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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The Pleasures of Anthology, Part Six

When I was growing up, there were quite a few format choices if you wanted to buy a recording of a song you liked.  45 rpm singles were the most popular with young listeners like me, and I had quite a few of those; my sister had even more.  45s were so ubiquitous that I remember the local radio station handing them out at parades.  There were albums, too, of course, long-playing 33 1/3 rpm records that contained ten songs or so—the hits, and a bunch of other stuff that might be good, but you’d have to buy the album to find out, as they never played the non-single tracks on the radio.  The first two albums of my own were Pac-Man Fever and Styx’s Kilroy Was Here, both of which I played non-stop, so that should tell you everything you need to know about me as a child.

Nowadays, the greatest disdain is reserved for the “greatest hits” package: when somebody lists a Greatest Hits as one of their favorite albums, it smacks of dilettantism; the implication is that their knowledge is only surface-deep or defined by songs that someone else decided were “the best.”  In short, they have committed the sin described by the record store clerk I mentioned previously, putting someone else’s preferences in place of their own.  Worse, the Greatest Hits divorce songs from their context within the album.  According to this point of view, the ideal recording artist makes statements at the level of the album, not the individual song, with each song contributing to a greater whole, like movements of a symphony.  That’s true of some albums and recording artists, but really only a minority, and even looking back to the “good old days” when albums were king paints a misleading picture.  As I recall it, the only albums that everyone agreed on back then were the mega-hits like the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, an album that was so huge that on the last day of school my fourth grade class gathered to watch the full-length music video for the title song as a treat.  Albums like that could stay on the charts for months, even years, releasing singles until you had heard so many of the songs that it seemed silly not to give in.  The “all killer, no filler” album was a rarity, of course—it was more common for there to be two or three good songs and a bunch of forgettable junk—that was why it was so exciting when one came along.

Michael-Jackson-Thriller-cover1

Histories of the record industry tend to emphasize how revolutionary the long-playing record was when it was introduced in 1948.  No longer did listeners have to get up and change the record every few minutes: they could put on an LP (or several, if they had one of the newer phonographs with an automatic record changer) and have uninterrupted background music at home for (potentially) hours at a stretch.  Between the LP and radio, music lovers had fewer reasons to go out; once television was introduced, the media cocoon of the second half of the twentieth century was complete.

However, LPs first became popular as a vehicle for Broadway soundtracks, classical music and the emerging genre of “mood” music, i.e. music for grown-ups.  The transition to the album format was much slower for youth-oriented music like pop, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.  The single was still king in those genres until the 1960s, and artists were expected to record in both formats: as Elijah Wald describes in How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll, artists such as Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan recorded adult-oriented “theme” albums as well as pop singles, effectively for two different audiences:

Although Sinatra placed nine albums in the top two chart positions between 1955 and 1960 and had six top-ten singles in the same period, they included no overlapping tracks.  Even a song as iconic as “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” was strictly an album track, and though Capitol also released compilations of his singles, those packages never did as well as single-less sets like Come Fly with Me and Only the Lonely. . . .  Elvis was the only artist to be equally successful in both formats without specifically tailoring his LPs to the adult market.

Gradually this changed, and in the 1960s the Beatles turned their albums into thought-out, aesthetically unified song cycles, eventually abandoning live performance altogether so they could concentrate on their studio work; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (released in 1967) is generally cited as the first “concept album,” the term by which such efforts would be differentiated from the more typical collection of unrelated songs, but it was preceded by Sinatra’s albums, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and the Beatles’ own Revolver, albums whose contents are unified not only by thematic connections but by sonic ones as well: throughout the 1950s, instruments were often added to pop recordings for the novelty value: Mitch Miller’s production of Rosemary Clooney’s singles include harpsichord, marimba, and oboe, for example. For Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson went much further, creating an instrumental pallet that included strings, brass, and free reeds (accordion and bass harmonica), giving the entire album an unprecedented unity.  The studio revolution of the psychedelic ‘60s was built on a foundation that included Miller, Sinatra’s arranger Nelson Riddle, and Wilson’s idol Phil Spector, as well as the avant-garde electronic experimentalists (like Karlheinz Stockhausen) cited by the Beatles.

