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April 4, 2015

Saturday morning. Mrs sss and I are about to brave the supermarket, and in an unexpected move we are to be joined by a daughter.

I calculate that I have half an hour to share some quick thoughts with you.

I note that over at my favourite blog, The Dancing Professor has been reading The Once and Future King. I’ll let her tell you about it, but it got me just a little bit excited because (1) I wrote a little thing about Arthurian stuff not so long ago, and (2) I had in mind to talk soon about a recent musical discovery in my life: Tintagel, by Arnold Bax.

So you see, everything seems connected and purposeful, in a strange way that  I can’t fully describe: I couldn’t help but feel a little stirred by it all.

Bax was a wonderful composer of symphonic poems. That term is shorthand for giving himself the licence to compose without regard for established form. Back in the day, when Bach and his successors were establishing the shape of symphonies and concertos (concerti, if you’re going to be fussy), there was an orthodoxy to their structure. It made the achievements of Mozart  all the greater for making music that is surpassingly beautiful, even from within the constraints of form.

In our day, there are different constraints, but they are nonetheless there. The 3-4 minute pop song dominates the music industry, and demonstrates the process of musical evolution.

Thus, in the 50s, two minutes was the standard, probably because more than 120 seconds of energetic jitterbugging was all that health insurers would allow. Oh, Boy.

In the 60s the standard pop song got longer as the dances got a bit less frenetic, and the increased availability of various types of relaxant gave rise to a whole new genre of more languid and introverted pop and rock.

Bring on the 70s: glam-rock and disco (or D.I.S.C.O) made pop longer again. Inhabiting the dance floor became more about keeping the feet still, maintaining balance on ludicrous platform shoes, under the weight of shiny suits, medallions and trousers so wide that the wearer would be liable to take to the air in high winds.  At the same time, early punk rediscovered the two minute explosion; the pogo was the dance, and I would be interested to know how much the increased demand on the National Health Service in recent years can be traced back to the knee-joints damaged leaping up and down to Love Song by the Damned.

You get the point, I hope.

My real purpose was to observe the structures a little. That they are there seems to me a matter of fact, not a matter of discipline. Without doubt the perceived expectation of the (once) concert-going, (later) record-buying and (now) digital-downloading public is the driving force in the structure of most music. Where Bax, and many others who have endured, really contribute is in opening up those structures from within.

John Lennon observed: “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” Well, kind of. Lawdy, Miss Clawdy.

So off to the supermarket we go. Quick March. And have a good Easter.


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