Art Rules: A Brief Example

In my last post, I described the process of discovering affirmative formal rules during the process of composition. I thought I’d share an example from my own work, a short piece for piano four-hands entitled Odell Lake.

Most of my compositions for piano are in a ragtime style, and while Odell Lake started off that way, it took off in a different direction as I composed it.  Formally, it is not a rag: it doesn’t follow the typical AABBACCDD arrangement of themes, and the themes are not 16 bars long.  It does, however, contain repeated sections, and as I composed it I focused on how to use repetition as a constructive element: was there a way to change the context of a repetition so that it sounded different, or had a different musical function, each time it was played?

The rule that emerged was twofold: first, everything in the piece (except the very beginning and end) would be repeated, sometimes more than once (two sections contain “nested” repetitions, echoes within echoes).  Second, most of the phrase endings don’t correspond to the points of repetition, giving the impression of phrases that end in two different ways, depending on whether the music circles back to a previous point or continues into the next section.

This formal approach led to a piece that is fairly sectional (appropriate, given the ragtime influence), but in which the themes and ideas are continually developing, as if the listener were examining them from every angle.  I didn’t worry too much about thematic consistency (although the initial ideas return at the end in the manner of a recapitulation), given that everything would be repeated.  Because it was a duet, I also gave thought to where the repeat signs would fall on the page, in order to avoid excessive page turns; that was also a contributing factor in the sectional design.

The end result was a piece that had formal integrity without being predictable, and was fun to play.

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Art Rules (or, “Freedom! Terrible Freedom!”)

You could say I’m a formalist, both in my work and in how I relate to others’ work.  Formalism has often been a term of abuse, implying a concern only for formula without regard to “content,” as if they could somehow be separated.  But I think my previous posts have made clear my interest in the different ways ideas can be organized and expressed, and the layers of meaning that can be suggested by a smart deployment of familiar elements.  Concern for formal elements doesn’t preclude evaluation of ideas and execution as good or bad, nor need it imply a completely intellectual approach by which quality is an objective truth that can be proven one way or the other.

It does allow for some wiggle room, however.  A symphony, a film, or a comic book can be evaluated on its own terms, asking “What is this work setting out to achieve?” and “Does it succeed?”  Does it work within the established boundaries of the medium and genre or seek to challenge them?  Most people nowadays have varied interests, and are accustomed to engaging works of art or entertainment pitched at different levels, adjusting their expectations based on cues within the work itself (or implied by its marketing or venue, which can lead to disappointment or the occasional pleasant surprise if the work doesn’t match expectations).  In this pluralistic environment, we are all formalists, to a degree.

What does this mean to the process of creation?  Is it just a matter of hitting the right story beats or composing four-bar phrases, of Drawing Comics the Marvel Way?  Obviously not, although those are the starting points of craftsmanship as traditionally understood.  When people dismiss stale or soulless formula, it’s often this kind of basic “how-to-do-it” stuff that they’re referring to: “By the numbers.” “Hackwork.”  Sometimes the contempt is richly deserved, and we’ve all encountered enough impersonal, indifferent work to understand that calling something “merely” professional isn’t meant to be a compliment.  It’s one thing to cling to formula, to imitate, when just starting out; it’s quite another when you feel the artist isn’t trying or thinks you’ll be satisfied with the bare minimum.

The reverse, though, can be a search for “originality” with no foundation of technique or (sometimes) knowledge of what has already been done.  And that contempt for “rules” can lead would-be artists to actively avoid formal training: “You don’t learn what you can do in school, you learn what you can’t do.”  “I don’t want to be made to fit into a box.” “I want to be able to color outside the lines.” Et cetera.  Never mind that any artist worthy of the name should hope to graduate to drawing their own lines to color in (metaphorically or otherwise).

So, yes, I’m on the side of discipline, whether it’s channeled by an established institution or developed individually on one’s own. (The point that is often overlooked in this school vs. autodidact debate is that, when you come down to it, all artistic discipline is self-discipline; no one is going to do it for you, no matter where you are.)

As for rules?  Like any other artistic resource, they can be a help or a hindrance, and this is where the formal approach comes in.  Igor Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music contains a famous passage which nails down the problem with unlimited freedom:

The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free. . . .  I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me.  If everything is permissible to me, the best and the worst; if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable, and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile.