Such aesthetic unity is the real legacy of this fertile period, not the “concept album’s” pretensions of narrative specificity.  After the 1960s it would be unusual for a rock or pop album to lack a unified sound: artists might change their approach from album to album (sometimes drastically: think David Bowie), but each album was judged as an artistic statement akin to a Romantic symphony, whether or not it had been conceived as such.  As an example, They Might Be Giants’ 2001 album Mink Car, with its mixture of production styles and genre exercises, is often dismissed by fans, and even for its defenders (of which I am one) it feels like a “greatest hits” package, lacking the organic sense of “togetherness” listeners have come to expect from albums.

TheyMightBeGiantsMinkCar

But perhaps it’s not Mink Car that’s out of step: shortly after its release the same year, the iPod popularized “shuffling” as a listening mode.  CD players had featured shuffle mode since their introduction in the 1980s, and multi-disc changers allowed listeners to play tracks from several CDs in random order, but the iPod allowed one to randomize a complete library of mp3s, a listening experience that could be disorienting, exciting, and liberating—specifically, liberating songs from their contexts within album playlists.  Suddenly, the single was fashionable again.*   They Might Be Giants had previously put a set of short (most just a few seconds) songs called “Fingertips” on their album Apollo 18, specifically to take advantage of the shuffle feature.  The iPod made it possible to shuffle their entire catalog, for example, and in that context the variety of styles on Mink Car didn’t seem out of place at all.

The term “album,” applied to LPs, was borrowed from previous 78 albums, which had several sleeves bound together to hold multiple discs; the resulting product was much like a book, and comparable to a photo album.  Moreover, some albums were sold in the same way as photo albums: empty, with room for listeners to keep their favorite discs in the pockets.  In that sense, the album was purely a storage solution.  Like iTunes customers today, and like teenagers in the 1950s, 78 buyers often preferred to buy only the songs they wanted, not the complete albums assembled by record producers.

Yet even that is predated by the use of “album” as a collection of music; in the early nineteenth century it became fashionable for composers to sketch short pieces of music in the albums of their friends or patrons, sort of like signing their yearbook.  These short pieces were known as Albumblätter, or “album leaves.”  Gradually the term came to be applied to any short piece dedicated in such a manner; Beethoven’s famous Albumblatt für Elise was one such.  From there it was a short jump to composing sets or cycles of short pieces and designating the entire work as an “album.”  Robert Schumann composed sets titled Albumblätter and Album für die Jugend (“Album for the Young”), and other composers followed his example.  Schumann, in particular, was interested in cyclical forms that included hidden connections between otherwise quite different movements. When considering the classical forefathers of the “concept album,” in addition to the usual grandiose, totalizing suspects such as Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler, a nod should also be given to Robert Schumann.

Publishers also assembled “albums,” bound volumes of compositions by particular composers, and of course sheet music is still published in that format today (although, like books, recorded music, and everything else, it is also available in a dizzying array of digital formats).  Interestingly, Beck released an album in 2012, Song Reader, that hews to this original definition.  Of course it is common for sheet music to popular albums to be published, but in Song Reader’s case there is no audio version, at least not officially: Beck has invited readers of the book to upload their own versions of the songs to the Song Reader website, a case of modern technology putting a new spin on social music-making forms that had mostly been marginalized by that technology decades earlier.

* Moby, an early and vocal advocate of the iPod, was featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 2002; superimposed over his photo was a list of the contents of his iPod.  The implication was clear: the iPod hadn’t just changed the way people accessed their music collections—it had given birth to a new aesthetic of musical mixing and matching, embodied by Moby and his output.  Interestingly, the article describes how carefully Moby sequenced the songs on his albums, even with the knowledge that the producer no longer has the final say in the listener’s experience, if he ever did.  If we don’t see as many of those media think pieces about “remix culture” anymore, it’s largely because the concept has become so commonplace as to be invisible.

(Continue to Part Seven)