Song Genesis

I’ve read about a lot of recording artists who claim to have written complete songs at the 11th hour, in absolute crunch time – indeed studio time. They’re not lying, of course, and such instances have actually produced timeless gems over the years.

Even though a simple, riff-driven song, The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” is said to be one of these last-minute sparks of creativity, having reportedly been written in 20 minutes. When director John Hughes decided to change the ending of his classic brat pack flick “Pretty In Pink”, the band OMD were given 24 hours to rewrite the song they had written to accompany the film’s original ending. This produced the exquisite and unforgettable “If You Leave”. When a poet friend of Franz Schubert’s once brought him a new poem to be set to music, Schubert is said to have given it just one read before declaring “I got it.”

Some people are just geniuses; some are very experienced and gifted writers of music who can tap into the Muse almost at will and mold inspiration into workable chunks on the spot… Sometimes the stars just align and all musicians involved (as in a jam or studio session) have their mojo working. Most importantly, they trust themselves enough to be sure that they’ll be OK with the material later on. These are facts and they have replayed successfully many times since the dawn of music-making.

Nevertheless, I still submit that for the rest of us mere mortal composers, such feats are far from feasible. Neither are they necessarily desirable. For the most part and almost always, any new musical idea needs to set aside for a few days before it can be properly evaluated. That’s just how the ear works; it needs the interlude in order for the subconscious to process fresh melodic information. To be sure, such new content can be perfectly fine and even ingenious but you can’t possibly make an objective assessment in the heat of the moment; you need the sobering distance of time.

I agree that there is nothing more magical and stirring than a split-second liaison with the Muse providing just the phrase we need, leaving us scrambling for notation paper or a voice recorder. But the subconscious just like the conscious mind can make musical mistakes. And our makeup also (if not primarily) consists of reason, i.e. the ability to assess and organize information logically.

A musical phrase (not to mention the motifs it is comprised of) is not just an end but also a means to an end. A composer needs to get his hands dirty and squeeze whatever he can out of every snippet, especially if the overall song doesn’t know where to go or he doesn’t yet know how to arrange the piece. Oftentimes, taking a motif and applying it elsewhere in the song or instrumentation – as in a complementary line, a recurring figure or ostinato part – improves the whole project 200%.

The result often makes you cringe at the prospect of having settled for less and rested on your laurels of apparent unadulterated inspiration. And throughout this whole process, the composer constantly needs to be putting ideas away and sleeping on them, constantly juggling inspiration, nuts and bolts application of rules and tools as well as ice cold reason and distance.

Fresh musical ideas don’t come off assembly lines ready to go. They need to brew and grow; they need to cross-pollinate …and then brew and grow again, etc. Supervising this process is essentially what music composition is about. It’s what professional creativity is all about.

Daft Punk – La belle loop

Daft Punk certainly don’t need any introduction these days. More certainly, any discussion of them doesn’t need my two cents but I feel like singing their praises today. I’ve been a fan since I was 14, a hundred years ago it seems. It was then that my older brother and I embarked on a brave journey to the local mall to purchase our first CD – Daft Punk’s debut album “Homework”. More precisely, it was our first-ever album not pre-approved by our dad or necessarily aligned with his musical tastes.

A critical analysis of Daft Punk’s oeuvre doesn’t seem necessary even now after all these years, because ever since their first big hit “Da Funk” that summer of ’97, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s music has been marked primarily by its indisputable and transcendental coolness. At first, we struggled to wrap our heads around the sheer repetitiveness of Daft Punk’s songs; looping incisively in endless multiples of four bars before introducing new instruments/sounds. These weren’t traditional songs but scantily-clad, shameless beats with simple hooks that would be difficult to maintain interest if performed on traditional instruments as opposed to synths, drum machines, samplers or vocoders. Still, we loved it. There was no denying the visceral propulsion of tracks like “Around the World,” “Phoenix,” ”Alive,” or “Indo Silver Club.”