For a long time I considered that my mantra, placing sometimes-arbitrary restrictions on my compositions in the name of “structure,” but frequently alternating this approach with an anything-goes, all-inclusive aesthetic.  Thus did I refute Stravinsky!  My guide at this opposite pole was Frank Zappa, who defined his approach as “Anything, Any Time, Anywhere—for No Reason at All,” and who did as much as he could to upend and undermine what he called the “hateful practices” of music.*  Sometimes I found a happy medium between these two extremes, but I caused myself a great deal of trouble by misunderstanding musical rules and how to apply them.

There are negative rules and affirmative rules: rules that say you can’t do something and others that say you must do something.  Unfortunately, the early years of musical training are often filled with the negative kind: don’t have parallel fifths, don’t use retrograde chord progressions, don’t double the leading tone. There are good reasons for all those rules, but it can be awfully restrictive if you see yourself as a loner working outside the system: save those exercises for the sheeple in Theory I—I’m going to do things my own way.  It gets worse when you get into historical counterpoint (in the styles of Palestrina and J. S. Bach), and even Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system had quite a few “don’ts,” as he originally intended it to avoid tonal implications.  It’s not hard to see why school sometimes seems to be all about NO.

It can also be easy to carry that mindset into composition: sometimes the “don’ts” are merely pedagogical tools, obstacles put in the student’s way to make them avoid the obvious, or to prevent bad habits, and as such they are useful.  Many composers (and other artists) never get past those rules they’ve internalized, turning a brace that was meant to make them stronger into a crutch they depend on.  I’ve spoken to many mature composers who said they still heard their teacher’s voice in their heads when working, but whether they heed or ignore it is part of the decision-making process.  I remember vividly the first time I included a bass drum roll in a composition, something that my first composition professor had discouraged me from doing.  I had a good reason for using it, but it still gave me an illicit thrill—and I had been out of school for eight years!  Composition education, at least in schools, is still very much a one-on-one teacher-student relationship; I don’t know if my remarks apply fully to other disciplines, but I’d be surprised if writers and studio artists didn’t have similar stories to tell.

I might have made smoother progress if I had kept in mind a passage from a few pages earlier in Stravinsky’s book (emphasis added):

Invention presupposes imagination but should not be confused with it.  For the act of invention implies the necessity of a lucky find and of achieving full realization of this find.  What we imagine does not necessarily take on a concrete form and may remain in a state of virtuality, whereas invention is not conceivable apart from actual working out.

An important principal of form that isn’t always obvious is that very often the “rules” of a given work of art are discovered in the process of the “working out” Stravinsky describes.  Rules set out beforehand are apt to be negative: formal boundaries of the sort described in the first passage from the Poetics, and they may or may not fit the material chosen to elaborate.  Rules discovered in the process of creation are more apt to be both affirmative and organically related to the material, leading to the kind of creative freedom that is the goal of all this discipline.  Sometimes the discovery of internal rules is part of a painstaking process at the writing desk or in the studio, and sometimes it takes place on the fly, as in an improvised jazz solo, but either way it comes across to the audience as freshness and spontaneity, in which developments can seem both surprising and inevitable.

As an example, comics writer Alan Moore is known for the tight formal approach and attention to detail he brings to his work; his discovery of the guiding principles he would apply to Watchmen (in collaboration with artist Dave Gibbons) is worth quoting at length (from an interview with Tasha Robinson):

