Sunday, August 5, 2012

Mage Music: Bolero, or, Haven’t I Heard This Before?

As a musician I think my greatest achievement has been to create unexpected melodies and harmonies within a rock and roll framework.
                                                                                    ~Jimmy Page, Guitar World 1993

Mage Music 14

Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in "Chilpéric," 1895–96, by
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Who doesn’t love a bolero?  It can be clothing (a short jacket with long sleeves AKA a shrug), a dance, orchestral or rock or Latin music. Whatever its form, none of it is original and - depending on who is saying - if it's music, either all or none of it is stolen.

It started with a type of dance originating in the late 1700s in Spain.  Since then, from classical music to rock, the bolero form has been created by Ravel (originally as a ballet in 1928), Chopin, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, and in modern times by Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Santana – not to mention Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in the famous Beck’s Bolero.

Often imitated – of course!

Variations on a theme are a time-honored tradition in music and the other arts.  This is because everything in human culture is built on the past achievements of others, on the shoulders of not only the giants, like those mentioned above, but also on the everyday business of normal human life.  The doings of giants are just easier to notice.

Human culture – language, the arts, science, the whole of life – is extraordinarily different today from what it was back in the day of the caveman, but the changes that got us here are not unlike the kids’ game of crack the whip:  We hold hands, we spin around and the last person is shot like a spear off into the unknown.  

So, too, the dreamers and innovators of humanity are shot off into the unknown at the end of a long chain of what has gone before them.  That means that while there has always had to be a first person to make something, whatever was created was not created in a vacuum of human achievement.  Anything that so totally new as to be unrelated to anything else would be, essentially, unrecognized, since humans (like other species) are so heavily reliant on pattern recognition to interpret what they experience that if there is no pattern to recognize, then what has been produced is… nothing.

Tricky balance

Musical advances provide a good example:  New music that is not built on the tones, rhythms and other sound qualities we already know is simply perceived as noise.  We are incapable of recognizing music until we can identify the patterns of it, and we can’t recognize the patterns until we are familiar with them.

Jimmy Page, from his very first work, has been known for his musical innovation, yet even he cannot create unexpected melodies and harmonies that are too far outside the familiar musical framework.  Too far is just too far.

Thus there is no true ripping off of musicians by musicians:  The notion of total musical originality is a fantasy, and the idea that music must be that way is a concept developed by the economics of the music industry, not by the musicians.

Musicians must stand on the shoulders of the giants who have gone before them at the same time they create new music.  The successful incremental innovations are those that achieve the tricky balance between the familiarly old and the outrageously new.  We understand the world – and beyond – through creating new patterns, and it is the joy and embracing of the unexpected within familiar frameworks that leads us to personal and cultural transformation.

Note: This is the post promised at the end of  Mage Music 12: Whence Magic and is a bonus post for August 5, 2012.

YouTube Playlist -  Bolero

Individual songs:

Ravel Bolero 1928 London Symphony Orchestra
Roy Orbison  Running Scared 1961 Orbison fans claim Becks Bolero “stole” its distinctive sound - yet look at the transcript of Ravel's Bolero, below
Jeff Beck Group  Becks Bolero  1967
Beck's Bolero Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 2009

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