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Thursday, October 06, 2005

A Chain Of Musical Continuity

When I was a music student at UC Berkeley in the mid-nineties, I was exposed to a huge amount music through a series of music history courses. I came away from that experience with a revelation that has shaped my enjoyment of music ever since. Since there are only so many ways to arrange the twelve notes that we have available in western music, our art relies (to a much larger degree than most serious music fans would like to admit) on a constant recycling and reinventing of themes, styles, lyrics, and orchestrations, of musical and programmatic material of all kinds. No work of art is created in a vacuum; every piece of music that has ever been written has been influenced by music previously heard by the composer (and the listener's perception of a piece is similarly shaped by his or her listening history). Acknowledging this phenomenon creates a chain of musical continuity that flies in the face of the much-revered critical holy grail of authorial "originality", but can add greatly to one's enjoyment and understanding of music in much the same way an understanding of history can shed light on the current events of the day.

There is one accidental discovery in particular that fueled my drive to understand these connections of musical reoccurrence.

Now, I must confess that back in those college days I was a rather clumsily spooky fellow, and as such I was intimately acquainted with Nine Inch Nail's The Downward Spiral (much to the chagrin of my dorm roommate, who became born again after living with me for two weeks... but that's another story).

The Downward Spiral
has a tense, descending motif (a musical element, in this case melodic, that is repeated or evoked throughout the composition) running through the album that has always sounded to me like a melodic downward spiral. Compare it to this passage from Henry Purcell's 1689 opera Dido and Aeneas. No, it is not exactly the same, but the resemblance is striking. Our professor told the class that this passage is an old melody, not entirely original to the Purcell, meant to evoke despair. Imagine my delight when I, giggling at the reference I had made for an uncomprehending professor, received an A on our exam for my description of the passage as a "downward spiral of despair and resignation."

My point is not that Trent Reznor "ripped off" the theme for what many argue is his finest album. I would argue that this debate is inconsequential, and regardless it is highly unlikely that I'll ever get a chance to ask Mr. Reznor if he's even consciously heard the Purcell. For whatever reason the connection between the two pieces of music undeniably exists -- the musical tradition that gave us Henry Purcell also gave birth to Nine Inch Nails. Recognizing and embracing this continuity (that's intertextuality for the poststructuralists out there) can add a richness to your musical life that considering works as discrete, closed-off, lonely, individual structures, cannot.

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