I was writing the opening pages [of Watchmen No. 3] and, as is my custom, making tiny little thumbnail sketches to actually be able to envisage what the page would finally look like when it was drawn. I had two or three strains of narrative going on in the same page. I had a truculent news vendor giving his fairly uninformed commentary on the political state of the world, the likelihood of a coming war. Across the street, in the background, we have two people fixing a radiation sign to a wall. Sitting with his back to a hydrant near the news vendor, there’s a small boy reading a comic, which is a pirate comic. And I think while I was doodling, I noticed that an extreme close-up of the radiation symbol, if you put the right sort of caption with it, could look almost like the black sail of a ship against a yellow sky. So I dropped in a caption in the comic that the child was reading about a hellbound ship’s black sails against a yellow Indies sky. And I have a word balloon coming from off-panel, which is actually the balloon of the news vendor, which is talking about war. The narrative of the pirate comic is talking about a different sort of war. As we pull back, we realize that we’re looking at a radiation symbol that’s being tacked to the wall of a newly created fallout shelter. And finally, when we pull back into the beginning, into the foreground, we realize that these pirate captions that we’ve been reading are those in the comic that is being read by the small boy. . . . But, like I said, it was purely while I was scribbling, doodling, writing bits of dialogue and crossing them out that I suddenly noticed these possibilities for things that could be done in a comic and nowhere else.

Thus, Moore and Gibbons developed a visual language in which images are paired, never standing for only one thing, but in relationship with other ideas.  The use of mirrors, symmetry, and double meaning became the underlying formal principle.  In another interview, Moore discusses his series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which brought characters from nineteenth-century fiction together in a single narrative continuity:

Round about the second issue, I suddenly thought ‘Hey, what if I did this so that any character that’s mentioned by name had got to be a real character from fiction?’ . . . Well, a genuine character from fiction, someone that has existed in other people’s work. And I think that it was when, possibly in the first issue, where I suddenly got to a bit where I realized that I’d got Emile Zola’s Nana being killed on the Rue Morgue by Mister Hyde, I thought, well, ‘This is great! This is going somewhere!’

The relevant point here is that in both cases the rules Moore set for himself, discovered in the process of creation, are affirmative, opening up possibilities rather than closing them off.  They set up challenges, but ones that require invention and creative thinking to overcome.  In the language of improv theater, such rules are the equivalent of “Yes, and . . . “ rather than the “NO” that often comes to mind when the topic of rules comes up.

To bring it back to the audience, does it help to be aware of such processes when reading, watching, or listening? I think it does, but I’ve already revealed myself as someone who geeks out over these things.  Not everyone wants to dig so deeply into their entertainment, and that’s fine. Despite appearances, I’m actually a strong believer in the “gut reaction:” it’s okay to like or dislike something without preparing a thesis about it or reading volumes of background to appreciate it.  Sometimes things just strike us a certain way, and the surface is as legitimate a layer to interact with as any other.  In some cases all that formal scaffolding is for the benefit of the artist, and a façade is erected to hide it from the public.  There’s something to be said for both the “holistic” and “granular” approaches to art—but I think I’ll leave it for another post.

* It is now widely known that Stravinsky wrote very little, if any, of the Poetics published under his name.  Indeed, as Richard Taruskin notes, Stravinsky had a life-long relationship with ghost-writers, and in any case Stravinsky’s public comments were often deliberately misleading, as if to throw armchair analysts off the scent.  Similarly, Zappa (for whom Stravinsky was an important influence) frequently downplayed the rigorous structure of his own compositions, preferring to be seen as an audacious prankster and provocateur. My struggle to reconcile these contradictory teachings was, in part, the price of reading too much at a young age and taking it all at face value.

To Spec or Not to Spec?

There are really two questions intertwined in this subject.  How much time and effort should be invested in “spec” (short for “speculative”) projects? And is it worth it to create original work for contests (or open calls)?

Admittedly, the answer to these questions depends on the stage of one’s career and the medium in which one works.  A poet or writer’s work is essentially fungible: it can be printed anywhere with little change (although something written with a specific audience in mind may have trouble finding a home elsewhere).  A composer who writes notated music, however, still has to get their composition into the hands of performers to bring it to life (a performing composer, or a studio composer who can realize their composition electronically, doesn’t face this hurdle in the same way, of course).  In that sense their “product” is more like the script for a play or movie, and is only finished in performance.  I’m going to speak from my own experience, but I’m interested in viewpoints from other fields, such as film or computer games.  Comments are welcome!

As a composer, I’ve seen this from several different perspectives. I’ve composed pieces that were exactly what I wanted to hear, without any regard to potential performances; I’ve been fortunate to receive offers to write music for specific performers and events.  I’ve had the opportunity to program concert series as a conductor, and been a performing member of chamber groups; in both cases, that gave me the ability to compose or arrange music for a specific ensemble and ensure that it would be performed.  Every piece is different, and not just musically: the known and unknown factors—including the abilities of performers, the amount of rehearsal time, and the nearness of the performance date—influence decisions made in the heat of creation.

