History Overlapping Guitars
posted by April 8 at 10:21 AMon
I have been trying to find the connection between the “race record” underground of the late 1940s and early 50s—Muddy Waters, Lloyd Price, Wynonie Harris—and the sine wave weirdo composers—Messiaen, Pierre Schaeffer, John Cage, Boulez—who were working below the radar in their dissonant computer lab studios. These were two apparently disparate musical movements, happening at the exact same time, that both blew up the 20th Century.
Listening to a Chuck Berry CD on Sunday, I finally figured it out.
The root connection is this: Minimalism. Certainly, the Serialism experimenters and musique concrete heads set the stage for the layered minimalism of the 60s tone scientists. But Chuck Berry got there first.
Listen to the repeated lead guitar line in his 1956 hit “Around and Around.” It comes in on the first beat of the third measure as an electric response to his opening vocal, “They say the joint was rocking.” And it drags into the 1 beat of the following measure.
This lead guitar persists in different shapes throughout the whole song. When he starts singing the second verse, “Oh, it sounded so sweet,” he alters the guitar motif slightly by bluesing the second and fourth notes—I think with a half step. Then, for the third verse, “Well, the joint started rocking,” he delays the response until the 2 beat, adds the pedal tone, and just bangs out the full chord, launching into a 24-measure break. When he comes back for the 4th verse, “12 O’Clock,” the response hits from the 1 beat again. And it’s stripped back down to another lead guitar line—a combination of the motifs from the first and the second verses. This combo motif sounds like something Steve Reich or Philip Glass would do, overlapping two related lines so one is a motif and one is relegated to a background figure. Although, there’s no double tracking here, so it’s all in your head. He ends up at “But they kept on rocking,” strumming the full chord again.
And this is brilliant: Since the full chord version starts from the 2 beat, you have room to imagine the lead motif coming in on the 1 beat—even though it’s not really there. So you “hear” the guitar motif—maybe the one from the first verse, maybe the blue noted one from the second verse, maybe the combo from the 4th verse—over the chorded version. In your mind, you’re hearing three or four overlapping guitars.