This, of course, heralded the advent of a new era of ‘electronica’/EDM and Daft Punk were far from being the only exponents of this nascent scene. But for their sophomore effort “Discovery”, Thomas and Guy-Manuel went a little deeper into their toolboxes than most, and crafted a lot of actual songs in the old-fashioned sense of the word. This album is an important milestone in terms of the emerging retromania that would come to dominate huge swathes of the musical landscape in the early 21st century. I’m talking about the ubiquitous fetishism or morbid fixation on musical styles and idioms of the relatively recent past. As far as Daft Punk is concerned, their specialization became a quaint spin on and combination of 70s and 80s disco, funk, house and synthpop.

And even though their work begins to take on more form and musical development, the point also seems to be to evoke specific musical and cultural impressions from around the time of the French duo’s childhood. “One More Time,” “Digital Love,” “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” and “Something About Us” are good examples of this more complex songwriting, whereas “High Life,” “Veridis Quo” or “Short Circuit” harken back to their tried-and-true loop-mode, with incessant figures and samples taking their time in giving way to new layers of sound. The closing piece “Too Long” is a 10-minute-long hybrid of both these worlds, the title of which appears to be Daft Punk’s tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of their many sins against brevity. Even with this excessive running time, the song is a guilty pleasure to listen to just as it clearly was to write…

For many fans, their third album “Human After All” seemed to be a step backward (or in the wrong direction, at any rate) with its short track-list and regression to unsparing loops and samples, which Wynton Marsalis would probably dismiss as brain-atrophying noise best suited for welders. But by this point, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo had long begun to fashion a semi-backstory to their music, with their robotic alter egos clearly taking centre-stage ever since their emergence circa 2001 and rationalizing this recurrent, robotic aesthetic. (Daft Punk even released a feature film starring these robots – their second cinematic outing. They even design furniture. Yes, that’s how cool they are…) As with the abstract expressionism of a Jackson Pollock, the classic debate pitting charges of sloth and pretension against artistic vision and refined minimalism was imminent. Nevertheless, this album does not fail to bombard the listener with Daft Punk’s incomparable brand of coolness. Best songs: “Human After All,” “The Prime Time of Your Life,” “Make Love,” and “Emotion.”

And then… silence. The songwriting duo went on an 8-year hiatus. But the wait paid off for fans with the release of “Random Access Memories” last year. With this album, Daft Punk’s robotic, almost somnambulistic, towards retro-gurudom is, for all intents and purposes, complete. And it is directly analogous to their maturation as songwriters. For me, the much-trumpeted shift to traditional instruments and star-studded collaborations take a back-seat to the compositional leaps and bounds contained herein (even considering the assistance of co-writers here and there).

The whole album – save the sample-driven closer “Contact” – testifies to this. It showcases a variety of styles and approaches all culminating in outstanding songs. The French duo even fashions a few ambitiously progressive, lengthy set-pieces, though very much the antithesis of a “Too Long”, which easily could have been half its length. They even get a little solipsistic at times, but its all good because this is in keeping with much of 70s creativity. I could write for another two hours about this release, and maybe I will some other time…

So Thomas and Guy-Manuel have found their way to the source of great songcraft, even if it was in chasing a synthy disco-funk will-o’-the-wisp. These consummate masters of pastiche have actually created something derivative that is really standalone and unique. And really cool.

Pop: The Neverending Story – Part 1

There’s an on-going debate among amateur rock afficionados that pits Elvis Presley against the Beatles. It is a battle to determine which had the greater influence in the world of popular music. One thing the Fab Four camp can’t deny here is that the King predated and directly influenced the Beatles. John Lennon once said: “Before Elvis, there was nothing”… Anyway, the legacy debate can hardly be decided objectively because both Elvis and the mop tops left an unprecedented and unquantifiable legacy.

On the other hand, it’s not a case of de gustibus non est disputandum either. It’s more of a philosophical stance. When singing the Beatles’ praises, most point to their innovation; how ‘artistically important’ they were in initiating concepts such as bands writing their own material and releasing full albums of songs instead of ‘just’ churning out a steady stream of singles.

