Who makes the rules for music?
“As I have no formal music training I have no idea if [these] rules (in an academic sense) exist, so I’m happily oblivious as to whether I’m breaking them, and that’s how I like it,” explains Paul Taylor from experimental noise crew Gusto Extermination Fluid. “Too much knowledge can impose restrictions on your thought process as you start thinking I can’t do that because … or I must now do this because …”
Despite making minimalist blasts of noise – using very little in the way of actual notes – sound nearly as infectious as that KLF monstrosity, Taylor insists that structure is introduced through “savage editing” rather than being planned into the composition process.
“If it sounds right, it probably is. The main thing is to ensure that things do not get boring and to keep the listener, well, listening. Build the atmosphere, chuck in odd sounds just to catch people unawares or to satisfy my own silly whims. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with repetition. I love repetition in music, it’s just not a phase I’m in at the moment. But I think a key point is contrast. Light and dark. Loud and quiet. It’s been said before, without light you don’t know how dark it is. I like my tunes to happen, to evolve, without too much conscious input. And evolve they do, usually too far, so I can’t over-emphasise the need for editing. Absolutely brutal editing. Even if it means chucking out your favourite bits. If they don’t fit the atmosphere they have to go. Mood is everything. Ah, yes, I just thought of the only real rule: write music for yourself. If it touches other people, then it means you’re not alone on this planet.”
JG Thirlwell – the Venture Bros soundtrack composer who has been releasing records for 30 years under his rock guise, Foetus – agrees with Taylor’s instinctive approach.
“I am aware of song structure and very interested in compositional form. When I’m writing in the rock/pop context I don’t dissect it too much, but intuitively know where to go.”
Thirlwell trained as a cellist, but didn’t really connect with conventional classical scores, and instead regards the studio as his instrument of choice. He spent his teens poring over the theories of John Cage and other maverick composers, and developed his unique sound from blending avant garde classical styles with post-punk experimentalism.
“I do find the verse chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus out thing played out, although it exists because it works well. But there are many other ways to go. If you look at a song like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, the verse/chorus/hook are all blended. It’s more an ABA structure, and it moves with the arrangement and orchestration.”
“‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is a well loved pop song and it moves all over the place. MGMT’s ‘Flash Delirium’ came from that school. A lot of pop now is looped based, sometimes repeating a hook for three minutes without modulation.”
Which brings us squarely back to the beginning. It was the quasi-strophic form of MGMT’s ‘Electric Feel’ that I had objected to before – its sheer repetition – which had led me to believe that the lack of variety was because MGMT just weren’t very good at writing songs. Hearing them do the opposite now isn’t going to make me start munching on my hat any time soon, but I might give it a cursory nibble.
The question is, with so little repetition, will I still remember the song tomorrow?