Wednesday, June 15, 2011


One of my favorite works from the Baroque era is the Sonata No. 1 in G minor for solo violin, by Johan Sebastian Bach. And one of the things I admire about it is that when the Presto section is performed, it not only serves as a means to display a given musician's technical mastery, but that even when played at half time or quarter time, the sequence of notes create the illusion that this work can go on forever. In this way the score sometimes strikes me as containing a secret code for perpetual motion, much the same way some believe the Bible has embedded within it a Torah code or Rapture mathematics.

J.S Bach: Sonata for solo violin No.1 in G Minor, Presto BWV1001

Another particularly brilliant aspect of this work is that while it presents itself as a series of broken chords, Bach has so conceived the pitch sequence that our ears are given to an aural illusion of transcendent melody floating upon a driving harmonic engine. Although not an ostinato , this effect reminds me how repeating patterns can fall upon our ears as both a linear sequence, or as an underlying dimensional sonic color, and sometimes both.

Here is another example:

J.S Bach: Prelude No. 1, C Major, BWV 846 [v03]

While Bach's Prelude No. 1, C Major (1722) is beautiful on its own, I think I actually derive more pleasure from a derivative work composed nearly a century and half later by French Composer Charles Gounod. Gounod essentially superimposes a new and original melody of his own upon Bach's piece, resulting in the equally evocative 'Ave Maria':

Charles Gounod: Ave Maria

Is Gounod's 1859 score for 'Ave Maria' evidence of the first mashup? One would like to think so, and that Gounod, perhaps, represents an early precursor to the likes of Armin van Buuren, Fatboy Slim, P. Diddy and other sample based composers and DJs, and that with 'Ave Maria', he thereby paves the way for hiphop and trance which would come only another 150 years later.

But the fact is, the way Gounod appropriates Bach is not so uncommon as one might first think. Inspiration often works like this, with new melodies blossoming forth from the fertile harmony of another work. Why should that be any surprise, really? Music has the power to inspire not just new activity, new love and new ideas, but also new music as well.

As it happens, it's works such as this Bach/Goundod collaboration that lead me to think that the genius of the modern minimalist, Phillip Glass, is that he, like Gounod, appears to have taken a Baroque convention and expanded on it. But whereas Gounod adds an ethereal top coat to the Baroque harmonic vehicle, Glass finds pleasure by discovering new and inventive ways to let the engine itself run on to infinity.

As such, I either hear more commonalities in Glass' work with 18th Century music than I do with the works of any of Glass’s modern contemporaries, or I simply enjoy searching for them. This includes other minimalist composers such as Steve Reich or Terry Riley, –or even Ravi Shankar, whose work Glass has indicated as a strong influence from his time working for him.

Philip Glass: Glassworks

Of course, neither Bach nor Glass (or Gounod for that matter) are the only composers who trade in repeating patterns. Most conventional music, whatever the genre or cultural heritage, is built upon repeating patterns. But great composers all share a similar knack for altering repeating harmonic patterns so as to create stylistically individual and recognizable works.

Another thing that makes both Bach and Glass so interesting to me is that both composers capably produce the effect of motion though space.

If Glass is cinematic, Bach is compelling. But both are a bit of the other, actually, even if the latter predates the invention of film by a century and a half.

I like to imagine that the German composer was no doubt #soundtracking to his own tunes while he walked the streets of Leipzig way back in 1730. Who needs a radio or an iPod when your own brain gives birth to terabytes more music on a Sunday than most people have contained on a circa 2010 portable playback device?

And because Bach and Glass are both particularly compelling and cinematic, commercial media producers often turn to these composers and their works –and even to the suggestion of their works– for inspiration. Either Glass' influence runs deep, or media producers like to sync to nothing better than the haunting kineticism produced by reloading arpeggios, and they like it the way some people enjoy hiphop, on EVERYTHING.

But why? And why and how could this technique have so many applications?

I think it happens something like this:

Repeating patterns act upon brain cognition in at least pertinent two ways. First they demand our attention, initiate beta waves in the brain and thereby produce a feeling of alertness. The result is increased sensory sensitivity and a heightened level of aural awareness. Our ears once open, our hearing then becomes ready to tune into any incoming information, and our minds prepared to focus any subsequent message.

However, left unabated, our senses in very short order attenuate to the pattern. Our brains then produce alpha waves, and we relax. The pattern then becomes transparent, and we give in to the music.

An adept composer or songwriter recognizes when this shift occurs and at this point will introduce a lyric or melody. Another kind of sonic artisan might introduce a message, or signal a shift in story structure. Still another kind of composer, one concerned with mediation or healing, might signal no such thing at all, and simply let the power of the pattern continue without interruption or transformation.

In effect, repeating patterns in music trigger nearly simultaneous ratios of alertness: calmness, focus: receptivity.

I imagine it's the musical equivalent of smoking a post coital cigarette.

Synced to pixels, it's as if the moving image has been charged with both perpetual motion and perpetual emotion.

In this regard, it might even be said that the repeating pattern represents the perfect carrier of semiosis in media, movies and not to mention not-so-subliminal messaging –any content platform, actually.

In fact, I think it possible that no idea (or motif or message) is too majestic or too scant that it can't be capably delivered upon the undulating wave of a recycling sequence or arpeggio.

Such is the power of the pattern.

I. Michaelson: Google Chrome 'Dear Sophie'

M. Montes: Starbucks 'Vote'

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