But writing one’s own music is not always necessarily a good thing, but this has at any rate become ubiquitous. Incidentally, after music publishing laws changed (around the time of the Beatles’ emergence on the scene) in 1963, the quality of songwriting dropped considerably. And long-playing albums still consist of songs which float or sink – whether artistically or on Billboard – on their own merit.

Anyway, the Beatles, it is said, basically invented psychedelic rock, ‘deep folk pop’, world music, and orchestral arrangements of rock numbers (not to mention time-honored rock traditions such as excessive drug use and hermitic career interludes in exotic countries such as India). And pointing to all of these distinctions betrays a worldview, which places great importance on art and even more on its progress… Some people do not share this philosophy and so end up favoring artists simply for excellence in doing their job.

Artists like Elvis. From the beginning, Elvis maintained that he wanted to be a ballad singer. Everything else that he became, including rock ‘n’ roll protoplast, happened unwittingly. The thing is that the King’s appeal is in his unique voice and stage persona, not in innovation. Throughout his long career, Elvis was simply a consummate professional who sold songs to the world (he did not write music), without taking himself too seriously.

An unexpected side-effect is that an artist or performer like this will often become original (and therefore ‘important’). That’s what some people want to see in their favorite artists (like me), while for others it is precisely the opposite. For some, aspiring merely to be a ballad singer as opposed to auteur of transcendental concept albums is embarrassingly unsophisitcated and uncouth; a veritable faux pas.

But this is the way it was for ages prior to the cultural upheavals of the 60s. Actually, this kind of artistic self-importance did have a precedent in the Romantic movement of the 19th century, but now it entered the realm of popular songcraft, which by definition should remain simple (which makes it popular). Whereas a lot of 60s and 70s bands seemed to go on a trip never to return to earth along with their fans, a large portion of artists held on to ‘hackneyed’ old-time conventions; namely playing agreeable tunes and selling them as a commodity first and foremost.

The numbers come in handy here (even though they don’t constitute my alpha and omega). Elvis’ chart success and sales far surpass those of the Beatles and other classic bands such as The Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd. What’s more, Elvis, in turn, is himself completely eclipsed by an even greater giant of pop music: Bing Crosby. Crosby’s heyday was the first half of the 20th century so he is often forgotten, but the numbers have survived; his chart popularity surpasses Elvis’ almost four-fold. I’d say that this speaks, at the very least, to the popularity of good old fashioned songcraft and crooning.

TO BE CONTINUED…

The West, The Rest and The Melody

More than once lately, I’ve run across the opinion that the European musical tradition of analysis and codification often stifles musical expression. Non-European musical traditions are said to provide an antidote to this over-intellectualization of the building blocks of music.

This is definitely an over-simplified generalization, but like a lot of generalizations, it helps put things into some perspective. The Western common practice tradition has always been more cerebral than visceral, chiselling musical ideas and squeezing them into time-honored forms and conventions. On the other hand, African and Asian cultures (especially tribal ones) and their derivatives gave freer reign to unabated self-expression, feeling and improvisation.

The European and African approaches did come together in America, producing most of the most important and invigorating musical styles of the last century, such as ragtime, blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. Since then, the coming together of such disparate musical legacies has been a win-win situation. More systematic approaches are saved from sterility while the more instinctive ones become more directed and have a better chance of being preserved in some way.

The interesting thing is the preponderance of the melody. Being that melodies are the most universally appealing, readily apprehensible and indelible element of music for lay listeners, it is ironic that it has been most prominent in the West. Of course, melodies have always existed outside the Occident, but not really as central, noncontingent themes with agreeable notes of the kind that has come to define most of what we would deem popular music today.

A Bottomless Well of Melodies

“Magic Well” by escariel

It has been suggested that some day all the melodies available to us from the 12 tones of the Western scale will be used up. Indeed, how many melodic possibilities could there be in this seemingly short stretch of notes? The truth, of course, is that we are nowhere near exhausting the melodic riches contained in the musical scale.

