagogy are not usually respected as serious aesthetic motivation: a form that typically combines both is doomed to be overlooked.

Still, the medley has been surprisingly robust as a genre.  Since the middle ages, dance tunes (at least those that were written down) were often strung together to create longer forms, a practice that has more to do with the necessity of providing accompaniment for an evening of dancing than any overarching compositional philosophy.  In the nineteenth century, possibly the golden age of concertizing, virtuoso performers and conductors would program crowd-pleasing medleys of popular operatic arias, often under the moniker of “fantasy” or “potpourri.”  A savvy self-promoter like Franz Liszt would be sure to have prepared a collection of the appropriate national songs of whatever country he was visiting as a sop to the audience, the equivalent of a rock star’s “Hello, Cleveland!” shout-out.  The concert band developed in this milieu, and its literature has always reflected this populist tendency.  And while ambitious composers have largely left Broadway and popular song medleys to pops concerts and school band publishers, most of the early twentieth century British masterworks that are the foundation of serious band literature—Gustav Holst’s Second Suite in F, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Folk Song Suite, and Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posey—are essentially medleys, albeit with a great deal more craft and passion than was normally lavished on compositions for the medium at the time.

In short, the typical medley form—one idea following another, like beads on a string, until it ends—may be simple, but a form it is, and one with a long pedigree in both “serious” and popular music.  Its continued presence is like the survival of those turtles and crocodilians that have remained largely unchanged since the days of the dinosaurs: they may be more modest than the giants they once walked among, but they are a surviving link to those days and worthy of our attention.

Personally, I have always preferred forms with a great deal of contrast; multi-strain forms like the march or piano rag, programmatic works, theatrical and film music, and the like.  In our current referential, sample-driven “remix culture,” there has been a renewed focus on issues of appropriation, quotation and recontextualization.  In the kind of medleys I mentioned, appropriation is less of an issue: songs under copyright must be licensed when included in a published arrangement, and as such the medley is an auxiliary to the original product, in effect an advertisement for the original.  The line is fuzzier when it comes to quotations so brief or so transformed that they fly under the radar of copyright niceties, or when the original work is in the public domain and safely available for anyone to use as they like.  Would the original composer approve of their tune’s new setting?  Is it necessary to observe original intent when combining or rearranging old chestnuts?  Will the audience even be aware of the borrowing?  Does it matter?  To be sure, “spot the reference” can be fun when dealing with magpie composers like Charles Ives or Danny Elfman, but even when the sources are unfamiliar I get a lot of pleasure from the sensory overload that comes from rapid-fire changes of musical texture, and there have been plenty of pop songs that I first heard as part of a medley, mash-up or mix tape, that captivated me enough to look up the original.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the era of “Hooked on Classics,” what writer Noel Murray calls the “Medley Age.”  Or maybe decades of playing medleys in school and community bands have left me with musical Stockholm Syndrome.  It could just be that I’m a hopeless vulgarian with a short attention span.  In any case, the pleasure of recognition is often only the beginning of what a medley or mash-up has to offer.  Readers of this blog will have noted that I am, at best, ambivalent about totalizing theoretical or aesthetic frameworks, whether in music, literary analysis, or comic book continuity: as seductive as they can be, they can be too constricting when taken as a blueprint for the creative act, and when used as an editor’s guiding principle can cut out much that was fresh and vital in the first place.  In my view, it’s better to “let a thousand flowers bloom,” even knowing that the results may be messy, chaotic, and contradictory.  In that sense, they are much more like life as it is lived than as we would like it to be.

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