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David Toop on Witness

Can I Get a Witness?

David Toop

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Last September I was infected with a particularly deadly virus, an earworm known to medical science as “Moves Like Jagger”, traceable to a Los Angeles band called Maroon 5. Like an auditory form of athlete’s foot, this was picked up at the gym and persisted for many months due to the overwhelming global spread of the bug. Perhaps the worst part of the disease was its recurrent effects, not unlike malaria. The whistled melody of the intro would surface in my mind at the most inappropriate moments, stranding me in a
sequence of musical pitches whose bright positivism turned me inexorably to the darkside.

Oliver Sacks writes about earworms (or as he calls them, brainworms), along with sticky music and catchy tunes in Musicophilia, his study of music and the brain. He quotes Mark Twain’s short story, A Literary Nightmare, in which the narrator becomes possessed by a ‘relentless jingle’, an unshakable tune so infectious that his old friend the pastor catches it and passes it on to his entire congregation. Sacks, who calls this “the echoic or automatic or compulsive repetition of words and phrases”, finds a close link between the pathological and the normal in this maddening state, something not so different from the sudden-onset seizures of epilepsy that can re-ignite without warning.

But as he also points out, the ubiquitous availability of music in the 21st century makes our sensitive auditory systems vulnerable to the stickiness of repetitious melody. From the point of view of the composer or artist, an earworm is just another way to describe a hit record.“Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, Kylie Minogue sang, and when she uses the word “boy” you know she is also referring to the melody of the song, a near-monotone of a melody that doesn’t need words other than “lalala lalalalala” to embed themselves in the brain for a lifetime.

Recently I was alerted through a typical Facebook ‘share’ to a wonderful version of Sade’s “Smooth Operator”, played as an  instrumental by a traditional music group from Azerbaijan. Clearly it’s a song that is so familiar by now and so easy on the ear that it could almost pass for birdsong but the unfamiliar textures and sultry edge of the Azerbaijan version bring it back to life. Melodies are remarkably persistent in that way. Years ago I was given a cassette from Thailand, a cover version of Kraftwerk’s “The Model”, barely recognizable through a makeover as luktung, a style of country pop that dominates the music scene in Thailand. Like the game of Chinese whispers, some semblance of the original remains as a meme yet through a rapid mutation to suit new environmental conditions, all of the meaning associated with German electro-pop has been replaced by an entirely different aesthetic.

This is not unlike myths or stories that evolve in order to stay relevant to modernizing forces in society – the kind of myths analysed in Joseph Campbell’s book – The Hero With a Thousand Faces – in which a hero is called to adventure, refuses the call, receives supernatural aid, undergoes ordeals and achieves atonement with the father. This cycle, described by Campbell as ‘the adventure of the hero’, gave director George Lucas a narrative thread to pull together all the disparate material he had written for a film later known as Star Wars.

Within oral tradition, a storyteller is a witness, a guardian of narratives that may be spoken or sung but must be passed on to other witnesses in order to stay alive. Languages themselves can fade into oblivion (a fate commemorated in Susan Hiller’s poignant work from 2007, The Last Silent Movie, in which the words of dead or nearly extinct languages appear on a black screen and are heard in the room). Many songs integrate that ancient need to be heard and used into their lyric. Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” drew upon the exhortations of a preacher in church but since his subject was secular – disappointment in love – he expanded the imaginary congregation to include all potential listeners. It was a clever trick because human beings will naturally respond to this archetypal image, the storyteller by the fire, drawing in an audience to the centre of an unfolding narrative.

Music is fascinating to sciences associated with memory because it can survive intact even in people suffering apparently total  amnesia, dementia or Alzheimer’s. Philip Ball, author of The Music Instinct, describes the strength of human memory as an astonishing recall of the big picture, those patterns and similarities that can be grouped together by a process known as chunking.“Chunking is vital for cognition of music,” he writes.“If we had to encode it in our brains note by note, we’d struggle to make sense of anything more complex than the simplest children’s songs.” Because of this seemingly preternatural recall it is possible for a classical pianist to play a lengthy piano concerto from memory, for a DJ to select exactly the right track at exactly the right moment for the dancefloor, for an audience at a rock festival to recognize a song from even the tiniest fragment of an intro, for a child to join in a singsong in a toddlers’ music group and for an elderly person who has seemingly disengaged from the world to suddenly interact with others, to show  excitement and vitality, when music from their past is played back to them.

