Alternative Music

We have reached a point in Music History where the term ‘alternative music‘ has lost all meaning. When applied to Popular music styles, we notice that there is no definite mainstream style to be alternative to. The present diversity is so enormous that the term ‘mainstream’ has also lost all meaning. There is nothing left to rebel against. Unlike all past eras, this one has no identity. When we refer to, say, the 80s or the 90s, we have clear reference points. We instantly know which styles were alternative and which weren’t. Now we don’t have a clue- and neither will future generations looking back to this time we are living in. How has this happened and how can it be fixed?

It has happened partly because of technology in the form of the Internet. The Internet has made music into a commodity and little else. Music used to dictate youth culture and fashion. This is no longer the case. There used to be ‘pop-stars’. Real pop-stars have ceased to exist- with the possible exception of Bjork who seems to be the only artist who has somehow maintained a consistent output of genuinely alternative music. Lady Gaga might look the part but unfortunately doesn’t have the material to back it up with. The Internet has saturated us with thousands of would-be pop-stars who can barely write a decent song between them. They have no glamor- no originality- but just enough know-how to trundle out regurgitated styles that have been around a very long time. We search in vain through endless piles of dross and trash- and find nothing.

It has also happened because of what Malcolm McLaren called ‘the karaoke culture’- promoted by such TV shows as ‘The X-Factor’- where sad, starry-eyed individuals, who yearn for that short-cut to ‘fame’ and overnight success that such exposure might bring them, sing, karaoke-fashion, cover versions to millions of viewers, then subject themselves to the humiliation of a panel of musical ‘experts’. The X-factor, and similar shows now form a gigantic umbrella which has come to be known as ‘Reality TV’- a phenomenon which began in the mid 1990s and has grown steadily into the monster we now have in our midst. It teaches us that fame is a self-contained state, non-dependent upon original talent. It teaches us that celebrity can be achieved simply by being seen on camera or in the pages of a magazine or newspaper. It feeds on cruelty for the sake of cheap, tasteless entertainment. And it brainwashes us into forgetting that our culture, in terms of the development of new ideas, and of new alternative music, is grinding to a halt.

When we look to other musical styles outside of Popular music, again, we see nothing which might indicate any kind of inspirational change or meaningful development. Modern Classical music has marginalized itself in much the same way Modern Jazz has- by becoming so discordant and unpalatable for the vast majority, that very few can claim to appreciate or understand it. People still prefer the old masters to any contemporary offerings. This isn’t because the old masters had some God-given talent which no longer exists- it is because they recognized rules of harmony and knew how to use them effectively in order to resonate with human emotions.

So again, the question: how can we fix this problem? How can we breathe life into the rotting carcass of alternative music and alternative culture? We have to first understand that the current state of affairs is part of a natural process. Every natural process has a beginning, a middle, and an end. If we imagine any process as a line from A to B then we will notice that in order for that process to come to an end, there has to be one or more breaks in that line. P.D. Ouspensky, the Russian philosopher, stated: ‘There are no straight lines in Nature’. This is true in the purely physical sense: look around you- all straight lines are man-made. It is also true in the sense of natural processes. Without a break in the line, we would have non-stop earthquakes, endless tidal-waves, continuous volcanic eruptions, eternal solar eclipses- and so on.

Ouspensky demonstrated this fact through reference to musical scales and this is something you can easily try out for yourself. Play the scale of C major: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Between each step of the scale is a whole tone except for E to F (semi-tone) and B to C (semi-tone). It is the breaks in the line which define the scale’s destination. Once you hit that B note, there’s only one note you can go to: the top C which brings the scale to its natural conclusion. To further illustrate this, now play a whole-tone scale: C, D, E, Fsharp, Aflat, Bflat, C, D, E etc. In this scale there are no breaks in the line because each step is a whole tone. You will hear how the destination has disappeared. The scale could continue to eternity without any indication of it coming to an end. The same applies to the chromatic scale where, again, we have no breaks in the line- only continuous semi-tones which lead us to no discernible destination.

