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.

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The Hairy Ones

My last post on the subject of music history covered the relatively short timespan between around 1950 and 1965, leaving off at about the time The Beatles began leading the ‘British Invasion’ of American music culture. This invasion was a confluence of a whole host of factors; a fresh generation of youths wishing to identify with something new as ‘theirs’ and different to their parents, a British music scene that had been influenced by the American one without being so ingratiated into it as to snub their ability to innovate and make a good sound, and the fact that said generation of youngsters were the first to grow up around guitar music and thus the first to learn to play them and other genre-defining instruments en masse. Plus, some seriously good musicians in there. However, the British invasion was only the first of a multi-part wave of insane musical experimentation and innovation, flooding the market with new ideas and spawning, in the space of less than a decade, almost every genre to exist today. And for the cause of much of part two, we must backtrack a little to 1955.

Y’see, after the Second World War Japan, the dominant East Asian power, had surrendered unconditionally to the Allies and there was no dominant force in the region. This created something of a power vacuum in the area, with a host of new governments trying to rise from the post-war chaos and establish themselves as such a power. Many of these new nations, including those of China, Cambodia, North Korea and North Vietnam, were Communist states, and therefore were a serious concern to the western world. The US in particular, as a fiercely capitalist power, were deeply worried by the prospect of the whole of South East Asia, according to communist theory, just amalgamating into another great communist superpower and landing them with next to zero chance of triumphing in their ‘battle against communism’ against the already hugely powerful Soviet Union. As such, they were hell-bent on preserving every ounce of capitalist democracy they could in the area, and were prepared to defend such governments with as much force as necessary. In 1950 they had already started a war in Korea to prevent the communist north’s invasion of the democratic south, with the practical upshot (after China joined in) of re establishing the border pretty much exactly where it had been to start with and creating a state of war that, officially, has yet to end. In 1955, a similar situation was developing in Vietnam, and President Dwight D Eisenhower once again sent in the army.

Cut to ten years later, and the war was still going on. Once a crusade against the onward-marching forces of communism, the war had just dragged on and on with its only tangible result being a steady stream of dead and injured servicemen fighting a war many, especially the young who had not grown up with the degree of Commie-hating their parents had, now considered futile and stupid. Also related to ‘the Red Scare’ was the government’s allowing of capitalist corporations to run haywire, vamping up their marketing and the consumer-saturation of America. This might have lead to a 15 year long economic boom, but again many of the younger generation were getting sick of it all. All of this, combined with a natural teenage predisposition to do exactly what their parents don’t want them to, lead to a new, reactionary counter-culture that provided an impetus for a whole wave of musical experimentation; hippies.

The hippie movement (the word is, strangely, derived from ‘hipster’) was centred around pacifism, freedom of love and sex (hence ‘make love not war’), an appreciation of the home made and the natural rather than the plastic and capitalist, and drug use. The movement exists to this day, but it was most prevalent in the late 60s when a craze took the American youth by storm. They protested on a huge variety of issues, ranging from booing returning soldiers and more general anti-war stuff (hippies were also dubbed ‘flower children’ for their practice of giving flowers to police officers at such demonstrations) to demonstrations on the banning of LSD or ‘acid’, one of their more commonly used drugs. This movement of wired, eco-centric vegetarians didn’t connect well with the relatively fresh, clean tones of rock & roll and The Beatles, and inspired new music based around their psychedelic and their ‘appreciation’ of drug use. It was in this vein that The Beatles recorded Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and why Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin rose to fame in a new genre known as ‘acid rock’ (named after the drug from which most of the lyrics were ‘inspired’). Characterised by long, confusing and hideously difficult solos (I’m looking at you Hendrix), this was the prominent genre on show at the infamous Woodstock festival of 1969, featuring Hendrix, Joplin, The Who, The Grateful Dead & Carlos Santana among other things. Woodstock was the high point of the hippie movement, with over half a million fans attending to smoke, listen to the music, skinny dip and make love in and around the lake and generally by as hippie as possible.

Hippie culture went downhill post-Woodstock; public outcry following the Altamont Free Concert close to San Francisco (where Hell’s Angels provided security and shot a concert-goer during The Rolling Stones’ set for brandishing a gun) coincided with ‘the hippie generation’ mostly growing up. The movement still exists today, and it legacy in terms of public attitudes to sexual freedom, pacifism and general tolerance (hippies were big on civil rights and respect for the LGBT community) is certainly considerable. But their contribution to the musical world is almost as massive; acid rock was a key driving force behind the development of the genres of folk rock (think Noah and the Whale) and heavy metal (who borrowed from Hendrix’s style of heavy guitar playing). Most importantly, music being as big a part as it was of hippie culture definitively established that the practice of everyone, even the lowliest, ‘commonest’ people, buying, listening to, sharing and most importantly making music themselves was here to stay.

The story of hippies covers just one of the music families spawned out of the late 60s. The wave of kids growing up with guitars and the idea that they can make their own music, can be the next big thing, with no preconceived ideas, resulted in a myriad of different styles and genres that form the roots of every style of modern rock music. This period was known as ‘the golden age of rock’ for a reason; before pop was big, before hip-hop, before rap, decades before dubstep, before even punk rock (born in the early seventies and disliked by many serious music nerds for being unimaginative and stupid), rock music ruled and rock music blossomed.

You could argue that this, then, marks the story of rock, and that the rest of the tale is just one long spiral downwards- that once the golden age ended, everything is just a nice depressing story. Well, I certainly don’t like to think of that as true (if only because I would rather not have a mindset to make me stop listening to music),  but even if it was, there is a hell of a lot of stuff left in this story. Over? Not for another post or two…