Monday, September 11, 2006

We Have Not Gone Forth. We Will Never Return.

"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."

--Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon
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.

Here's the simplest possible illustration:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star [going forth]
How I wonder what you are [and returning].
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!

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?

Two bits!


fgfdsg said...

Further touching on the coincidence in our shared thoughts on the subject, my line of thinking was actually touching on 9/11 as well. (It's no coincidence I chose that date to create "All I Want").

I'll get the post finished, so you can see for yourself how we are both playing with the same chords, but creating different songs from it. Perhaps all blog posts are archetypes as well.

With regard to 'Going Forth and Returning', I'd take a slightly less bleak view and recognise that all we have on this rock is Each Other, and some songwriters are smart enough in their songs to recognise there are no easy solutions to some questions that are brought up, and therefore no easy resolutions.

Think of XTC. "At the very least you can stand up naked and grin" from "Wrapped In Grey"; the shuffling ending of "Poor Skelton Steps Out"; the final chord of "Scarecrow People", (starting in A, ending on C#m9); or the famous 'Wrong Chord', (as one Chalkhills Wag dubbed it years ago), at the end of "Love On A Farmboys Wages".

This simple realisation actually crystalised one of the many reasons for my attraction to them. *They Know*.

fgfdsg said...

Ooh, forgot to say: Brilliant Post.

Anonymous said...

It's late and I'm tired, forgive me if this doesn't make as much sense as I would prefer. First, let me say, wonderful post, Neddie, and if I may, I'd like to respectfully disagree and offer my take.

Just because we don't see it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. The collective unconscious informed everything Jung did from the time he split with Freud, and all "unconscious" means is that it isn't available to our conscious "I am" ego to make sense out of it.

Jung observed thousands of dreams and out of the chaos of it all recognized certain patterns in them, just like Stan Grof observed thousands of LSD trips and saw similar patterns and Campbell saw the same patterns recur in the art of indigenous peoples. Jung and Campbell tell us that these archetypes are recognizable patterns in the forces, the energies, that control and affect our lives, individually and collectively. What influences us? Why did you pick your wife and she pick you? Why did you have your children when you did? Why your career? Why music and not painting? I don't believe it is random.

So, how does one describe what is in the collective unconscious in a way others can understand? Everything is energy, and how do we describe "something" as abstract as this energy, these forces? This is the province of the poets. The storytellers. The composers. The names and faces we put on energy.

Jung talked about the process of individuation, something we all experience in different forms until we die. Your teenage son is in the most intense bit of it: emancipation. At age 50, I'm in a different bit of it, starting to do my most important work before I settle into my emeritus years. It is a process.

All are processes. Buckminster Fuller: I think I must be a verb.

The descriptions of those processes are stories or music or poetry. Yes, an ending, albeit an artificial one, is required, but at the same time, the end of every good movie or song suggests the beginning of the next story and leaves some questions unanswered. What happens to Jeff Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer after the end of The Fabulous Baker Boys? The soldiers at the end of Grand Illusion? I want to know what happens to the girl in The Beatles' She's Leaving Home. It's been awhile since I read it, but we never do find out what happens to Slothrop in Gravity's Rainbow, do we?

And a part of each phase of individuation is making the unconscious conscious, living the life unlived. Re: Slothrop, are the people chasing him real people or aspects of himself that are part of his life unlived?

Shave and a haircut, that most simple of stories, is still part of some greater chaos. I laugh at it and feel something, but I don't necessarily know what it is. The writing of Pynchon or Vonnegut or Tom Robbins inspires me, and I don't know why. Why are minor chords "sad?" All are triggering something in me that may have something to do with my life unlived and my process of individuation.

So, IMHO, myth does exist, and though myth may not be life, life is myth, or rather the processes of life are described by the the names and faces put on chaos, which is myth. We are all always experiencing the energies they describe, and those tales we wish to tell through melody or a well written sentence are out of necessity cut down to size to fit in a structure. The hero of the story is simply the focus we put on the person experiencing whose journey is being described, experiences the process, and may as often as not fail.

Those ancient people who sat around campfires at night and studied the stars and passed stories down from generation to generation across thousands of years, describing what they saw, said this. Jung and Campbell picked up on it, as in the course of becoming "civilized", these ancient ways had been lost. But it still exists in us, as Grof observes.

Now, with the web we have the best campfire ever to exchange ideas around, and maybe it is time to find it again.

And maybe the lesson of each story from Shave and a Haircut to Shakespeare, is, all we've got are each other and we need to learn to take care of each other so that we can get through this thing, whatever it is (in the words of Kurt Vonnegut).

Michael in Seattle

roxtar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
roxtar said...

If I were to set the past five years to music, it would sound something like this:

A cinderblock tossed into an open Boesendorfer, followed by five years of the frantic strings from the shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho. (arr. Bush/Cheney)

No effort at modulation, to attempt at resolution. The same hideous key, the same relentless rhythm, printed on a Mobius strip and scrolled past the MSM Symphony Orchestra ad infinitum. And oh, how well they play.

But no shave. No haircut. No bits.

Kevin Wolf said...

Couldn't work up my own comments on this 5th "anniversary" and, after skimming through many blogs seeing what everybody else was up to I found your post late.

And what everybody else was up to, individually, you managed to combine and expand. Excellent.

