14 January 2012

I was challenged to defend my theory that Sufjan is a modern-day Mussorgsky

...and why, by contrast, Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor is today's Mozart. Challenge accepted!

You’re probably most familiar with Mussorgsky’s most popular piece, “Night on Bald Mountain." However, I was always drawn to his later work, “Pictures at an Exhibition” from 1874. It’s a very musically literal piece, as are most of his works, but this is about as literal as you can get: The composer walks around an art exhibition and “describes” via a series of suites the paintings he sees, and his impressions of them.

Some are light and playful (chickens or children playing), some refer to classic Russian folk tales (the Hut on Fowl’s Legs) and the magnum opus capping the piece is “The Great Gate of Kiev.” It is a grand, sprawling overture that demonstrates the opulent grandeur of the Russian aristocracy (and the gates that keep them safe).

Between the suites in a repeating motif of the Modest literally walking from one painting to the next. In this he uses an unusual gait—5/4 time signature—because at the time he was using a cane. The strange switching between time signatures not only within but between pieces reminds me so much of Sufjan’s work over the span of his career, but his own magnum opus, “Impossible Soul.”

Sufjan’s work, too, is very literal and ranges from playful (Super Sexy Woman) to folklore (John Wayne Gacy, Jr.) to the sprawling epics containing themes of life, sex, death, and the apocalypse found on the “All Delighted People” EP (Djohariah, his sister) and “The Age of Adz.” Even on the oft-overlooked electronic “Enjoy Your Rabbit,” you find interest, variety, playfulness and signature literal themes. In “Year of the Ox,” The heavy plodding beats mimic the steady plowing of a yoke of oxen.

Reznor, like Mozart, on the other hand, has had a much more expansive musical career, with better-known pieces that show emotion, but often lack distinct subject clarity. (Well, After the ‘89 debut album “Pretty Hate Machine.” Forgive an artist an album or two before finding his voice).

Perhaps this is the synesthesia talking, but I always found an unusually strong and pleasant “circular” sound pattern to both Reznor and Mozart’s work. Perhaps it is the unsurpassed classical pattern of repetition that scientists now tell us is what makes music beautiful to the ear; both are masters at it in their own time and genre.

Take “La Mer” from 1999’s “The Fragile” and My favorite classical piece of all time, “Eine Kleine Nachtmuzik” (First Movement, Allegro, the one you know) from 1787. I don’t know if you play any instruments or read sheet music, but the pattern of introduction, the lead theme, the repetition, the bridge, repetition and coda before the finale actually follow a pattern that closely mimics the 1:1.61 pattern described by DaVinci as the “golden ratio” that describes the beauty of all things in nature from seashells to the human face to the curve of a raindrop.

I myself am more open-minded and subscribe to the Mandelbrot Fractal theory of pattern in mathematics (and what is music without math?). These patters more closely fit the individual patterns-within-patterns that repeat in both “loose” and “tight” loops through both pieces. Let me explain:

Both pieces are singlular “movements” from a larger body of work. Both have elements that not mimic, but actually incorporate overall themes of pattern in tempo, instrumentation, and mood. (Not the same mood, mind you.)

While “La Mer” starts off slowly as a soft, one-bar piano doubling, then later when the bass comes in and you realise you’re at HALF-bar for that tempo, and that bassline is repeating the two-bar melody that is repeated throughout the two-disc piece. It waxes and wanes, with soft spoken French to give an intentionally covert sense of purpose—but not intentionally dark emotion.

Nachtmuzik, on the other hand, follows the same repeating patterns and even use of eighth notes in the half-bar, with a complimentary bassline that carries the listener to follow through the other four movements. Its mood, however, with supposedly boisterous, cheerful opening (supposedly describing a party on a ship at night on the Rhine) is actually anything but—the time signature is actually fewer BPM than La Mer, and if they weren’t both scored in major chords, you’d have a much different feeling about both pieces. Literal intention, however, is much more purposely obscured. They both rely on a simple 4/4 time signature, a straightforward repeating melody and much more complex harmonies.

Unlike Sufjan and Mussorgsky, whose pieces fluctuated over time and with each piece, Mozart and Reznor grew but overall remained amazingly consistent in their productions throughout their musical careers. Earliest works aside, it’s difficult to tell at what point in the musician’s career a piece was written—The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo catches most of the same solid sonic hooks as found in The Downward Spiral, when Reznor caught his foothold, roughly 15 years ago.

Mussorgsky - Great Gate of Kiev.m4p

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