When just starting out, almost any work of art is, by necessity, created without knowing whether it will have an audience.*  Art or music schools are, in part, venues where students are expected to create and display or perform, both to develop skills and good work habits and to build a portfolio, a track record for future work.  Whatever you might say about such institutions, I’ve always found it energizing to be surrounded by people with a similar passion for creation and who are actively engaged in projects.  That simple question “What are you working on?” that passes for small talk among artists is a constant reminder that you’re not the only one working to get those ideas that have been rattling around in your head out into the world.  If you’re lucky, you might find a supportive colleague whose enthusiasm for your work can be encouraging when you feel your inspiration or energy flagging.  Whether fueled by competition or camaraderie, motivated people are motivating to be around.

On the other hand, as I mentioned in my very first post here, it’s easy to talk about projects instead of working on them.  Do you know someone who always has great ideas for stories, movies, comics, songs, et cetera?  They want to tell you all about it, but it never seems to materialize.  I’ve been that guy; most of us probably have been at one time or another, and I’ve put myself on guard against talking up ideas that I haven’t put any work into, to the point that I’ve sometimes lost sight of how sharing an idea can build enthusiasm for it.  This is the downside of perfectionism: working in solitude, even secrecy, until everything is just right.  Some of those compositions I wrote with no set performance in mind now reek of the hothouse to me, overwrought and impractical.  At least I was able to cross the hurdle of finishing things, but even that must be learned—it’s hard to let go sometimes.  Again, knowing that someone, somewhere, wants to see or hear your creation is a great incentive to putting a double bar or writing “The End” on your baby.

As I’ve gotten older, it’s harder and harder for me to pick up the pen to write unless I know there will be someone to perform it.  Many of those youthful pieces were written not just on “spec” but on faith, and were driven by internal necessity.  Most of those pieces got performed eventually, but not all, and ultimately I don’t consider a composition finished unless I can at least get a reading, so it’s in my interest to be realistic.  Ultimately, life’s too short.

So what about contests, or open calls for scores/works?  Twenty years ago, when band composer Francis McBeth visited my college and gave a talk, he singled out competitions as singularly worthless attempts to encourage original composition: composers won’t write new pieces, he said, they’ll just pull something old that fits the contest requirements out of the drawer and send it in.  Commissions, he said, encourage new composition directly, but they represent a greater risk for the organizations running them.  I won’t argue those points; I think they are largely true, and McBeth didn’t even go into the fact that some of these contests have an entry fee, effectively asking the losers to subsidize the contest prize and/or administrative expenses.  (The subject of contest entry fees is a perennial bone of contention over at the Society for Composers, Inc.)

Having said that, there have been numerous times that I’ve read the description of a contest, and, totally against my will and better judgment, had an idea pop into my head that would be just perfect.  Most of the time, I have to let things like that go—see that bit about being realistic, above—but if I think I have enough time, and if it’s something that might have legs apart from the contest itself, I’ve been known to try to pull off original work for things like this.  An idea is an idea, and once it takes hold it’s not always easy to shake.

It doesn’t always work—I once overshot the deadline for a call for wind ensemble works by something like a year, but I was already invested in the composition so I just kept going after the deadline passed.  As for entry fees, that’s part of the calculation as well: if I think I have a really good entry, the fee is reasonable, and the rewards are sufficient, I might take a chance.  (So, you’re probably wondering if I’ve won any of these, and if not, what value my opinion is.  The short answer is yes, I’ve been selected for a few things, but nothing so big you would have heard of it.  It’s really another story which I may go into another time.)

So, what are your thoughts?  Where are you in your career, and to what degree does someone else’s interest in your work influence what you create?  What’s your opinion of contests and open calls in general?  Are they for suckers, or have you been inspired by one to come up with something that fits the requirements? I hope to hear from you in the comments!