Further, when octaves, modes, rhythm, harmonies, dynamics, tempo and style are considered, one realizes that mere notes on a scale are only the starting point of music, like a preliminary sketch of a completed painting. But even considering just scale steps, the melodic potential is mathematically limitless, like numerical combinations of the same set of digits.

A good way to illustrate the endless possibilities is by comparing melodies that contain similar phrases, yet sound completely different because of their respective musical contexts. So, for instance, the Tinker Bell leitmotif from John Williams’ score for the movie “Hook” begins with outlines of a 2nd inversion tonic minor chord (Bbm). In Modern Talking’s “Brother Louie”, we find almost the exact same (tonic) chord tone melody, only here it is Ebm. These compositions aren’t even remotely alike; both have different tempos and styles, with instrumentation and moods worlds apart, yet both contain almost identical melodic elements.

Countless other instances of similarities between ostensibly unrelated compositions have been observed, often with undue accusations of copyright infringement. For example, Queen have been accused of plagiarizing a section of Aaron Copland’s famous “Fanfare for the Common Man” for the chorus of their classic “We Will Rock You”.

A similar situation occurs when comparing the beginning of the verse in The Beatles’ “All My Loving” and a particular transition in “Kathy’s Waltz” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. However, instead of suggesting actual appropriation of intellectual property, these examples only demonstrate further that matching melodic phrases can be virtually unrelated in terms of mood, style or harmony.

All of this isn’t meant to suggest that there haven’t been instances of deliberate theft of melodies. However, cryptomnesia is also to blame for many of history’s melody-lifting. If we stick just to the Beatles, we have at least two such instances. First, We have Paul McCartney’s timeless “Yesterday“, which musicologists have traced to Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” and Nat King Cole’s and Frankie Laine’s “Answer Me, My Love”. However, the link is legally tenuous. The connection seems to be more visceral than anything else; McCartney, at worst, imitating in sincere flattery.

A more unfortunate example of subconscious plagiarism involved McCartney’s bandmate, George Harrison. The resemblance of Harrison’s solo hit “My Sweet Lord” to “He’s So Fine” by The Chiffons was so uncanny that litigation promptly followed its release. But cryptomnesia or dishonesty should not obscure the compositional reality of the sheer mathematical inexhaustibility of the melodic well.

In closing, an interesting observation occurs when looking at the juxtaposition of melodic phrases such as John Williams’ pixie theme and “Brother Louie” above. The real musical similarities are to other works in their authors’ repertoire. A comparison of Williams’ piece with a certain motif also performed on the celesta from his “Home Alone Overture” makes this clear. Just as comparing “Brother Louie” to other songs by Modern Talking, which for the most part seem to sleep-walk through the same chord progressions.

Such similarities are pretty obvious but the point is that they’re the only real musical limitations, whereas recurring melodic elements are not. Even a versatile composer is always ‘limited’ by his inadvertent idiosyncrasies; i.e. signature style. This hardly constitutes a problem. True confinements result from hackneyed conventions such as predictable chords.

The 80s – Back to the Future

Towards the end of the 70s, there was a change in the air. For a decade now, rock music was becoming ever more progressive and experimental. The social emancipation and rise of recreational drug use as expressed in The Summer of Love had infiltrated music and mainstream culture in general.

In the latter half of the 60s, musicians had become dissatisfied with apparently stifling pop-song conventions, such as under-3-minute running time or the verse-bridge-chorus form. An interesting parallel took place in cinema – many film directors were also feeling their artistic expression was being hindered by moral censorship as expressed in the Motion Picture Production Code, and they eventually led to its demise.

So the 70s were full of progressive or psychedelic rock bands, concept albums, 20-minute guitar solos as well as pretentious subject matter. The silver screen reflected this zeitgeist of self-indulgence and artsy-fartsyness, with directors beginning to rival film stars in celebrity status. Back in the world of music, certain subcultures such as disco continued music production along more traditional lines unabated.