So what does any of this have to do with alternative music and alternative culture? As mentioned earlier, we are caught up in a natural process, a scale if you like where, in terms of the metaphor, we are stuck on the B (the penultimate note) of the scale. Nature wants to take us to that final C to end the process. In order to continue, and in doing so create new alternative music, we have to force a straight line and defy Nature. We need to make a leap for the C sharp, a semi-tone above that fateful C which Nature seeks to impose upon us. If we submit to Nature’s destination, we are doomed to stagnate, and remain stagnated.

Our straight-line solution for breaking with Nature’s dictatorial cycle we will call: ‘Straight Line Alternative Music‘ which will embody the following six principles:

 

1. Harmonic stasis

2. Mutating rhythm

3. Noise

4. Universal harmony

5. Universal rhythm

6. Sound selection

 

In defining Straight Line Alternative Music, we are not defining a style- but a framework which can be applied to any existing style to create something fresh and different. Before going into each of these principles in detail, it should be mentioned that the first three are the means available to us for creating a straight line in musical terms. The second three are ‘governing principles’ which determine how effective any of the first three might be, depending on the context in which they are applied. Despite our intention to break with Nature in creating our straight lines, we must remember that we are human-beings who instinctively respond to certain rhythms and to certain combinations of sound frequencies (i.e. harmony). In other words, we mustn’t forget that we are what we are. Music must resonate with the emotions. If it resonates with the intellect too, then fine- this could be regarded as a welcome bonus. But the intellect, though important, is very often overrated as a faculty. It is our emotions which rule us, meaning that a new style of alternative music will only make a significant impact if we can connect with it on this level.

 

1. The Principle of Harmonic Stasis: let us first revert to the whole tone scale as a means of creating a straight line: C, D, E, Fsharp, Aflat, Bflat, C, D, etc. If we re-define this as, not a scale (which by definition must involve upward or downward movement) but simply as ‘a sequence of eight notes’, then we can have the following sequence of eight: C, C, C, C, C, C, C, C. This too creates a straight line- a line without destination. We can now subdivide this principle as follows:

a) Harmonic stasis as a pedal point: in classical music terminology, a ‘pedal point’ would normally occur in a bass part of some kind. Its use can be found as far back as 16th century classical music styles. We could take our eight C notes and play each one on the first beat of the bar and around it, chord changes could occur as long as each chord harmonized with the pedal point. Each C acts like an anchor, allowing movement around it whilst retaining ‘control’ over that movement. A pedal point can take the form of a continuous drone note throughout a piece- sitar and bagpipe music being two examples of this. The Beatles song ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ features a pedal point in the form of a sitar drone, giving the song its hypnotic quality.

b) Harmonic stasis using sound frequency: if our eight-note sequence of C’s was played on a sound which was frequency-shifting or phasing, we would experience a sense of movement despite the unchanging pitch. This type of stasis can be found in electronic music of all types- using rhythmic one-note sequences which form layers of sound within any piece. In the late 1980s, there was a musical revolution of sorts, a new form of alternative music: electronic dance music. New technology allowed anyone who could get their hands on an Atari computer with a Cubase or C-Lab program, a sampler, a sound module, and a few effects pedals, to start writing their own electronic dance tracks. The software offered up to 64 tracks of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), allowing users to build up multi-layers of sound, achieving their dynamics by construction and deconstruction. Within electronic dance music there are countless examples of harmonic stasis- a one-note bass-line, a one-chord song ( Carcassette MFTG).

c) Riff-based Harmonic Stasis: where each step in the line is not one note, but a ‘cluster’ of notes. The riff, whether played on bass, guitar, or keyboard, is repeated over and over, forming a foundation around which other elements in the song can revolve. One of the very first examples of this was 70s Black American Funk, epitomized by James Brown’s hit ‘Sex Machine’ released in 1970. The bass part is a one-bar riff, as is the rhythm guitar-part. For the main song, they remain harmonically static, operating within one chord and only change up to the subdominant chord for the final ‘bridge’ section. In order for this to work, the riffs used must be of the highest quality and the rhythms must mesh together perfectly. The electronic dance music styles mentioned earlier, also used this type of stasis, usually with bass-lines which in many instances formed the main hook of the song.