With all due respect to Michael's thoughtful comments, I have no need of mysticism to explain common human experiences, much as we try to convince outselves (and sadly, as did the 9/11 murderers, succeed) that we are divided from each other by all sorts of barriers and differences.

I agree absolutely with your take on the purpose of music and art, as well as agreeing with the comments of Simon and roxtar.

Anonymous said...

The first principle underlying almost all of the world's music is that of going forth and returning.

Actaully that is an underlying principle of Western music for about 15th century to the 20th. Much of western music before then did not have that characteristic structure (chant, organum) and a whole lot of music in the 20th cetnruy does not either. Even most pop and rock music does not fit that scheme. Rock and pop are more often cyclic--a set of chords repeated over and over.

Also "musical archetypes" is a little over reaching. Look into the theoryetical works of Heinrich Schenker--his analyses of music of the period (mostly bach to beethoven) is based on the idea of surface and backgound (harmonic) movement. It lets you talk about "fundimental" harmonic progressions that appear in lots of pieces.

MichaelBains said...

Whatever teh genre, your essays provide a tonic, indeed.

I love the way you approached and concluded this piece.


Bobby Lightfoot said...

I'm down, I'm down. It's a long cold trip from believin' in Santa to believing in nothing but what can be done with yer two hands and a lot of us are getting of th' bus a little too early. I don't believe in Beatles. I just believe in me and Yoko.

Hey, you gotta love a well-reasoned rebuttal done in th' spirit of discussion. Nice, Michael in Seattle.

Neddie said...

Michael In Seattle: I don't think we're diametrically opposed, here. I think we're operaing under different definitions of the word "myth." Probably if we were to sit down over a bottle of something nice we'd be able to hash it out to mutual satisfaction. I just wish we as a species would do a little more acting on things-as-they-are and little less on things-as-we-fervently-wish-they-were.

Peace back atcha.


Actaully that is an underlying principle of Western music for about 15th century to the 20th. Much of western music before then did not have that characteristic structure (chant, organum) and a whole lot of music in the 20th cetnruy does not either.

I, uh, kinda knew this (hence the word "almost" in my first sentence), but point taken. Perhaps in trying for a punchy opening line, I overstated the case a bit. But a blog post that begins "Quite a bit of Western polyphony from the 15th century (before which it did not have today's characteristic structure [chant, organum]) to somewhere in the 20th, when Modernist composers began to deliberately alter the form, and also arguably excepting many forms of non-Western music, the underlying principle, etc." would be a bit... What's the word? Pedantic.

Rock and pop are more often cyclic--a set of chords repeated over and over.

Here we part ways. Just because a set of notes cycles without resolving does not mean that there is no "home"; it just means that "home" is not arrived at. That's what I meant in the "playing-with-the-form" business in Graf 2.

fgfdsg said...

Here we part ways. Just because a set of notes cycles without resolving does not mean that there is no "home"; it just means that "home" is not arrived at.

In pop music, I'd take this idea even further. There's *no need* for resolution because the cycle of notes and chords repeating is *in itself* the resolution the mind is seeking.

In effect, we are always "home", and just taking tentative steps of exploration from the safety and comfort of the familiar, like a child exploring the world whilst looking over its shoulder for the security of its guardian.

In this regard, pop music can be regarded as a childish proposition, but will logically be something people love deeply, since it offers the warmth and security of childhood exploration.

I just wish we as a species would do a little more acting on things-as-they-are and little less on things-as-we-fervently-wish-they-were.

I've always thought in this regard to humour. For me the art of satire is based on pointing out the cognitive dissonance between the two viewpoints.

Unfortunately, the 'Wish-They-Were's' rejoinder to the 'As-They-Are' crowd is to claim Cynicism and mentally dimiss them thusly.

(Hopefully, I made my points here. I'll admit my own stupidity means i'm always in way over my head on this blog.)

roxtar said...

Home or not at home? Stairway to Heaven, for example, deposits us at home after a circuitous journey. Twist and Shout, on the other hand, never seems to leave home, save for a step onto the front porch during the middle 8. As for songs that never return home, I'm thinking of Side 2 of Abbey Road. Mean Mr. Mustard drops us off at Polythene Pam's house, for example.

fgfdsg said...

Ah, but in the Abbey Road sequence, the links between song are strengthened by the snippets being harmonically related. I'm sure 'Mustard' and 'Pam' are both in E, so in a way, they're brother and sister. 'Here Comes The Sun' and 'Bathroom Window' are both in A.

If I can remember from my childhood fumbling, 'You Never Give Me Your Money' (what I always heard as the true start of the medley format) starts in C, as do 'Carry That Weight' and 'Golden Slumbers'. Is the reprise of 'Money' in 'Golden Slumbers' the medley's way of signalling its turning for home? 'The End' resolves in C.

I think the harmonic interelation at work is the reason it being as successful as it is.

roxtar said...

Late though it is, kudos to you. I had forgotten the reprise of "Money" in "Slumbers". When I was a kid, my dad used to take us for these circuitous rides across the countryside, and magically (to a 7 year old) they always led us back to where we began.

So, Golden Slumbers, yeah, it's when we realize "Hey, we've been here before."

Well done.

Elodie said...

Whatever teh genre, your essays provide a tonic, indeed.

I love the way you approached and concluded this piece.