Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Art Songs

I realize I might be creating confusion by calling Tim's album "art songs" and a "song cycle." I don't want anyone to be surprised or confused when they turn it on.

"Art Songs" brings to mind a guy standing by a piano singing Schubert or 19th century German Lieder. And "song cycle" calls up Wagnerian images.

And those aren't exactly it. Except they are. But not how you might think.

When you turn on Tim's album, you're not going to hear "classical" music. He didn't write a bunch of 19th-Century parlor songs. But he did do exactly what classical composers have always done. It's just "The Funky Introvert" are art songs for the 21st century, not the 19th. So if you're expecting pretty melody and a piano, you might be surprised because Tim's album is full of contemporary sounds--electric guitars, drums, heavy bass, etc.

But it is still an album of art songs. The lyrics are complex and poetic, the music is experimental and pushes boundaries (although not in an unpleasant way. No German boys screaming or long minutes of silence).

Like almost all of the famous composers, Tim is writing songs that use modern sounds and modern technology to express ideas and emotions. It's hard to experience most classical music that way now because we're listening to it many many years later.

But Beethoven wrote his songs using the most cutting-edge sounds and instruments and musical structures available to him. He even had a pianoforte made especially for him that pushed the boundaries of all pianofortes at the time. Mozart's operas were made for public consumption, not scholarly analysis. He was writing in a popular idiom, using new sounds, new instruments, new ideas, telling stories that were commentaries on popular themes and events.  Handel did not write "The Messiah" for a music professor somewhere. He was writing using a popular instrumentation (choir and orchestra) for real people to listen to. But it's not simple pop or parlor piece by any means. It's complicated and fascinating and....classical. I could go on and on: Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Paganini, Strauss....Strauss was a rockstar in Vienna in his day. We think of him as the composer of stately waltzes, but he was writing dance tunes. Paparazzi followed him around, writing down what he wore and where he ate in detail, and women swooned when they saw him and tried to get pieces of his clothing. You know....like the Beattles. These people wrote amazing music that has stayed popular not because some scholar said it was good. It's stuck around because people liked it. And people liked it because the composers made it accessible, familiar, and appealing by using the newest, coolest, in-style-est instruments, rhythms, musical styles, performance techniques, lyrics, sounds.

I'm not saying Tim's music is comparable to any of these masters. Or that it will stand the test of time. I'm just trying to point out that "classical" music was "popular, modern, cutting-edge, contemporary" music when it was written. It used new, interesting, "up-to-date" (for its time) sounds and styles and rhythms. It was never, ever written academically in an old-fashioned style.

So, what I'm saying is Tim has written art songs. And what makes his songs art songs?

Well, an art song is sometimes defined as a vocal song written in an old tradition for voice with piano. We have no art songs by that definition. But Art Songs also means a song (intended for voice) which is a musical setting of a poem (or other text) that is meant to be performed in a concert setting or other relatively formal musical event.  By this definition, Tim's songs are art songs. They are musical settings of poems. And they are intended to be performed in a concert setting. And they are a song cycle, very carefully arranged to be played in the order they appear on the album.  They're not Wagnerian. But Pink Floyd also wrote art songs that appear as a song cycle--think "The Wall".

Tim has spent the last 10 years (or more) doing an intensive study of all vocal music, in all genres he could find and study. He's delved into everything from Bulgarian women's choirs to 1920s men's collegiate a cappella clubs to opera to jazz...rock...pop...alternative rock...candy pop...classical choral...contemporary choral...modern...avante garde.... If sounds came out of someone's mouth and someone called it music, he wanted to hear, to try, to learn about that.  And, all the while, Tim, like a sponge, was sucking up all the good and filtering out all the bad, studying, learning, analyzing, writing, composing, writing more.  He would get up from dinner in the middle of a conversation and I'd find him three hours later emerging from his studio, music in hand. Our counters collected hundreds of little scraps of paper. Tim started carrying around little notebooks and a tape recorder everywhere, recording ideas, thoughts, snippets of poetry, observations, analyses of what he was seeing and hearing.  He went everywhere from rural Nebraska to Vegas, coast to coast both teaching and learning, observing, studying.

And writing.

Always songs. Usually for solo performer with a looping pedal, but sometimes with a vocal ensemble ranging from 2 to hundreds of people. I think there's a piece for violin, voice, and looping pedals (now if we can find a violinist who is interested in collaborating....). He became well-known for kazoo and comedy, but his computer filled up with Christmas cantatas, hymns, experimental choral pieces, solo-with-looping-pedals songs, amazing arrangements of choral works and popular songs alike. Art. That's what his soul produces. Commentary on society, poetry about finding God that can only be performed electronically because parts have to be played in reverse to fully express the ideas.

Ten years, Tim studied what makes something sound good. Or bad. What makes this chord right and that one wrong. What rules can be broken? What can you do with looping technology. He was writing looping songs--real songs, not just DJ beats--wiring the guitar effects pedals together himself, long before the looping technology was advanced enough to allow him to play the songs live. The technology has almost caught up. Tim has a looper designed, with six loops, on which he thinks he could perform any song he's ever written, live, using only his voice to make all the sounds. Nobody has made it yet, and when he's reached out to pedal companies, they have brushed him off. No demand. Really, that makes sense--no other loopers can do what Tim is doing, so there is no money in making a looping pedal that only he could use effectively.

And, despite the car troubles, he finally finished an album--one of many that the songs are already written for--that showcases his art music. His poetry. His heart and soul. It's not rock or pop music, even though you can hear lots of rock and pop sounds in there. It's not electronic music, even though you can hear that. You can hear jazz. You can hear all kinds of stuff. You can hear the poetry, and it begs to be parsed and played with. But what he's written are art songs for the 21st century, using (same as Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Liszt, etc) the instruments and sounds of our day to express ideas that apply to our day. It definitely pushes the boundaries of what is "choral" music, and challenges the definitions of choral, solo, vocal, live, looping...but it is all those things.

I just don't want anyone to be shocked when they turn it on. If we ever get to produce it (car repairs took the entire finishing and production budget. Grrrr....).  There are no kazoos. There are no pianos. There are lovely vocals, but there are also robot voices. There are lighthearted moments, but it's not comedy.

This is art music.

With rock and pop sounds.

But it's really, really good.

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