* Actually, this never goes away, as the shifting sands of taste and the arts economy can derail the plans of even the most established artist, and the more expensive their medium, the more those outside factors can influence what gets made.  Still, if being “established” counts for anything anymore, it’s having some kind of fan base that can be expected to turn out for your latest project.

Where Seldom is Heard: a Sesquicentennial Overture

I’ve previously shared some of my thoughts on medleys, and my interest in them as a genre unto themselves, and the upcoming observation of Kansas Day (January 29) is as good an opportunity as any to share one of my own.  2011 marked the 150th anniversary of Kansas’ statehood, so in advance of that date I suggested to Bill Johnson, director of the Senseney Music Community Band here in Wichita, that I compose a work to honor the anniversary.  Since the band didn’t play during January, the finished work could be performed during the band’s summer season (months after Kansas Day, but still within the anniversary year).  He expressed his interest and I got to work.

Tragic Prelude by John Steuart Curry, a painting representing "Bleeding Kansas" hanging in the Kansas State Capitol

Tragic Prelude by John Steuart Curry, a painting representing “Bleeding Kansas” hanging in the Kansas State Capitol

I’ve been involved with the Senseney Band for many years, and have written for them before.  It is a community band, open to any adult musician without an audition, but standards are high and everybody who plays in the group knows what is expected.  Many in the group are professional musicians, and many more are trained musicians who happened to make their careers outside of music.  Still, to cope with the varying levels of ability, I would compose with an eye toward keeping the most difficulties in the first parts and making section parts easier (early on, we thought we might perform this work with high school or other community bands joining us, which would also be made easier by this practice).

In the year or so leading up to the planned premiere, I did what most composers do: I procrastinated.  Well, I called it “research.”  I read up on Kansas’ aviation history; I learned about the Kanza and Wichita Indians; I read In Cold Blood and listened to “Wichita Vortex Sutra.”  I imagined multi-movement forms, cyclic works, pieces that would take the audience from the prehistoric ocean that once covered the plains through important moments in Kansas history and beyond.  I pondered the essence of Kansan-ness and how best to express it in music.  I gathered far more ideas than I would ever be able to fit into one piece.  I compiled notebooks of clippings and quotations, made a few sketches, and dreamed about it.

But before I was able to really get started on it, I had other things I needed to finish.  I was teaching and conducting.  I had a family.  Mostly, I had to complete a concerto my brass trio was scheduled to premiere in February 2011, and I was scoring the orchestra accompaniment all the way into January, so I had a late start on the community band piece.

Ultimately, the short lead time turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  Whenever I’m asked how long it should take to write a piece of music, I think the best answer is, “long enough to get the details right but not so long that you lose focus.”  In the past, projects I was working on tended to get bigger and bigger, with no end in sight, and while deadlines helped, they didn’t always stop me before things had snowballed out of my control.  I still have that tendency to want to keep adding details, but now I’m more realistic about how much I can get done in a limited amount of time, and perhaps have a better sense of proportion when it comes to works in progress.

On the one hand, I had been thinking a lot about this piece for a year or more before I put pen to paper; I believe that the unconscious mind is often at work on artistic processes, and what seems like inspiration is often the result of mental preparation.  On the other hand, time was short: with just a few months to compose, score, and edit a work for full band (no easy feat, if strictly from an editorial standpoint), I looked for the most direct entry point: Kansas’ Civil War history.  In the decade before Kansas’ statehood and the beginning of the Civil War, the territory was a hotbed of violence between pro- and anti-slavery forces, fighting to determine whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state; the dispute came to be known as “Bleeding Kansas” and was a prelude to the larger Civil War.  There would be plenty of material for me to use.

The Civil War was a central moment in U. S. history, of course, and it was also an important stage in the development of the wind band: both North and South fielded regimental bands that would establish standards of instrumentation, organization, and repertoire for the many town, school, and shop bands that would spring up in every community in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  The music of the time period was also a fertile source for composers of twentieth century band literature, including such classics as Clare Grundman’s The Blue and the Gray, Jerry Bilik’s American Civil War Fantasy, and Morton Gould’s American Salute (based on the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”).  (In addition to those models, I had such “public” works as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in mind; indeed, many of my influences as a composer–John Philip Sousa, Charles Ives, Gustav Holst–would come through clearly, and not always consciously.  Some pieces are just like that.)

