The film “Boyhood” will never so much as enter the top forty of my favourite films – it was too long by a least one third of its running time and the storyline lost its way and went severely off-piste of me around half way through the proceedings. The music choices, however, were clever – and one real musical gem was the song “Hero”, which propelled the band “Family of the Year” from relative obscurity to well-deserved fame.
The subject matter – the burden of responsibility faced by someone growing up and reaching maturity – was almost too perfect a fit for the film. The emotion expressed in the song is very direct and emotional.
But of course I’m listening with the ears of a composer who hears things in terms of construction and technique. Quite apart from the obvious beauty of the melodic line and its accompanying harmonic progressions, what, for me, makes the song so successful in building and maintaining tension and momentum is the interesting fact that it doesn’t use what we call a “perfect cadence” even once in the song until right at the end – after the singing has finished. Every verse ends on an imperfect cadence – or, in the language of the layman, sounds unfinished, as though wanting to move on rather than finish. I would love to know if this was intentional on the part of the song writer. I suspect not, and that it was pure serendipity, growing organically from the feelings expressed in the words. But I think that maybe this element of the song’s construction turned what might have been merely a nice song into a really great song.
We’ve all heard of the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”, but few of us know the true meaning behind the words. The first published record of the song dates back to 1744 but there is also reference to a square dance bearing the same name in a 1665 publication. The longer version of the rhyme conjures up an image of 16th and 17th century London where each district is synonymous with a particular trade. For instance, St Clement’s was associated with the nearby wharf where merchants landed citrus fruits – hence, oranges and lemons. Money lending is also at the heart of the rhyme – or, more pointedly, those who are indebted to others and are unable to pay (“When will you pay me say the bells of Old Bailey”). The rhyme ends with the chilling words: “And here comes a candle to light you to bed, And here comes a chopper to chop off your head”. The great tenor bell of St Sepulchre’s Church, near the Old Bailey, would toll at 9am on a Monday morning, signalling the start of any hangings due to take place that week.
I decided that I wanted to compose a piece about the little song which would incorporate the sounds of the bells of St Clement Danes, in London – but if I were to do so it would have to use an actual recording of the bells themselves, and this is exactly what you hear in the extract below.
The recording of the bells has been manipulated and transposed as desired and the bell sounds are interspersed with over-lapping chords which create poly-chordal harmonies. This over-lapping of chords and the resulting poly-chordal harmony has become an important feature of my newly acquired compositional style which is always still developing.
I hope you’ll enjoy the extract from “Lemons; St Clements”, below. If you’re on a laptop this music is best heard through either a good set of speakers or through headphones in order to really appreciate the intricacies of the sound:
In focusing my attention on the world of electronic/digital music, I have recently unwittingly stumbled upon the music of composer, Morton Subotnick. I absolutely love this man’s music and I can’t believe I’ve lived as long as I have, listened to so much music and studied so many scores, to have missed out on knowing about this musical genius. I feel that I have now not only identified a genre of music in which I would now like to work (after many years as a composer working in a traditional style for standard orchestral instruments), but I have also found myself an inspirational musical “hero”. I have not had such a hero since my teens when I was enormously taken with the work of Sir Michael Tippett. I listened to everything I could by him and studied many of his scores. I did, in fact, meet him in the end, which was a great privilege. Another semi-hero of mine was Toru Takemitsu, who I also met at his 60th birthday concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.
My acquaintance with Morton Subotnick’s music is still at it’s early stages – but it seems to me that he is an extremely versatile composer. He writes for acoustic instruments as well as composing electronic music. Just listen to these excerpts from “Jacob’s Room”. The sort of tonality he uses and his use of counterpoint sends shivers down my spine. He’s also ultra-modern and ultra-cool – so it appeals to me on many levels.