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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Nothin But The Hits

Can I give you some advice? Don't listen to Bartok's first string quartet on the way to work. Oh, it might seem harmless, but it turns a group of normal, neutral commuters into a death-train of heartbreak and despair. Think that guy's just reading the paper? When those low harmonies start to creep up, you'll be convinced he's on his way to kill himself just to escape his memories of war atrocities and the woman he loved who died in a gondola accident.

But here's some slightly different Bartok for you:

Béla Bartók - String Quartet No. 3 - Seconda parte - Allegro (Nova Quartet)

It occurred to me while listening to this that being a classically trained composer is actually not bad preparation for being a pop songwriter. Writing a three-minute string quartet movement actually requires way more invention than writing a three-minute pop song, just because repetition is so rarely used in classical music. You have to be constantly coming up with variations, and those variations tend to morph into newness over time. In other words, classical composition requires you to come up with nonstop hooks, as I hope the Bartok movement above demonstrates. If we accept that pop is like classical in that both are basically frames that allow endless variation within (and I think we should), the problem is not that pop is inherently more vital than classical, because it's a neutral system, a delta to which any number of influences flow to be synthesized and reappropriated. As per the Levels of Pop Classification System (additional visualization here), the problem is that pop's feeders, its tributaries, are simply more active than classical's are. Both are built around similar frameworks, it's just that there's been more rain in the pop system of late.