Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Leatherface, Arnold Schoenberg, and the Reinvention of the Musical Scale Based On Emotional Resonance

Guest post from my friend Rich Robinson from EMI Music in the UK.

As it is with the joys of a good iPod song shuffle, every now and then a song you've not heard in a long time can pop up and grab you by the throat again. Last night, 'Springtime' by Leatherface was that song, the largely overlooked Sunderland punks' most battered and beautiful track. With its heavy guitars, grizzled vocals sung through gritted teeth, it's probably not what people might traditionally define as 'beauty'. But that's what really makes it resonate for me, the imperfect heart of it. The sincerity.

Despite a dedicated following stateside, Leatherface were largely unknown in their own town let alone country. Perhaps, on first listen it is aggressive and messy, but it remains a rare and genuine punk rock treat, impassioned, intelligent and emotive. Leatherface were telling stories of working class struggle and northern humor long before the Arctic Monkeys had even been born.

Amongst the new romanticism and hair metal of the 80s they went against the grain, unconventional musicians pushing their own boundaries, flouting power chords for made up melodic arpeggio's and song structures which from the underground up formed part of a scene that contributed to modern melodic rock as we know it now.

Pretty much exactly as the track finished, I happened to catch a quote on a television documentary about the composer Arnold Schoenberg, how he re-invented the musical scale. Schoenberg was different type of musician that also went against the grain. He was the Director of a Master Class in Composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin, until the election of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in 1933, when he was dismissed and forced into exile. It was against the backdrop of this struggle and his relocation to America that he developed the twelve-tone technique.

Under-appreciated in his time, it was only later that Schoenberg would come to personify pioneering innovations in atonality that would become the most polemical feature of 20th-century art music. He was considered too radical at the time; some audiences even rioted at his concerts. Even his fellow composers thought he was mad, but Schoenberg was an innovator.

A massive influence on jazz and expressional music, Schoenberg's ideas were based on an emotional resonance, he was the first modern composer to embrace ways of developing motifs without resorting to the dominance of a centralized melodic idea.

It seems we're in great debt to Arnold Schoenberg for pushing the boundaries, and making rules that others might be brave enough to break. It's a lovely cycle in music, much like world records, someone sets the pace for others to come crashing though. And you never get remembered for following what's already there.

It's not a revelation that those go against the grain always create the best art, and in fact, not much has changed between Schoenberg and any modern musicians really, it's simply about the emotional power that's channelled through sticking to your guns and making art right from the heart.

The question is who is brave enough to be next? Can't wait to find out.


Elle Fagan said...

super...but Chopin was 200 on March 1, and, since jazz and rock often take inspiration from the classics, I hope folks will find it easy to find some of the celebrations online and off for the pianist and his music. US NPR did a special on it and the Polish Cultural Institute and .mpegs of his Mazurkas, Sonatas and Polonaises can be found free online.
Have fun with sound!

Paul said...

Thanks for sharing these ideas. I feel really lucky to have been able to see Leatherface recently. Cool to see a photo I took getting some airplay on here too.