This is a post for my friend Eleanor Gray of the Cassettes and Chocolate Milk blog, who gave me the idea to write it. I would have liked to have made it up into a small audio feature; but I’ll have a go at getting it down here, so I don’t have it floating around on a scrap of paper for the rest of my life!
So here goes . . .
There are musical themes that get passed on down through the generations; sometimes they are nicked; sometimes they are acknowledged as an influence; and sometimes they are just an unconscious re-creation of a childhood memory, something that impressed on the musician so much as a child, that they rebuild it later in life from the ground up.
Although I am not a musician, one of these for me is the ‘cascading arpeggio’, that skips back and forth, but ultimately heads down a scale in a bittersweet melody. I write about this because I keep hearing it throughout my life; and the reason that I drag Eleanor into it is that she once commented on a song I posted, ‘Subculture’ by New Order, that it was ‘Baroque Pop’, a genre term which I’d never heard of before, but immediately knew was significant.
Although the definition of Baroque Pop covers pop music that uses a harpsichord — one of the principle instruments of the Baroque era — from Eleanor’s comment, I also imagined that it involved the use of arpeggios, a sequence of single notes that run up and down the intervals of a chord, in heavy use during Bach and Vivaldi’s time.
Now, for Subculture, you only need to listen to the synth part for the first 20 seconds, and you’ll hear what I mean.
Arpeggios are often found in electronic music, as there is an ‘arpeggiator’ setting on most synths for creating instant arpeggios, and it is something that most electronic musicians will play with at some point in their career — but it is a difficult thing to make work. (New Order hit the big time!)
But besides the fact that it is arpeggios being used, it is also the actual melody and sequence of notes — the epic opening — that was already part of something that existed in my memory. While I was growing up in the 1980s and 90s, there was a Dulux paint ad on TV that used a song called ‘The Rhythm of Life’.
Although the song, I’m guessing, was specifically re-recorded for the ad, the original Rhythm of Life comes from the 1969 musical, Sweet Charity, written by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, which was performed by Sammy Davis Jr in the film version of the musical, as well as covered by Diana Ross and the Temptations in the same year.
Jumping forward in time, this same note/chord progression comes up again in the song ‘Fantasy’ by Black Box. It might be drawing a long bow, but I think it is in there with the chorus at about 1:05.
And now, one final jump back into the past, to the master of the epic arpeggio. You only have to wait 20 seconds — but I can guarantee that you will hear it.
Eleanor was right: Baroque Pop was exactly the right term to use for New Order’s ‘Subculture’. Vivaldi was one of the baroque masters who loved scales and arpeggios.
Anyway, I know that this is an epic bit of musical trainspotting, but it is a theme and melody that seems to haunt my life — and although it’s like trying to catch a fragment of a dream, it is not a complete waste of time, as it helps you to understand why we are naturally attracted to certain things (including people!), as well as discover the subtle themes and threads that run through history.
I can now rip up that scrap of paper, and throw it in the bin.
From Eleanor’s blog, a train trip scene with her brother:
We remained silent for a few moments as I tried to develop something of a coherent argument.
“There’s something in the sound. There’s something about the instrumentation of Baroque Pop which makes it seem as if pop music had some kind of historical basis in classical music, when it was simply never the case.”
He flinched his brow.
I paused for a moment.
“Well, pop obviously originated from rock n roll, but that had little to do with the classical tradition.”
“But some pop musicians can read music. Some.” He trailed off. The man across from us slumped deeper in his chair. “I think the problem is that I don’t know what you’re talking about.”