The Music Meme: Day 5

Day 5: A song that has a new meaning to you every time you hear it

After a fairly simple prompt yesterday, this one's a bit trickier, which is why my choice may seem a bit puzzling at first. Allow me to explain:

Songs can definitely shift meaning, particularly as the listener is exposed to new ideas and experiences. A good example of this would be Queen's song "'39"  from A Night at the Opera. When I first gave a listen to the album, I loved this song's catchiness, its thumping acoustic bass, and its blend of harmonies and chromatic shifts, but the lyrics, as best I could tell, were pretty nonsensical.

In the year of '39 came a ship in from the blue
The volunteers came home that day
And they bring good news of a world so newly born
Though their hearts so heavily weigh

This didn't stop me from enjoying the lyrics--I listen to Yes, for god's sake--but I basically registered them as I do most Yes lyrics: pretty phonetic arrangements intended to highlight the music's features, rather than to impart any kind of meaning.

Not until I had the good fortune to host Scott McCloud as a guest at Woodberry did I learn how wrong I'd been. Had I taken into consideration what I knew about guitarist and songwriter Brian May--namely, that he was a trained astrophysicist--perhaps the truth would have struck me sooner, but as it was, McCloud had to lay it out for me directly: it's a song about Einstein's Twin Paradox. 

For so many years have gone, though I'm older but a year
Your mother's eyes from your eyes cry to me.

The "volunteers" have volunteered to fly their ship out into the universe in search of a new planet to inhabit, but their great speed has had the relativistic effect that Einstein predicted: they've aged only a year, while back home, a full century has gone by. (It's still the year of '39 when they return; note the absence of the digits indicating the century.) 

Obviously, this information changed the song for me entirely: instead of a pleasant ditty, it was now a poignant tale of sacrifice, of love lost and home abandoned, and I can never hear it the way I once did.

But most songs don't change that radically. Lyrics tend to serve as an anchor, keeping the song's interpretation from drifting too far away from the literal meaning, and even extended metaphor doesn't change much from one listen to another. (That Aerosmith song you heard in 1975? It's still about sex. Trust me.) Thus, when it came time for me to consider a song that changes EVERY time I hear it, I pretty much knew it would be a song where lyrics weren't a problem.

And that brings me to "The Grid." This is the longest section of one of my favorite pieces of music, Philip Glass's score for the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi. The film is a wonder, containing no actors, no dialogue, and no real story. Other than the final title cards that define the title (a Hopi word meaning, roughly, "Life out of balance.") and translate some Hopi lyrics sung in the film, there aren't even any words in it. (Okay, there's a bit of archival footage featuring Lou Dobbs and Ted Koppel.) Instead, we get images, many in extreme slow motion, others in rapid-fire stop-motion, of various scenes, movements, and phenomena: clouds moving across a vast desert landscape, car headlights in a traffic grid, customers moving through checkout lanes, a rocket blasting into the sky on a pillar of flame. It's beautiful, and hypnotic, and often disturbing, and it's all held together by Glass.

"The Grid" is a building storm of threes, beginning with long, mournful, drawn-out horn notes, then punctuated by sharp peppery trumpets, a chord change, a building volume, and then suddenly transformed by a swirl of rapid-fire flutes and organ triplets. Synthesizers leap in, sometimes accelerating the pace, sometimes deliberately dragging it back. Then massed human voices join in, in figures of six notes, then three... and underneath, the keyboards continue to flow. It's a magnificent exercise in minimalism, a set of very simple patterns that combine into something intricate and shifting and grand. At over 20 minutes, the piece is simultaneously massive enough to demand your entire attention and yet detailed enough to reward your scrutiny. As you concentrate more on the pieces, you are drawn in toward the elements of simplicity, but when you allow yourself to listen to the combinations of those elements, the variable nature of the whole becomes more and more fascinating. It's a fugue of fugues, a Mandelbrot set of three-note figures, recursive and beautiful. I haven't seen the film in years, but on those occasions when I want to listen to music while I write, Glass's album is almost always among the first titles I will select.

And what comes from listening to it? Something different. Every time.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on August 10, 2017 12:06 PM.

The Music Meme: Day 4 was the previous entry in this blog.

The Music Meme: Day 6 is the next entry in this blog.

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