January 26th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The Natural Family as an integrative social force in American history

EDITORIAL The Remnant, resistant, creative minority

ENERGY POLICY Enough hot air about carbon dioxide; let's talk LPG

CANBERRA OBSERVED Federal election: the media have done our duty at the polls for us

NSW ELECTION NSW is just starting to sizzle

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Archbishop Wilson free, but trial was no witchhunt

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Awaiting Hayne: full report sure to shake finance sector

LIFE ISSUES The unvarnished truth about surrogacy

HIGHER EDUCATION Massification: that's the name of the game

SOCIETY Dover Beach: a mordant post-Christmas reflection

IRELAND TODAY Celtic Tiger changed out of all recognition

MUSIC One note does not a monotone make

CINEMA Aquaman: High fantasy in ocean depths

BOOK REVIEW Uninformed consent

BOOK REVIEW A thoroughly modern movement

BOOK REVEW The foundation of a successful society


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One note does not a monotone make

by David James

News Weekly, January 26, 2019

Roger Scruton is undoubtedly one of the best analysts of music in the world, a subtle and penetrating thinker who is able to discuss aesthetics and the complexities of the art form in exceptional depth. But he does have his blind spots, and they can be as revealing as his insights.

Jackson 5: Michael at centre

Scruton complained in an article about the deficiencies of a pop tune that he did not like. “Had they [young listeners] noticed, for example, that Lady Gaga in Poker Face stays for most of the tune on one note?” Scruton wrote. “Is that real melody? After a while they [young people] will see that they have in fact been making judgements all along – it is just that they were making the wrong ones.”

I quite agree that the Lady Gaga song is a piece of bland nothingness. But I head in a different direction from Scruton for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is not the melody that is the main effect in the song; it is the rhythm. That is not unusual. In most popular music and blues, the ability to create infectious rhythms is what primarily gives it its appeal.

The effect is especially obvious with someone like Michael Jackson, whose voice was good, but his rhythm was on a level that few have matched. To realise just how gifted Jackson was, listen to ABC, a song that he sang at age 13, with the Jackson 5. Or, even better, Give Me One More Chance.

Jackson had a young teenager’s voice, which was, quite frankly, squeaky; it was certainly not a great vocal instrument. But his rhythm was spectacularly infectious even at that early age. And his singing of the one note hook in Give Me One More Chance is brilliant; it is instantly danceable in a way that almost no contemporary pop singer is capable of. Equally, the dancing is brilliant. The African-American Jackson brothers had a natural swing that white performers can only attain, if ever, after practising long and hard.

The truth is that the really great performers in the African-based musical forms have been able to make a symphony out of one note in a manner that has never been imagined by European cultures. Europeans were later able to copy it, but it rarely sounds as authentic.

Scruton is fond of implying that European music achieved superior levels of harmonic and melodic sophistication. But the music that derives from African cultures has been superior, and substantially more refined, rhythmically. Scruton has not detected that because he is, well, European.

It is not just popular music that can employ inspired single-note playing. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis did it all the time, usually to turn the phrasing around and impose his rhythmic ideas on a piece. Listen to the end of All Blues on what is considered by many to be the greatest jazz album of all, A Kind of Blue. He plays a repeated G note, but it is far from repetitious. It not only swings in the same way that Michael Jackson did, Davis continuously shifts the rhythmic accents (placement of notes in the bar) to intensify the sense of melancholy. For that matter, the phrasing throughout Davis’ solo often centres on repeating a G note.

There is nothing in classical music that comes close to this, in part because classical music has to be thoroughly prepared beforehand and such rhythmic subtlety needs to be spontaneous or it loses its immediacy and effect. Yet when done well it is just as sublime as the journeys of great classical music.

Provided you can feel it, that is, which I suspect Scruton can’t. Yet watch the rapturous dancing of audiences at a Michael Jackson concert and it is clear that there are many who can feel it.

I also demur from Scruton when he writes off Lady Gaga. She may be extremely irritating and those sunglasses should be pulped and buried somewhere near the centre of the Earth.

But the lady can sing. Anyone who doubts that should listen to her performance of Your Song at the Grammy Tribute to Elton John. The mannerisms are a bit overdone, but the power of her voice, her breath control, her brilliant shifts of tone and her command of the melodic line are as good as it gets.

And because it is an early Elton John song, it has a delicious melody. In fact, quite enough variety and range of notes perhaps even to please Scruton.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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