Frozen Music

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Goethe said that architecture is frozen music. That’s lovely. Of course, that was before audio recording. So now, for the most part, music is frozen music. It’s only very recently in the history of music that we’ve been able to freeze music into an object. And in my life, the form of this object mattered a lot. I once bought vinyl albums and cassette tapes and there were two first songs per album, side A and side B. The energy of a first song made it stand apart from the other songs, at least in my head it did. Then the CD came along and eliminated side B and there was only one first song, and the actual number of the track that you could see prominently displayed on the CD player UI that became my index for zoning songs. Then MP3’s jumbled my sense of track order, and albums begin to feel more like a loose grouping of individual pieces rather than a conceptual whole. I could do this all day and you’re welcome to chime in. Let’s just– let’s totally hash this out on the website, but my point is this: when it comes to music, the form of the thing matters. But no effect has been as world-changing as the original innovation: freezing music in time onto a recording, where a single version of a song, a single performance of a song became the song. This inherently mutable method of communication was fundamentally changed.

John Brion: Songs are astonishing things and I also don’t think most people really even know what they are.

Roman: That’s the songwriter, composer, and producer John Brion. Now, I didn’t talk to John Bryant but I know people who did. Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot are the hosts of a radio program I’m a huge fan of called Sound Opinions. It’s a rock and roll talk show. And if certain nichey, snarky corners of the internet have darkened your concept of music journalism, well, Sound Opinions is your beacon of light, my friends. Anyway, John Brion came to WBEZ in Chicago to talk to Sound Opinions in 2006. And at the time, Brion had just produced Kanye West’s album Late Registration and he was also already well-known as a film composer of a lot of really great movies, many by Paul Thomas Anderson.

I heard the show broadcast on the WBEZ while I was sitting in my car in a parking lot of a taqueria in Logan Square, and I thought about this section of their interview, about songs versus performances at least once a month since then, for six years. But only recently did it dawn on me that this is a perfect 99% Invisible story. So here it is, John Brion on Sound Opinions on 2006.

JB: I distinguish between, for lack of better terms, I call songs and performance pieces. And what most people like are specific performances. We’ve grown up in an era of recording and you know, the very thing– one of the very things I love recording has killed people’s ability to hear songs purely as cord change, melody, and lyric. It’s a very strange and beautiful art form ’cause when it’s right, boy, do you know it. But what we have sort of lost is- I don’t know, the best example I could probably give would be Led Zeppelin. Those things are the ultimate performance pieces and I’m a big fan. I think they’re just absolutely astonishing and the sort of dynamics they had are sorely lacking in music today. Record-making is great. A true band in the sense that you really could tell who the individuals were. Remarkable thing. And I don’t consider most of those things songs. And the way I can sort of prove my point is, have you ever listened to anybody else play Led Zeppelin song and gone, “Oh, that was a great, satisfying experience,” except for Dread Zeppelin, who I love. What people like is that specific guitar sound, that specific performance in concert with that specific drum sound, with that specific drummer playing that specific part and it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful thing. They’re all different types of art and creative expression, however, if I were to sit and go, If I were to hop over to this piano and go, “This is the melody to a Led Zeppelin song [plays piano]”. And I could play 30 others. That’s the thing, I know it could sound like a snobbishness, it’s not. I’m telling you I love these records.

JD: True

John: They’re great. However, there’s a difference between that and a song, say a Gershwin song, you could actually play in the style of Led Zeppelin and have a completely satisfying experience. I do it all the time. [laughter]

JD: I want to hear that.

JB: But when you start playing Zeppelin songs say in the style of like 1920s music, suddenly it’s laid bare that it’s like, oh no it was about those people and those people in a room, and it was great, and I love it but I consider it a performance piece. And I consider a lot of rock the people listen to be performance pieces. They’re not necessarily songs. You know, I heard you had Thom Yorke here recently and there’s a guy who’s a songwriter, comes into the band and goes here’s the thing I’ve got and then they rock with holy hardness and all the greatness they’ve got with them getting in a room. I mean, that’s part of what makes a band like Radiohead stand out. When that second record came out we all collectively went, “Oh my god. Somebody who actually has songs and this guy is an amazing singer.”

JD:: It isn’t extinct yet. Or Cobain, right?

John: Right. Exactly. And I mean, okay, here, a little musicology course. Okay if you just go, “Yes, it was cool, it was punk rock, it was popular, he had It factor for days…” but if you take the average punk rock song, it is that same Led Zeppelin melody, even though they hated Zeppelin so much. [plays punk melody on piano]. It will be, you know, one of the thousand punk songs.

JD: Sure.

John: There’s a big difference between that and [plays piano]. I mean, I can sit here on grand piano playing unaffected version and we can all go, “Oh my god, yeah, that’s the best thing ever.”

JD: Yeah.

John: My spine tingles anytime I play that melody over those chord changes. That to me, Lithium is no different, it’s in the same realm as being able to go [plays piano] where probably like most people I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Lithium. I was in the back of a friend’s car and it came on, and I just freaked out. I mean, I was nearly in tears. I’m like “Oh my god! That guy’s better than everybody says.” [laughter]

Host: Yes, it’s true. Yeah.

John: But you know, it was so palpable like, that’s one of the best chord changes I’ve ever heard. It’s absolutely as good as Gershwin or Thelonious Monk, or any great thing that’s existed.

Roman: That was John Brion talking with Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot on Sound Opinions in 2006. Sound Opinions is produced by WBEZ Chicago and distributed by PRX The Public Radio Exchange. Find out more at soundopinions.org.

Comments (3)

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  1. (Sorry for necropost.)

    I sat down to essay a reaction to this interesting (thanks!) episode, but I didn’t need to, because it’s basically this: http://www.philnel.com/2014/12/05/songs/

    I.e. that this is one more useful angle in music criticism but Brion makes the case for it way more strongly than is warranted.

    I’d go on to say: although the best song-writing is by definition exceptional, very little contemporary rock is all about the performance; and that however much potential you detect, you don’t know you’ve got a great song for certain until there has been a great performance of it.

  2. Leonardo De Jesus

    Another thing to note is the original instrumentation. Changing out electric guitars for mandolins and drum kits for panderios makes a completely different experience. Some of which are worth listening to!

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