"Mason and Dixon's West Line," Aunt Euphrenia setting her Oboe carefully upon the arm of her Chair, "in fact, shares this Quality of Departure and Return, wherein year upon Year, the Ritornelli are not merely the same notes again and again, but variant each time, as Clocks have tick'd onward, Chance has dealt fair and foul, Life, willy-nilly, has been liv'd through.... A drama guaranteed ev'ry time a Reedwoman picks up her instrument, Wick-Wax,-- a Novel in Musick, whose Hero instead of proceeding down the road having one adventure after another, with no end in view, comes rather through some Catastrophe and back to where she came from."The first principle underlying almost all of the world's music is that of going forth and returning. A typical melody begins at a home point, called the Tonic, and it ventures out into a world of musical uncertainty, into conflict and irresolution, a vaguely threatening world of Dominants, Subdominants, Mediants and Supertonics from which, eventually, by one path or another, it eventually resolves back to the Tonic.
--Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon
Here's the simplest possible illustration:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star [going forth]Now, of course, if every song were "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," music would be a damned dull business indeed. And so composers play with this principle, feinting, head-faking, introducing new keys, hinting at foreign tonalities -- anything to disguise the Going-Forth-and-Returning nature of what they're writing. Modernist music that consciously eschews this principle -- out of the composers' intention to break rules, to shock -- repels the ear. If you've ever giggled a bit at a country band stretching a typical "shave-and-a-haircut" song ending to comical extremes, that's the tension that's making you laugh -- not-there-yet... not-there-yet... not-there-yet... shave-and-a-haircut, two bits! (Whew! Home!) Recall the scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? where the evil Judge Doom flushes Roger from his hiding-place by knocking the first phrase -- shave and a haircut! -- on the wall; Roger's undoing is his desperate need, deep inside his poor little Toon soul, to finish the phrase -- to accomplish Resolution -- two bits!
How I wonder what you are [and returning].
I've been having an interesting offline conversation with Simon from Homefront Radio about the origins of "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport," and the chat got around to the idea of musical archetypes. "I'm fast coming to the conclusion that every song out there is basically the same song if you break it down to the dominant couple of chords," says Si -- a proposition that has been knocking around in my own head for many years. This is most easily discerned in folk idioms, where that compulsion to disguise or gussy up the Going-Forth-and-Returning movement isn't beaten into the young composer at the Academy or by critics. If you stick to the simple musical rules of folk, eventually (very quickly, in fact) all the possible harmonic progressions -- all the possible "legal" variations on the idea -- are going to be used up.
So you wind up with these archetypes. One I can think of off the top of my head is the "Sixteen Tons" chord progression (i-VII-VI-V), which is so ubiquitous that I can reel it off in my sleep with wide-ranging variations. For some bizarre reason -- perhaps due to its inherent slinkiness -- this progression is amazingly frequently associated with cats: "The Cat Came Back," "Stray Cat Strut," "Cat's Walk." But the fact that we all agree that these chords remind us of a cat is a very important insight into human psychology.
This idea of musical archetypes is immediately suggestive of Joseph Campbell's work, and I'm prepared to assert that just as he applied the idea of Jungian archetypes to mythology, it can just as defensibly be applied to music. When every work-song, every sea-chantey, schottische, reel, breakdown, field-holler, ballad, jody-call and norteño employs the very same emotional shorthand to engage and entertain its audience, clearly something very powerful in the human psyche is being appealed to. Campbell's Hero Myth has a direct and ineluctible analogue in this musical Going-Forth-and-Returning motion I've just been describing: Beginning at home, adventuring out, the encounter of conflict in the form of dissonance and irresolution, and finally the return home. This need for finishing, for ending the story in a satisfactory way, is a deep and abiding one, not just in Myth but in Music too. Something profoundly human is satisfied by that simple two-note sequence: two bits!
Today we're engaged in a form of exorcism. A terrible event struck us five years ago today, and all around me I see the process of mythologizing. We explain September 11 to ourselves as the beginning of something, something that will eventually, as all things must, have an end. We were called to Go Forth on that day, we hear it said, to conquer an implacable evil that attacked us, that will stop at nothing to eradicate us from the earth, and we will Return one day, serene and victorious, to receive our rewards from a grateful world.
Plagal Cadence: Aaaaaaaa-men!
But Myth is not Life. Music is not Life. In fact, we have these things precisely because they aren't Life; they are the means we have of coping with the Bad Shit that Life throws at us. They're our life-preservers, our comfort, our solace.
But they're lies.
In fact, the Going-Forth-and-Returning myth of literature and music that comfort us so never actually happens in Life. There are no beginnings. There are no ends. There are no heroes, and there are no dragons. Nothing began in any true sense on September 11, and nothing will ever truly bring us to some Tonic of resolution. There is only a long, never-ending series of events in sequence -- some foreseeably arising out of causes that happened in the past, some spontaneous and completely random. September 11 was one of the former kind of events, an action by some people who had a grievance and a bitterness so abiding that they justified dying -- and killing -- for it. Their action caused immeasurable grief to countless millions, myself certainly included, but -- and the importance of this is truly profound -- it was not the action of automatons. In fact the September 11 murderers had Myths and Music of their own, and in their own minds they had thoughts of rightness and justice that burned just as brightly in their minds as they do in ours.
Now please. I'm not apologizing for them, or justifying their actions in any way. Their incomprehensibly distorted idea of the worth of a human life is utterly contemptible, and if I could turn back time I'd murder them in their beds without a second thought. But I do profoundly wish, as fervently as I wish for anything, that we could as a species understand just how badly the lies we tell ourselves to escape the reality of injustice and suffering impede the understanding of the truth that this, this thing we have here, this little ball of rock floating in space, is all we've got.
No gods. No saviors. No magic. No prophets. No afterlife. No angels. No saints. No heroes. No going forth and returning. No myths.
What would music sound like then?