Whatever Happened to Melody!?

 Ashtray from Alan Cristea Gallery Twentieth Anniversary Portfolio 2015
Ashtray from Alan Cristea Gallery Twentieth Anniversary Portfolio

Yesterday I went on a Tinder date to the Museum of Modern Art. There’s no real reason for me to tell you that I was on a Tinder date except for the fact that I probably just won a few more readers who are titillated by the phrase “Tinder date.” And now, despite the fact that I keep repeating the phrase Tinder date, I’d like to direct your attention more towards my experience of the MoMA and less on the Tinder date. I confess that at the MoMA I felt a lot like how my German friend Dierk feels feels when he watches a Richard Pryor standup comedy special: “I don’t get it!” (please imagine a deep-voiced German man saying that). I could chalk this up to the fact that I am not well-educated and up to date on the trends of modern visual art, but I actually experience this same feeling when listening to some modern musical art (a field in which I’m at least relatively well educated and up to date). The truth is that some art and music is simply more intelligible than other art and music.

For instance, I had a wonderful experience of perfectly intelligible music last Saturday at the legendary Blue Note jazz club. At the classic venue, looked after by a suspender-clad waitstaff, I saw the one and only Bill Frisell play alongside Petra Haden (vocals), Thomas Morgan (bass), and Rudy Royston (drums). With his trademark reverb-laden telecaster tone, Bill and company played arrangements of classic film and television music from their album When You Wish Upon A Star. They put a haunting and spacious twist on classic movie songs like You Only Live Twice, The Windmills of Your Mind, and the theme from Psycho. Yet for all of the unique character that they infused in each song, they never sacrificed clarity for the sake of novelty. I walked back to the subway feeling uplifted, whistling the tunes that I had just heard.

Conversely, on Tuesday night I took a stroll to a new venue called Nublu— this is likely a stretch but I wonder if the phonetic pronunciation of the club (“new blue”) is an intentional nod (or perhaps even a jab) towards the long-standing Blue Note. Nublu, with it’s darkly lit industrial aesthetic, glowing bar, and psychedelic tapestry of light projected onto a large wall, was clearly much more modern than the Blue Note. As I watched the band tune up and prepare to play, I realized that this was one of the most talented collections of musicians I would ever see perform together (Dave Binney-sax, Chris Potter- sax, Adam Rogers- guitar, Matt Brewer- bass, Craig Taborn- keys, and Justin Brown- drums). Between the sleek setting and incredible musicians, I had a giddy sense that this was one of these “only in New York City” kind of moments. And yet after thirty minutes of hearing them play relentless, high energy, complex, and sometimes atonal music, I was ready to leave. There was no doubt of the skill onstage with each performer playing blistering solos— there was simply little for me to latch on to and enjoy. I left with nothing in my head that I wanted to whistle.

“What ever happened to melody!?” This was a question my film scoring instructor Chris Hajian asked me this week in our lesson, and a question I was asking myself after the show at Nublu. For the past couple of decades or so (and probably much longer), whether in jazz, or film scores, or pop music, the importance of melody has undoubtedly waned. For example, what’s the billboard number one song right now? Don’t worry I’ll look it up— ok it’s a song called Closer by the Chainsmokers. Now I just really hate this song already, and I’ve only heard it once, but let’s identify what is important and prominent about this song: the beat, the timbre change from the male vocals to the female vocals, the distinct intentionally lo-fi sound of the synth, and of course the corny, cliché, stupid ass lyrics. It is certainly not the melody that is important. The melodic moments are short, simple, and repetitive— this is certainly not a hit song because of the melody alone. Ok now then what was the number one hit on this day in 1996? Oh no, it was the Macerena! I was hoping to prove that 1996 was more melodic than 2016, but that is not a great example now is it? Ok we better go even further back in time… on this day in 1976 the number one song was Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now. Whether you like this song or not, you’ll have to admit that the melody plays a much more prominent role in it than in most of the hit songs of today. There’s strong contour, momentum, and variation in this melody. Indeed, unlike the song Closer, the main reason that If You Leave Me Now was a hit is because of it’s melody.

And now, straight out of the blue, it’s time for me to stop being pretentious and start getting real. I’m abruptly signing off of this blog post, because I have a laundry list of other things to do including film clips to score, guitar solos to transcribe, and Westworld to watch. But are you still wondering why melody has diminished over time? And do want to know how my Tinder date went? And is this a complete cop out ending the blog post like this? Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion next week as these and many other questions are finally answered!!

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