Not that this explosion of expressionism was all for the worse; the 70s produced a lot of great music and art, often because of – and not despite – their solipsism. The most important thing to consider, though, is that this period of excess had to happen before a synthesis of new and old ways could emerge. This synthesis was the 1980s New Wave. Having gone through the looking glass and reached aesthetic bankruptcy, the popular music world was looking for a way back home like a prodigal son…

Even though the synthesizer was gaining prominence at this time, the synthpop that emerged with its help has been called ”perhaps the single most significant event in melodic music since Mersey-beat”. So while reaching for a cutting edge, futuristic instrument, musicians were increasingly looking back to traditional, time-honored songwriting and melodies as if in counter-revolt to the iconoclastic bohemianism before them. This Hegelian perspective effectively makes the term “synthpop” a double entendre.

Of course, not all of the 80s was about synth pads and electro beats (although synthesizer and drum machines are no doubt iconic symbols of the decade). The prevailing feeling was of fun and flamboyance instead of the serious introspection and self-conscious intellectualism that had become so commonplace. Suddenly it was ok again to make 3-minute pop songs about love or dancing… with admittedly novel quirks such as sci-fi motifs and anaemic (almost robotic) performance styles. At the same time, the new wave often betrayed the geopolitical tension of the times; the spectre of nuclear war permeating a lot of professional creative activity.

So the return to good old, formulaic, crowd-pleasing songs and melodies after the cultural rebellion of the 60s and 70s was inevitable. It reinvigorated music and introduced the world to the sound of the future.

Jean Michel Jarre – Composer vs. Innovator

Jean Michel Jarre (1948-) is one of the most influential popular composers of the late 20th century, though he is mostly unknown in the United States and Canada. Son of the renowned French film composer Maurice Jarre (who scored classics such as David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”), he almost single-handedly inspired the electronic dance music that has spawned countless subgenres and is as ubiquitous now as sliced bread.

Of course, the general consensus with regards to the origins of synthpop (the proto-EDM) is that it was inspired by German synth outfits, with Kraftwerk at the helm. Yet these were avant-garde krautrockers, who didn’t really set out to do pop music. Jarre did, providing a more direct and logical precursor for 80s synthpop. This, even though his very popular music had no lyrics (which is uncommon particuarly in North America). Jarre’s music is still often described as experimental and artsy even though his appeal clearly stems from his uncanny ability to write timeless, catchy tunes.

And this appeal is massive even after over four decades in the music business. Starting with his 1976 debut “Oxygène”, his albums have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide and attendance at his spectacular open-air concerts has been record-breaking. His place in popular music is undisputed. Yet this place is often relegated to just his technical accomplishments as a synth pioneer. At times, one wonders whether Jarre things any differently - being that he is often more interested in talking about his equipment than melody-making.

Jarre also often credits his one-time mentor, Pierre Schaeffer, the developer of musique concrète (an experimental school of music where a variety of recorded sounds are sampled), with shaping his musical philosophy and prefers to talk about the textures he constructs with synthesizers instead of notes and chords. Indeed, Jarre is considered an exponent of musique concrète even though this background alone would not have propelled him far. His compositional wizardry did.

So whether perceived positively or negatively, Jarre’s music being ‘electronic’ and ‘experimental’ seems to obscure most discussion of its other qualities. The fact that synthesizers or sampling never really became mainstream doesn’t help either. For example, to this day the theremin isn’t taken seriously as an instrument but is associated with 1950s B-movies about alien invasions… and Jarre’s music has actually been referred to as ‘space music’.

Perhaps in response to this kind of disparagement, Jarre once remarked that what he has done with synthesizers in the 20th century is no different from what a Joseph Haydn was doing in the 18th. Namely, both musicians utilized the most advanced technologies of their day. Clinging to traditional instruments (orchestral or other) just as dismissing cutting edge instruments (such as synthesizers) as ‘spacey’ or ‘futuristic’ misses the point of music-making. This is the fault of our superficial cultural clime, which is content with letting personal or collective impressions trump reality. Projection, it seems, is the norm.