 

2. The Principle of Mutating Rhythm: let us take a rhythmic pattern, 2 bars in length, played on a drum, and repeat it 4 times, making a total of 8 bars. We will call this 8 bar section ‘a cycle’. After playing, say, 4 cycles, we will add one accent to the cycle. After another 4 cycles, a second accent. After another 4 cycles, a third- and so on. This equates to an extra accent being added to the rhythmic cycle once every 32 bars. A second drummer will commence playing the same but 8 bars behind the first. A third drummer, 8 bars behind the second. A fourth drummer, 8 bars behind the third- and so on. Once the first drummer reaches a point where the rhythmic cycle has become ‘accent saturated’, he can either start to deconstruct, subtracting accents instead of adding them, or take the rhythm off in another direction altogether. The second drummer eventually does the same, then the third, the fourth, and so on. What we have here is a multi-layered rhythm which mutates so gradually, that the conscious brain cannot register the changes. It recognizes no destination. In this way we have created a second straight line through the use of mutating rhythm.

Mutating Rhythm has been around a very long time- in the form of tribal trance music. It is tried and tested as a means of inducing altered states in tribe members when taking part in a tribal ritual or ceremony. The rhythms act like a drug, intoxicating and confusing the brain until it can no longer follow its regular thought patterns. For this to occur, several hours of exposure to such rhythms would normally be required. If however, a mutating rhythm is condensed into a 3 or 4 minute piece, a lesser result is achieved, and though obviously less potent, effective nevertheless ( Krachstrasse ZNWS). During the early to mid-90s, some programmers employed this principle, though in a much more simplified version than the one described. This was dubbed ‘Trance Techno’ because of this resemblance to tribal trance music- but its effectiveness was heavily reliant upon the taking of the drug ecstasy. Aside from Trance Techno, there has been very little exploration of mutating rhythm within alternative music styles. Steve Reich, one of the few genuinely-talented Avant Gardists used mutating rhythm in his piece ‘Drumming’. Although drum sounds are the most obvious vehicle for employing this principle, there is no reason why it can’t be applied to other instruments.

 

3. The Principle of Noise: going back once more to our metaphor of the musical scale, we are going to create another straight line using ‘noise’. If we were to play all 12 major scales and all 12 harmonic minor scales, all simultaneously, both ascending and descending on 48 different instruments at different tempos, we would have something we might call ‘noise’. This could also be defined as ‘cacophony’ or even ‘sound frequency saturation’. We have removed the destination by means of sensory overload and in this way have created a third straight line.

The choices available to us in terms of different types of noise around us in the world, are vast and, if chosen carefully, can provide us with an element which can change the character of any piece of music it is applied to. Aside from the endless possibilities of electronic-generated noise, there is the whole spectrum of industrial noise, already explored to some extent by alternative German Industrial bands of the 1980s such as Einsturzen Neubauten and DAF. The Techno House programmers of the early 90s also made extensive use of both types. In more recent times, cross-over electronic bands have also explored this area ( Meadow Zero). Current ambient electronic music often uses noise, though more as a subliminal texture, rather than a main feature.

As with harmonic stasis, noise can be applied in degrees. Distortion is a common type of ‘partial noise’ and its use in various forms has characterized changing guitar sounds in all styles of Rock music. Death Metal bands distort everything- even the lead vocal- though this may be in order to disguise an inability to sing or write a semi-decent lyric. Partial noise as an effect can be produced in other ways- a decent stereo filter can offer up all kinds of possibilities. In whatever manner noise is used in the context of new alternative music, it is something which should be used tastefully and sparingly.

