By Chris Connolly
Writing about music, Elvis Costello once famously quipped, is like dancing about architecture.
This anti-art critic zinger, well-worn though it is in music circles, would seem to undercut the value of a talk like that given by the well-respected New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, called “The Lamento Sessions: Bass Lines of Music History,” and held at the National Arts Centre this past Sunday. Then again, how else but through a thoughtful historical critique would you be able to get to the bottom of this doozie of a thought experiment:
What would happen if a time machine were to bring together some late 16th-century Spanish musicians, a continuo section led by Bach, players from Duke Ellington’s 1940s band, and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones?
According to Mr. Ross, who was marking his first appearance in Canada: “They might, after a minute or two of confusion, find common ground.”
It’s that type of left-field historical enquiry that allowed Mr. Ross to connect the dots across generations and geographies of musicians in order to illuminate how recurring motifs, riffs and basslines have peppered the Western cannon from Bach and Monteverdi to Bob Dylan and Mary Poppins. (By his own admission, he was not able to explore enough world music to make them a convincing part of his thesis.)
Alex Ross looks at three major musical motifs over a 400-odd year period to illustrate the continuity of musical expression despite the variations imposed on it by changing narratives and human creativity. First, the Chacona, a dance-song originating in 16th century Spain, but given new expression through the 17th and 18th century in the works of composers like Monteverdi and Bach. Second, the Lamento, the depressed kid-brother of the Chacona, whose lamenting (duh!) tonal descent emerged in as varied styles as Eastern European folk music, Elizabethan lute pieces, flamenco guitar and Tchaikovsky. Finally, Mr. Ross brings us up to the 20th century, and shows us how the walking basslines of early blues musicians like Willie Brown and Skip James used similar musical phrasings which persisted into the modern era of jazz, rock and R&B (think “Dazed and Confused” by Zeppelin or “Hit the Road, Jack” by Ray Charles).
The talk is an adaptation of a chapter from his recently-released book Listen to This, his second since the widely-regarded The Rest is Noise. The book connects a scattered series of essays such as this one, which collectively form a fabric that seems to try to offer an alternative to the straight-jacket of modern genre posturing. (Full disclosure: I say “seems”, because I haven’t read more than a few excerpts.) In his talk at least, Mr. Ross flits across eras and continents with closed eyes and the wave of his imaginary conductors baton.
In the end, he carefully constructs a musical history of how ideas bounce off of each other and ripple on into infinity. In a way, it’s his own personal music chaos theory, played out like a sort of iPod shuffle playlist spanning all of Western music history, and narrated by one of the most knowledgeable music history buffs in the world. A lot of the time, it left me feeling scattered, humble, and more than a little overwhelmed—but when he hit play, his eyes closed and his hand wafted oh-so-gently back and forth to the music, I couldn’t help but share in his sense of serene connection with the crazy, incomprehensible jumble that is music history—or, hell, human history. So even though I was at first confused by why he would combine the puzzle pieces from all those different musical boxes into one big cacophonous pile, once I humoured him and went along with the effort, I was pretty amazed to find that the pieces not only fit together, but took on a new and unexpected big picture.