At the end of the day, Jarre has succeeded in being ‘descriptive without words’ – a musical ambition he has had since hearing jazz in his childhood. He is also living proof of the power of the melody to trump all other considerations in music, from technical to philosophical.

Some recommended listening:

“Happiness Is A Sad Song” – from Jarre’s musique concrete days

“Equinoxe 7″

“Magnetic Fields 2″

“Zoolookologie”

“Chronologie 4″ – live in Barcelona

“Oxygene 10″

A Tale of Two Songs

              

I’m learning to play two piano pieces right now – Scott Joplin’s “Magnetic Rag” and “St. Louis Blues” by W. C. Handy. At one point I realized that these two songs, both of which were written by giants of African-American music, were both published exactly a hundred years ago in 1914. I found the juxtaposition interesting because whereas Joplin’s work signals the end of an era, Handy’s heralds the advent of another…

Scott Joplin was a seminal American composer who almost single-handedly popularized the vivacious syncopations of ragtime music in the late 1800s. Through timeless and indelible compositions such as “Original Rags”, “Maple Leaf Rag” “The Entertainer” and “Sunflower Slow Drag”, Joplin supplied the soundtrack for an entire era. The irresistible off-beat quirks of the rag have become synonymous with the optimism and prosperity of turn of the 20th century America.

W. C. Handy, meanwhile, gave the budding blues music of the early 1900s enormous exposure when he came into contact with Delta blues. It would be a stretch to call Handy the “Father of the Blues” (a description he himself propagated), but he contributed immensely to spreading this musical form with two songs he wrote, namely “Memphis Blues” (the first published song to use the word “blues” in the title) and, more importantly, “St. Louis Blues”, which is arguably the most influential blues song of all time. With this popular composition, the blues reached not only all corners of the United States, but of the world as well.

This song incorporates conventions established by ragtime composers, such as alterations between complementary and contrasting themes. So it has a minor section with a distinct habanera rhythm, giving way to the main theme, which is a standard twelve bar blues. Also, by Handy’s own admission, the piece attempts to combine ragtime syncopation with a spiritual-style melody. He was using these traits of the fading rag tradition as supportive devices for a new song form that would come to define popular music in the 20th century. Even the subject of St. Louis is interesting as this city was strongly associated with Joplin and ragtime.

“Magnetic Rag” was Joplin’s swansong (he would die only 3 years later). It is already an unusual piece for the King of Ragtime with its unconventional mixture of moods. But it is also noted for its C section, which is oddly reminiscent of the nascent twelve bar blues form, and which departs from the ragtime “oom-pah” left-hand pattern, changing to a walking bass line. Interestingly, several bars in this part are often performed with a broken octave boogie-woogie (a type of piano-oriented blues) bassline, which seems strangely suited for this section, fitting seamlessly as in the version by Ann Charters above.

So these are two different songs stemming from two distinct traditions which did in fact overlap here in 1914 (and most likely elsewhere as well). They illustrate and encapsulate, from two opposing angles, the changing dynamic in American popular music of this time.

Delta Blues

I recently started reading a fascinating book about the origins of the blues, “Delta Blues” by Ted Gioia. I’ve always been intrigued by this chapter in music history, which to a large extent will forever be shrouded in mystery, inspiring endless debate and conjecture and stirring the imagination.

The Delta blues is the original blues; the proto-blues, which inspired all the other offshoots and changed the course of music forever. “Delta” here denotes an alluvial plain found alongside the Mississippi river in northwestern Mississippi (not the actual mouth of this great river) and has been called ‘the most Southern place on earth’.

Although no one knows the precise origin of the blues, the Delta is the place where it flourished like in no other. This raw and powerful music, which would revolutionize and reinvigorate music the world over was developed by the impoverished black rural population of this region. These musically untrained farmers and manual laborers sang and used mostly stringed instruments, like the guitar – often constructing them out of everyday objects.

The sound they developed turned traditional music theory, scales and aesthetic on its ear, introducing into music a hitherto unknown mode of expression, equivalent to the introduction of a new primary color or a new dominant strain of DNA into the world. This blue hue of the blues is now present in some concentration in most of the popular music we hear.

