The Interesting Instrument

Music has been called the greatest thing that humans do; some are of the opinion that it, even if only in the form of songs sung around the campfire, it is the oldest example of human art. However, whilst a huge amount of music’s effect and impact can be put down to the way it is interpreted by our ears and brain (I once listened to a song comprised entirely of various elements of urban sound, each individually recorded by separate microphones and each made louder or softer in order to create a tune), to create new music and allow ourselves true creative freedom over the sounds we make requires us to make and play instruments of various kinds. And, of all the myriad of different musical instruments humankind has developed, honed and used to make prettyful noises down the years, perhaps none is as interesting to consider as the oldest and most conceptually abstract of the lot; the human voice.

To those of us not part of the musical fraternity, the idea of the voice being considered an instrument at all is a very odd one; it is used most of the time simply to communicate, and is thus perhaps unique among instruments in that its primary function is not musical. However, to consider a voice as merely an addition to a piece of music rather than being an instrumental part of it is to dismiss its importance to the sound of the piece, and as such it must be considered one by any composer or songwriter looking to produce something coherent. It is also an incredibly diverse tool at a musician’s disposal; capable of a large range of notes anyway in a competent singer, by combining the voices of different people one can produce a tonal range rivalled only by the piano, and making it the only instrument regularly used as the sole component of a musical entity (ie in a choir). Admittedly, not using it in conjunction with other instruments does rather limit what it can do without looking really stupid, but it is nonetheless a quite amazingly versatile musical tool.

The voice also has a huge advantage over every other instrument in that absolutely anyone can ‘play’ it; even people who self-confessedly ‘can’t sing’ may still find themselves mumbling their favourite tune in the shower or singing along with their iPod occasionally. Not only that, but it is the only instrument that does not require any tool in addition to the body in order to play, meaning it is carried with everyone absolutely everywhere, thus giving everybody listening to a piece of music a direct connection to it; they can sing, mumble, or even just hum along. Not only is this a wet dream from a marketer’s perspective, enabling word-of-mouth spread to increase its efficiency exponentially, but it also makes live music that other level more awesome (imagine a music festival without thousands of screaming fans belting out the lyrics) and just makes music that much more compelling and, indeed, human to listen to.

However, the main artistic reason for the fundamental musical importance of the voice has more to do with what it can convey- but to adequately explain this, I’m going to need to go off on a quite staggeringly over-optimistic detour as I try to explain, in under 500 words, the artistic point of music. Right, here we go…:

Music is, fundamentally, an art form, and thus (to a purist at least) can be said to exist for no purpose other than its own existence, and for making the world a better place for those of us lucky enough to be in it. However, art in all its forms is now an incredibly large field with literally millions of practitioners across the world, so just making something people find pretty doesn’t really cut it any more. This is why some extraordinarily gifted painters can draw something next to perfectly photo-realistic and make a couple of grand from it, whilst Damien Hirst can put a shark in some formaldehyde and sell it for a few million. What people are really interested in buying, especially when it comes to ‘modern’ art, is not the quality of brushwork or prettifulness of the final result (which are fairly common nowadays), but its meaning, its significance, what it is trying to convey; the story, theatre and uniqueness behind it all (far rarer commodities that, thanks to the simple economic law of supply and demand, are thus much more expensive).

(NB: This is not to say that I don’t think the kind of people who buy Tracy Emin pieces are rather gullible and easily led, and apparently have far more money than they do tangible grip on reality- but that’s a discussion for another time, and this is certainly how they would justify their purchases)

Thus, the real challenge to any artist worth his salt is to try and create a piece that has meaning, symbolism, and some form of emotion; and this applies to every artistic field, be it film, literature, paintings, videogames (yes, I am on that side of the argument) or, to try and wrench this post back on-topic, music. The true beauty and artistic skill of music, the key to what makes those songs that transcend mere music alone so special, lies in giving a song emotion and meaning, and in this function the voice is the perfect instrument. Other instruments can produce sweet, tortured strains capable of playing the heart strings like a violin, but virtue of being able to produce those tones in the form of language, capable of delivering an explicit message to redouble the effect of the emotional one, a song can take on another level of depth, meaning and artistry. A voice may not be the only way to make your song explicitly mean something, and quite often it’s not used in such an artistic capacity at all; but when it is used properly, it can be mighty, mighty effective.

An Opera Posessed

My last post left the story of JRR Tolkein immediately after his writing of his first bestseller; the rather charming, lighthearted, almost fairy story of a tale that was The Hobbit. This was a major success, and not just among the ‘children aged between 6 and 12’ demographic identified by young Rayner Unwin; adults lapped up Tolkein’s work too, and his publishers Allen & Unwin were positively rubbing their hands in glee. Naturally, they requested a sequel, a request to which Tolkein’s attitude appears to have been along the lines of ‘challenge accepted’.

Even holding down the rigours of another job, and even accounting for the phenomenal length of his finished product, the writing of a book is a process that takes a few months for a professional writer (Dame Barbara Cartland once released 25 books in the space of a year, but that’s another story), and perhaps a year or two for an amateur like Tolkein. He started writing the book in December 1937, and it was finally published 18 years later in 1955.