With those connections in mind, I chose three songs that could be shaped into a dramatic arc: first, “Ho! for the Kansas Plains” was written by abolitionist James G. Clark of Boston, Massachusetts in 1856 after the sacking of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces.  His intention was to encourage anti-slavery activists to head to Kansas and lend their voices and arms to the cause.  The lyrics read in part, “Huzza for the prairies wide and free; Ho! for the Kansas plains; Where men shall live in liberty; Free from a tyrant’s chains.”  I found this song through an online search of the Library of Congress; I used only the chorus, freely reharmonizing the melody.  Its 6/8 meter and obvious character as a marching song made it natural to arrange and develop in the style of a military band march (beginning at 2:17 in the audio clip embedded below, after a good deal of mood-setting introductory material).

Ho!_For_the_Kansas_Plains

As it progresses, the song becomes more and more agitated, until it gives way to stylized “battle music” (3:11).  Again, this is a well-established idiom for band music; it allows the brass to ring through with repeated bugle calls and keeps up a driving, percussive rhythm.  The music in this section is original, but will easily be recognized for its family resemblance to “Mars, the Bringer of War” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets, a work that has continued to influence concert and film music.  The final blast (4:30) is written as a series of holds in which the brass and percussion play repeated figures freely, overlapping one another in a chaotic “fog of war.”

The second song I chose was “The Vacant Chair,” a song written by George F. Root in 1861, and a longtime favorite (for singers and instrumentalists, including bands) in North and South in the decades after the war.  The lyrics, from a poem by Henry S. Washburn, lament the absence of a fallen soldier: “When a year ago we gather’d, Joy was in his mild blue eye, But a golden cord is severed, And our hopes in ruin lie.”  In my arrangement, the verse is first played by a solo trumpet (George Naylor) in the aftermath of the noisy battle music.  The refrain (“We shall meet, but we shall miss him, There will be one vacant chair; We shall linger to caress him, When we breathe our evening pray’r.”) is taken up, first by the horns as a ghostly funeral march, then by the rest of the band as a triumphal anthem, leading to the climax of the entire composition.  I first learned this song from an old collection called The Blue Book, but it can also be found in Dover Publications’ The Civil War Songbook, edited by Richard Crawford.

Finally, how could I not include “Home on the Range”?  Kansas’ state song, “Home on the Range,” was written in the 1870s by Dr. Brewster M. Higley and Daniel E. Kelley, and thus looks forward to the space and freedom the plains afforded settlers after the war.  The song is more freely arranged and combined with music from other sections of the piece, representing the resilience and indifference of the prairie, which was there before and continues after the bloody events that accompanied Kansas’ birth as a state.

During this section some members of the band play music box movements mounted in tin can resonators; I’m interested in both mechanical musical instruments and ways of introducing handmade craft into the musical experience, so I had been experimenting with these for some time.  The first few I put together were salvaged from music boxes that were otherwise broken, but for this I would need at least two dozen to create the “field” of tinkling, overlapping melodies I had in mind.  (They can be heard starting from about 6:35.) So in the months leading up to the performance, I got several cases of music box movements and screwed them into empty cans in my garage.  Probably even more would be useful in creating the desired effect; it depends on the number of players over all and the dimensions of the performance space.  Combined with the layered statements of “Home on the Range” in the winds and bells, the music boxes are meant to evoke Kansas’ motto, “Ad Astra per Aspera” (“To the Stars through Adversity”).  The ending is hopeful, but tinged with the shadows of the past.

055057

Here’s the entire piece, which I titled Where Seldom is Heard, after the relevant lyric in Home on the Range, of course:

http://soundcloud.com/guy-vollen/where-seldom-is-heard

Finally, a great big thank you goes out to Bill Johnson and all the members of the Senseney Band for the hard work they put into this piece back in 2011.  It is always helpful for a composer to be able to work directly with an ensemble; numerous changes were made during the rehearsal progress, both to clarify my intentions and to get the best results, and everyone in the band was very supportive and helpful in making this project come together.  In the end we performed it three times (another luxury I don’t always get!); the recording here is from the second performance.  Thanks for listening!

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.