Yet it originated simply as a way of expressing the peculiar woes of an oppressed people, who had been practically forgotten by history and by mainstream American society. The sharecroppers who lived on Southern plantations really had little apart from their call-and-response work songs to mitigate their plight of endless toil and racial subordination. On some plantations that served as penal institutions, the blues as well as chants, work songs, hollers and spirituals flourished with even more fervor, literally becoming a means of survival.

So apart from the musical specifics of the blues, with its blue notes, dominant chords and twelve-bar forms is this purely human aspect. And Ted Gioia does a wonderful job of narrating the lives of the legendary and colorful pioneering masters of the blues. All these guys - John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and many others – each left their indelible, trademark stamp on the blues, shaping our definition of what the blues ought to be and inspiring some of the most enduring stereotypes of the rambling bluesman as well.

These people of the soil, who worked the land until they were finally set free by their music, were often elusive, disappearing after recording sessions until tracked down again by scouts. Some were in and out of jail (often for shootings and other violent crime), with serious drinking or drug problems; with affairs and illegitimate children all over the South. Some died in suspicious circumstances, never really being able to shake their underworld entanglements. In some ways, these blues biographies foreshadowed the lives of future rappers and hip hop culture in general.

The blues (the music, the history and the culture) is an endlessly fascinating subject for music lovers, stirring and reinvigorating the imagination (musical or other) with its direct and raw, earthy power.

Charlie Chaplin – Composer

Although Charles Spencer Chaplin (1889-1977) is remembered as one of the greatest and most iconic comedians of the silver screen, it is not common knowledge that he was an accomplished composer, scoring the films he starred in. This is hardly surprising, though, since the fact that he was a true auteur – writing, directing and editing his movies – is also largely overlooked.

He was a peerless film scorer – maybe the most melodic film composer ever; or at least of the first half of the 20th century. A self-taught musician who never learned to read or write notation, Chaplin had a prodigious grasp of mood, character and situation – introducing another dimension to films he made in the silent movie era almost a hundred years ago. He seemed to effortlessly evoke pathos, irony, romance, abandon, delight, mischievousness or trouble.

Chaplin’s colorful melodies ascend and descend, hop along, jump and dive in a lively and ornate style uniquely Chaplinesque. His leitmotifs could tell the entire emotional side of his stories without the images. He could write waltzes and tangos, marches and ballads with sublime, haunting and indelible melodies often harkening back to his vaudevillian roots.

One example is the song “Smile”, which was taken from his score for “Modern Times” and supplied with lyrics. It has become a standard sung by countless performers, such as Michael Jackson, yet its authorship would come as a surprise to most. Other famous melodies include the theme from “Limelight” or “This Is My Song”, famously sung by Petula Clark (also featuring in Chaplin’s “The Countess from Hong Kong”).

And far from being predictable and just complementing or illustrating the moving images, Chaplin would create irony by countering the action with a different mood. A great example is the iconic scene in “The Gold Rush”, where Chaplin’s famous Tramp character, after being stranded in the Klondike, is forced to eat his shoe out of starvation. Instead of underscoring the humor and absurdity of the situation with a quirky, off-beat tune, Chaplin supplies us with a charming little waltz; pointing instead to what the Tramp is fantasizing about instead of reality.

At the end of the day, Charlie Chaplin was a great composer of music, whether accompanying a film or not. He’s my favorite composer, hands down. It has been suggested that greatness is best measured by the number of great melodies a composer wrote and how ubiquitous they have become. And Chaplin is one of the most melodic… Still, he is simply not as well remembered as a king of melody like Tchaikovsky. It’s undoubtedly because this immense talent of Chaplin’s was overshadowed by his many other talents…

Some other music to check out:

Suite from “The Kid”

A waltz from “The Kid”

“Bitter Tango” from “Monsieur Verdoux”

Music from “Pay Day”

A tune from “City Lights”