 

4. The Principle of Universal Harmony: this is the first of the governing principles of Straight Line Alternative Music and to some perhaps, a controversial one. Adherents of the Avant Garde (aka Mistake Music) would argue that no such limits on harmony exist but in the case of a ‘mistake musician’, the aim isn’t to write meaningful music but simply to avoid having to practise scales, arpeggios and technique. If each ‘piece’ is a wall of dissonance, then no-one is going to know whether a mistake is being made or not- perfect for the lazy musician. But with Straight Line Alternative Music, we are attempting to create something which will appeal to a much larger audience than such esoteric nonsense. All types of alternative music which have broken through and made any kind of significant impact have all stayed within certain limits of harmony.

The melodic and harmonic content of Popular songs has changed very little over a long period of time. The common chord relations of root, relative minor, subdominant and dominant remain ubiquitous. Different types of folk music from all corners of the planet often employ these chord relations despite having entirely different geography, history and cultural development from each another. All of this would suggest that some form of Universal Harmony principle forms a common thread.

As yet, modern Science has failed to explain exactly why certain combinations of sound frequencies seem to consistently resonate with our emotions. Why is it (in very simplistic terms) that a major chord (C E G) sounds ‘happy’ and a minor chord (C Eb G) sounds ‘sad’? The only difference between the chords is the 3rd of the chord which changes by just one semi-tone. Why does a major 7th (C E G B) sound so warm and flavoursome? We only know the fact, not the reason behind the fact, when it comes to such questions. We know that there are limits of dissonance but where they lie exactly, is hard to gauge. Certain composers and songwriters have pushed those limits quite successfully so that now, a major 7th as just described, is perfectly acceptable and normal- it proliferates in Black American Soul for example. A couple of centuries back it would have sounded too weird and dissonant for the average listener.

Wherever the precise boundaries lie at the current time, there is substantial circumstantial evidence to suggest that they do indeed exist in some form or another. Science has yet to provide anything objectively conclusive as to the complex workings of our emotions- how they interact with the external world remains clouded in mystery. This aside, the principle, or even just the ‘idea’ of universal harmony has to be borne in mind when creating any new alternative music style, otherwise it will be at best, marginalized, and at worst, completely ignored.

 

5. The Principle of Universal Rhythm: with our second governing principle, the same could be said as for the first- we don’t know why we respond so instantly and instinctively to certain rhythms- we just do. As a governing principle however, it does differ from Universal Harmony in the sense that the dividing lines are clear-cut: we respond to rhythms which follow divisions of either 3 or 4. The beloved, age-old waltz follows 3, as does the 6/8 soul ballad. 4/4 is by far the commonest time signature in any style of music, with the exception of the absurd (and often irritating) time-signature changes which frequently feature in some Progressive Rock and Jazz Fusion styles. The ‘4-on-the-floor’ of all House Dance music, which first appeared in 70s Disco, still remains one of the surest ways to fill up a dance-floor. Then there is the 2/4 March. The body always reacts without any hesitation- it is a deeply-embedded response that has never changed.

There have been some interesting forays into other numerical divisions of rhythm within Popular Music- The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s ‘Take Five’ in 5/4, which reached no 25 on the US Billboard chart in 1959 being one example. In this instance, it was a simple, catchy riff played on the piano combined with Paul Desmond’s sublime alto-sax melody-line which really sold the piece, not the time signature. Dave Brubeck and his band explored time signatures as part of their definitive style, sometimes employing simultaneous time-signatures to create cross-rhythms and even having a hit with a 7/4 piece ‘Unsquare Dance’. But these experiments were always made with the support of strong, simple melodies which people could understand. There have been occasional examples of time-signature changes within a popular song- and if done sparingly, can provide a quirky element which adds extra character to the song. Blondie’s 1979 no1 hit ‘Heart of Glass’ features a brief instrumental section in 6/4 which didn’t prevent it from becoming an all-time dance-floor favorite.

