What is it that makes one act more creative than another? Can we quantify ‘adventurousness’? Douglas Hofstadter once wrote an intriguing piece called Variations on a Theme are the Crux of Creativity in which he argued that the idea of the creative genius, generating wildly new ideas while we mere mortals are stuck in the same old ruts, is misleading. In his opinion, creativity is always evolutionary in nature: seeing something that already exists and coming up with variations on it. All that distinguishes the Mozarts from the Cowells is their ability to see potential variations that others might miss.
This week I’ve tried to focus on artists who took their music in unexpected new directions, opening up the creative landscape in exciting and novel ways. The results are often slightly disturbing, even jarring, but sometimes we have to leave the safe haven of everyday tonality, comfortable rhythms, familiar structures and conventional instrumentation if we are going to discover something new.
Speaking of safe havens, The Police are not generally a band you think of for musical innovation, more for well-crafted reggae beats and slightly embarrassing lyrics. But here on the Synchronicity album on Mother guitarist Andy Summers takes on the vocals and produces a dark, discordant 7/8 scream that grabs you by the gonads right from the start.
After that brief taster, something more substantial. Naturally this week’s nominations were dominated by one genre above all, the long-form LP pieces generally lumped together as “prog-rock”. To keep the playlist to a manageable length I’ve resisted including many of these pieces, but one example stands head and shoulders above the rest, Mike Oldfield’s groundbreaking Tubular Bells, which helped keep Richard Branson's fortunes alive, and was one of the must-have albums of the 70s. The version included here was recorded live at the BBC; it’s a little raw, and unlike the album has other performers than Oldfield himself, but it’s great to watch.
Pink Floyd are generally thrown in with the prog-rockers, but Pow R. Toc H. comes from their earlier psychedelic era under Syd Barratt. Only four and a half minutes long, it packs in several different musical sections, combining vocal noises, feedback and regular instruments, but coming to a surprisingly gentle finish. Then a more complex, classical kind of electronic experimentation comes from Delia Derbyshire, the genius of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, with Pot Au Feu.
Arnold Schoenberg was an early nomination for his invention of the “12-tone serialisation” technique in classical music, an ultra-austere form that rejected all conventional tonality. Thrash band 12 Ton Method took more than their name from his invention, as Crucify Me demonstrates. We follow them with the better-known Nine Inch Nails, with the ordered chaos of March Of The Pigs. What 12 Ton Method did with tonality, the Nails do with rhythm, as this song punches from beat to beat without ever settling into a single time signature.
Similar rhythmic games can be found as we return to prog-rock, of the more folky variety, featuring the unique flautistry of Ian Anderson in Jethro Tull’s magnum opus Thick as a Brick. And staying in the world of folk-rock fusion, an unnamed piece by Niladri Kumar is an intriguing blend of traditional Indian music and rock guitar. Kumar’s custom-built “Zitar” allows him to shift effortlessly between the two different modes, finishing with a superb virtuoso flourish.
Korean vocalist Youn Sun Nah featured in another list just a couple of weeks ago, nominated by yours truly. Enter Sandman is one of her best songs, a cover of a Metallica track that turns it into a brooding dreamscape featuring her trademark vocal gymnastics.
As we enter the home straight, two more gentle ambient pieces to give us a break. First DJ Shadow with Changeling, a complex blend of samples and jagged drumbeats. Then the beautiful The Other Side by Public Service Broadcasting, which uses a simple underscoring to emphasise the musicality of the calm, measured tones of the announcer of the Apollo 8 mission around the Moon.
Don’t get too comfortable. The hardest piece is still to come. See You Don’t Bump His Head by Scott Walker is… well, I’m not sure what the hell it is. But it’s great, isn’t it?
And finally, this week we lost a great genius. I can’t finish without including at least one example of how even the simplest of pieces can hide musical inventiveness. Our last piece sounds like a simple tune, but if you pay attention you’ll realise that it builds momentum and tension by rising up in key from verse to verse, until the singer is straining at the very top of her range. I’m speaking of course of Victoria Wood and her masterpiece The Ballad of Barry and Freda.
The Police: Mother
Mike Oldfield: Tubular Bells
Pink Floyd: Pow R. Toc H.
Delia Derbyshire: Pot Au Feu
12 Ton Method: Crucify Me
Nine Inch Nails: March Of The Pigs
Jethro Tull: Thick As A Brick (Part I, Piece II)
Niladri Kumar: untitled
Youn Sun Nah: Enter Sandman
DJ Shadow: Changeling
Public Service Broadcasting: The Other Side
Scott Walker: See You Don’t Bump His Head
Victoria Wood: The Ballad of Barry and Freda
Prince: Sign of the Times
Maurice Ravel: Bolero
JS Bach: Contrapunctus XII
Philip Glass: Rubric
Tanya Tagaq: Uja
Einstürzende Neubauten: Halber Mensch
Devo: Joco Homo
Lene Lovich: Bird Song
Velvet Underground: European Son
The Beatles: I Want You
Genesis: Supper's Ready
The Grateful Dead: New Potato Caboose
Brian Eno: Music For Airports
Guru’s Wildcard Pick:
Nick Pynn: SomanydynamoS
New to comment? It is quick and easy. You just need to login to Disqus once. All is explained in About/FAQs ...
Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist of songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.