In this sense music is a binding force in society, a continuity both for individuals and their personal history and for the rituals of communities. Melodies can be knocked out of shape, slowed down, speeded up or dressed up, subjected to any number of mutations, borrowings, disguises, hybridisations and humiliations and yet transfer ancient meanings across generations. Neil Young’s recent album, Americana, does exactly that. The songs were chosen because he had heard them as a child growing up in Canada, or come across them during the folk revival of the early 1960s. Somehow it’s impossible to imagine much of a place in the 21st century for a 19th century minstrel song like “Oh, Susanna” or a folk song like “Tom Dooley” which commemorates a North Carolina murder from 1866, yet Young and the band, Crazy Horse, crank up the distortion to 11, bend the melodies away from their major scale jauntiness and make a surprisingly contemporary noise out of songs seemingly beaten lifeless by their passage through easy listening, children’s entertainers, pop-country, barbershop, brass bands, The Singing Dogs and The Simpsons.

Over the past thirty years, innovations in music technology and music making have encouraged the evolution of a very different kind of folk music, transmitted and transformed through the release of recordings. Writing an essay last year for Yellow Magic Orchestra, for a souvenir book printed for sale on their American tour, I came across a track made in Chicago, Arpebu’s “Munsta from Kavain Space”. The style of the music was known as footwork or juke – experimental, electronic, minimalist and made exclusively for young dancers on Chicago’s South Side – yet it sampled a single bleep from YMO’s “Computer Game: ‘Theme From the Circus’”, released on the Japanese group’s first album back in 1979 (probably before Arpebu, the so-called godfather of footwork, was born).

This made me wonder why somebody would go to the trouble of sampling a bleep that most people won’t recognize. After all, bleeps are the easiest sound in the world to make with a computer or a phone. The answer, of course, is that there is a long history to that particular bleep. Those who do spot it will nod their heads sagely as witnesses who recognize the significance of its path through techno-pop, hip-hop, techno, house and all the other dance music genres that have followed. The context changes but the ancestral bleep is like an ancient Chinese vase, making its way through centuries of change.

Sampling of a more recognizable nature has provoked a lot of copyright issues, which raises an interesting question. What is a song? We might think of a song simply as a melody but the ‘songness’ of a song, the element that sticks in the memory, is often more elusive or complicated than that. A good example of a court case that exposed this difficulty is the action brought by Monty Norman against the Sunday Times. In 2001, Norman was awarded libel damages of £30,000 because an article in the paper claimed he was not the composer of the James Bond theme. Most people associate the theme with the late John Barry, famous for many film scores, composer for 11 of the James Bond films and responsible for the blueprint version of the theme, a hit single recorded by the John Barry Seven in 1962. Norman had written a simple song for an unsuccessful musical and was able to convince a jury that the three notes of this song constituted the James Bond theme. John Barry was also in court, but despite proving that those elements that made the song so compulsive – its dramatic arrangement, its suspenseful intro, its innovative orchestration – were either his or were borrowed from standard dance band riffs he was outflanked by musicological evidence that claimed the supremacy of the notes.

This, it seems to me, is the point on which Scanner’s Witness project turns. He has written a memorable melody (not an easy job) but what matters is what happens next – how it can be transformed through genre, style, interpretation, elaboration, maybe even  misunderstanding, and yet retain its identity. Although we hear melodies in much the same way as each other (perhaps the ultimate proof that life is actually not a dream) they are still subject to remarkable differences of interpretation. This is akin to the Rashomon effect, named after Akira Kurosawa’s film, Rashomon, in which the circumstances of a crime are recounted by witnesses in very different ways.

As Kurosawa asks, what is the real story, after every witness has given evidence according to their own self-serving and highly subjective perception of an event? A narrative demands some resolution but with song, there is no real story. A sequence of 13 notes (conforming to what ethnomusicologist Curt Sachs called a “tumbling strain”) taken from Tarrega’s Gran Vals, composed in 1902, became the first identifiable musical ring tone for a mobile phone in 1994. There is no logical link; only the compulsive signature of instantly identifiable and almost frighteningly memorable melody. Another sequence of notes –“My Way”, perhaps, may become one person’s karaoke night speciality, another’s funeral music. Both acquire the characteristic of disease for inadvertent listeners yet they also symbolize the universality and communality of music. They are memory itself, embedding themselves in the workings of the digital age yet as capable as the insects of surviving when all else collapses around them. Despite the transience of sound, perpetually vanishing in time, perhaps melodies will silently continue as final witnesses to human existence on earth.

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