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Friday, March 26, 2004


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A few days ago, in the review of the Elysian Quartet/Gabriel Prokofiev gig, I half-accidentally coined a term that I'm pretty pleased with, but which probably needs some explaining.

Back in the day, before Schoenberg had fully developed serialism, or 12-tone composition, and was writing in a free atonal style, he was still searching for a means to create large-scale musical form in the absence of traditional tonal harmony. Most of the time (as in the monodrama Erwartung) he turned to a written text around which his music could be structured, and which could support an atonal, non-harmonic musical work. But this was an unsatisfactory solution, since Schoenberg understandably wanted to be able to write purely instrumental music too. One of the interim solutions he came up with was the notion of Klangfarbenmelodie, literally tone- or sound-colour-melody. The thinking was that the individual notes of a musical line or phrase could be given particular colours; by this means, Schoenberg asserted [1], he could create "progressions of tone-colours equalling harmonic progressions in terms of logic ... Progressions of tone-colours," he went on to state, "would certainly demand constructions different from those required by progressions of tones, or of harmonies."

Schoenberg, regrettably, never gets round to fully explaining what an internal logic of tone-colour progressions might look like, but the term Klangfarbenmelodie has proved useful. In fact, the short article quoted is a rebuff by Schoenberg that Webern might have invented the idea. Webern's music, particularly his later serial work such as the Concerto for Nine Instruments, is characterised by Klangfarbenmelodie, and at times it might seem as though the term had been invented to describe his music. In late serial Webern a musical 'melody' or phrase might be shared amongst several instruments. This idea would be taken to its probably extreme by the total serial composers of of the 1950s, most notably in Stockhausen's Punkte of 1952 (a work he more-or-less disowned), which is composed entirely of isolated 'points' of sounds. The result of Klanfarbenmelodie composition is a kaleidoscopic, fractured sound world, where conventional continuities no longer exist. Structure, musical differentiation, is heard sequential, almost note by note, rather than horizontally between longer, interacting layers. The more familiar format of a melody, played on a single instrument, naturally, and an accompaniment has been abandoned; now every instrument is an equal partner in constructing a single, ever-changing continuity. If you just try listening to one instrument at a time in a piece of late Webern or early Stockhausen, the music won't make very much sense. For it to do so, you have to take an aural step backwards, take the whole in at once.

A similar effect can be heard in Timbatunes-esque stuff of the moment. Sonically everything is working towards the beat, the groove. Bass, drums, chords, melody - these distinctions no longer apply. Take 'Hey Ya', an example everybody knows, even if it's not actually a Timbaland/Neptunes job. There are a handful of elements (guitar, bass, snare) that work as one layer, certainly - but try pulling those apart. They're just components of a larger whole. Over this, you could say there's the vocal stuff (including interjections etc.), but this again is so tied into the beat that it's hard to really disassociate it (see the 'Shake it' section). We're not working with melody and accompaniment, or rap and beat, or even different voices in counterpoint. Just as Webern's Klangfarbenmelodie style conflated individual instruments into one super-instrument, so the components in the mix of 'Hey Ya' conflate into one super-beat. It's a homogenised unit. The 'Klangfarben' bit comes with the fact the it is the passing of the beat between instruments and parts that creates the texture, the overall effect of the track. So, as Klangfarbenmelodie is a melody with a shape and effect determined through shifting instrumental colours, so too Klangfarben-beat: the beat (which can be a straightforward 4/4 stomp) achieves greater definition and differentiation in the way sound is used to articulate it, to give it light, shade, variety, depth.

Just an idle thought, a way for me to quantify what distinguishes one production/song-writing style from another. Make of it what you will.

[1] see 'Anton Webern: Klangfarbenmelodie', in Style and Idea, ed. Leonard Stein (1975, rev.1984), pp.484-485

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