All alternative music styles have been dominated by 4/4, but within it, as with any other time signature, there can be all kinds of syncopation’s and different ‘feels’ to the rhythm. So often, the rhythmic ‘feel’ of a new style has been a defining element in terms of its freshness to the listener. Jamaican Reggae, American 70s Funk, Hip-Hop, Drum ‘n Bass, and all House music styles must conform to a ‘feel’ in order to fulfill their own criteria. This is the case with any style which incorporates a dance of any kind. For non-dance styles, it is only necessary to beware of over-complicated rhythms which only confuse and baffle the listener. People like to nod and tap their hands and feet to music. Excessive experimentation with rhythm, as with harmony, will only serve to alienate a potential audience.

 

6. The Principle of Sound Selection: the third governing principle is self-explanatory. Selecting the right sound for any musical part can be the difference between bringing the part to life or killing it completely. In more traditional, old-school terms, this could be called ‘orchestration’. In former times, if a master orchestrator such as Hector Berlioz or Igor Stravinsky heard a melody in his head, he would know instinctively which instrument to allocate it to. This can apply in a more modern context in terms of what we have called ‘sound selection’. It could be finding just the right combination of effects for a certain guitar part, or tweaking an oscillator on an analogue synthesizer, or even tuning a drum-kit in a particular way. Sound Selection is a governing principle because it can determine the success or failure of any style of alternative music. If applied, for example, to a mutating rhythm, we can understand its importance. If a mutating rhythm is played on a deeply-tuned floor-tom, it is going to have more impact on the listener than if it were played on a plastic table-top.

In terms of what modern technology has to offer, sound selection can be a daunting experience when faced with the insanely vast sound libraries offered by such programs as Logic, Cubase, Reason, or Abelton Live. A large majority of the sounds these libraries contain are unusable so an initial culling process upon buying such a program would seem to make sense. But even then, you are left with a bunch of sounds which everyone else is already using. Some extra work in the form of ‘sound research’ is then required to build up a personal library that is uniquely yours. This could involve taking existing sounds and processing them with effects or a good quality stereo filter. Or it could involve getting out and about in the world with a portable recording-device and a condenser microphone- ‘field research’ you might even say. In certain styles, (esp Electronica of any kind) it tends to be the people who dedicate time to this who often stand out and get noticed.

The creation of new styles of alternative music is often entirely down to sound selection. There are countless examples of this. Rock ‘n Roll, when it appeared in the late 1950s was nothing new musically- being a straight copy of 12-bar Blues, laced with hooks and riffs that had already been around for the previous 40 years or so. It was the addition of a heavy backbeat on the snare and a relatively new instrument i.e. the electric guitar, which defined Rock ‘n Roll as something fresh and different. There are also countless examples of alternative music which have stagnated precisely because they have failed to address sound selection. The failure of electronic dance music to progress anywhere meaningful over the last ten years being one such example.

 

In proposing Straight Line Alternative Music, we are not proposing a musical revolution of any kind. It is simply a practical framework which can be applied to any piece of music by using any, or all of the first three ‘straight line’ principles, providing they are governed by the second three. Current styles can trundle on as they are quite happily. People will always love Bach, or Duke Ellington, or Jimi Hendrix, or Aretha Franklin, or the Beatles. Some music is timeless and deservedly so. The question is, what current music, if any, will be defined as ‘timeless’ by future generations? All of the aforementioned musicians were able to offer something new. Before gaining widespread recognition, all of them were alternative musicians in a sense. Referring back once more to our musical scale metaphor, they were all operating during a time when the scale was still in progress, in line with a natural cycle of musical development. Today, however, we are faced with the challenge of perpetuating that cycle as it approaches its conclusion. This can be achieved with straight lines as described. Barring an alien invasion or a sudden change in world consciousness, this would seem to be the only practical solution available to us at this time.