This was partly a reflection of the difficulties Tolkein had in publishing his work (more on that later), but this also reflects the measured, meticulous and very serious approach Tolkein took to his writing. He started his story from scratch, each time going in a completely different direction with an entirely different plot, at least three times. His first effort, for instance, was due to chronicle another adventure of his protagonist Bilbo from The Hobbit, making it a direct sequel in both a literal and spiritual sense. However, he then remembered about the ring Bilbo found beneath the mountains, won (or stolen, depending on your point of view) from the creature Gollum, and the strange power it held; not just invisibility, as was Bilbo’s main use for it, but the hypnotic effect it had on Gollum (he even subsequently rewrote that scene for The Hobbit‘s second edition to emphasise that effect). He decided that the strange power of the ring was a more natural direction to follow, and so he wrote about that instead.

Progress was slow. Tolkein went months at a time without working on the book, making only occasional, sporadic yet highly focused bouts of progress. Huge amounts were cross-referenced or borrowed from his earlier writings concerning the mythology, history & background of Middle Earth, Tolkein constantly trying to make his mythic world feel and, in a sense, be as real as possible, but it was mainly due to the influence of his son Christopher, who Tolkein would send chapters to whilst he was away fighting the Second World War in his father’s native South Africa, that the book ever got finished at all. When it eventually did, Tolkein had been working the story of Bilbo’s son Frodo and his adventure to destroy the Ring of Power for over 12 years. His final work was over 1000 pages long, spread across six ‘books’, as well as being laden with appendices to explain & offer background information, and he called it The Lord of The Rings (in reference to his overarching antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron).

A similar story had, incidentally, been attempted once before; Der Ring des Nibelungen is an opera (well, four operas) written by German composer Richard Wagner during the 19th century, traditionally performed over the course of four consecutive nights (yeah, you have to be pretty committed to sit through all of that) and also known as ‘The Ring Cycle’- it’s where ‘Ride of The Valkyries’ comes from. The opera follows the story of a ring, made from the traditionally evil Rhinegold (gold panned from the Rhine river), and the trail of death, chaos and destruction it leaves in its wake between its forging & destruction. Many commentators have pointed out the close similarities between the two, and as a keen follower of Germanic mythology Tolkein certainly knew the story, but Tolkein rubbished any suggestion that he had borrowed from it, saying “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”. You can probably work out my approximate personal opinion from the title of this post, although I wouldn’t read too much into it.

Even once his epic was finished, the problems weren’t over. Once finished, he quarrelled with Allen & Unwin over his desire to release LOTR in one volume, along with his still-incomplete Silmarillion (that he wasn’t allowed to may explain all the appendices). He then turned to Collins, but they claimed his book was in urgent need of an editor and a license to cut (my words, not theirs, I should add). Many other people have voiced this complaint since, but Tolkein refused and ordered Collins to publish by 1952. This they failed to do, so Tolkein wrote back to Allen & Unwin and eventually agreed to publish his book in three parts; The Fellowship of The Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of The King (a title Tolkein, incidentally, detested because it told you how the book ended).

Still, the book was out now, and the critics… weren’t that enthusiastic. Well, some of them were, certainly, but the book has always had its detractors among the world of literature, and that was most certainly the case during its inception. The New York Times criticised Tolkein’s academic approach, saying he had “formulated a high-minded belief in the importance of his mission as a literary preservationist, which turns out to be death to literature itself”, whilst others claimed it, and its characters in particular, lacked depth. Even Hugo Dyson, one of Tolkein’s close friends and a member of his own literary group, spent public readings of the book lying on a sofa shouting complaints along the lines of “Oh God, not another elf!”. Unlike The Hobbit, which had been a light-hearted children’s story in many ways, The Lord of The Rings was darker & more grown up, dealing with themes of death, power and evil and written in a far more adult style; this could be said to have exposed it to more serious critics and a harder gaze than its predecessor, causing some to be put off by it (a problem that wasn’t helped by the sheer size of the thing).

However, I personally am part of the other crowd, those who have voiced their opinions in nearly 500 five-star reviews on Amazon (although one should never read too much into such figures) and who agree with the likes of CS  Lewis, The Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times of the time that “Here is a book that will break your heart”, that it is “among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century” and that “the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them”. These are the people who have shown the truth in the review of the New York Herald Tribune: that Tolkein’s masterpiece was and is “destined to outlast our time”.

But… what exactly is it that makes Tolkein’s epic so special, such a fixture; why, even years after its publication as the first genuinely great work of fantasy, it is still widely regarded as the finest work the genre has ever produced? I could probably write an entire book just to try and answer that question (and several people probably have done), but to me it was because Tolkein understood, absolutely perfectly and fundamentally, exactly what he was trying to write. Many modern fantasy novels try to be uber-fantastical, or try to base themselves around an idea or a concept, in some way trying to find their own level of reality on which their world can exist, and they often find themselves in a sort of awkward middle ground, but Tolkein never suffered that problem because he knew that, quite simply, he was writing a myth, and he knew exactly how that was done. Terry Pratchett may have mastered comedic fantasy, George RR Martin may be the king of political-style fantasy, but only JRR Tolkein has, in recent times, been able to harness the awesome power of the first source of story; the legend, told around the campfire, of the hero and the villain, of the character defined by their virtues over their flaws, of the purest, rawest adventure in the pursuit of saving what is good and true in this world. These are the stories written to outlast the generations, and Tolkein’s mastery of them is, to me, the secret to his masterpiece.