A couple of years ago I ranted here about the popular usage of the word song to connote all forms of music. I continue to feel very strongly about this, and perhaps even more so, after devoting a majority of my listening over the past week to—well—songs.
I’ve been on a bit of an art song binge as of late—mostly French stuff: Debussy (accompanied on a period Érard); Gabriel Fauré (which much of the time seems wonderfully proto-postminimalist); some Messiaen (wow, the harmonies); Poulenc (ditto); and an amazing song by Emmanuel Chabrier for voice, piano, and a bassoon thrown in for good measure. Plus, just to keep things varied, I also either listened to, sang, and/or played through a smattering of German, Russian, American, and English art songs; some of Sarah Vaughan’s earliest recordings; songs from Willie Colón’s 1984 album Criollo (which he told me I’d never find when I talked to him, but I did); and, just to shake things up a bit, everything on The Stranglers’ 1977 LP No More Heroes, which was the first British punk album ever released.
Although there’s quite a significant amount of stylistic difference between salsa, jazz, rock, and German lieder (and, for the matter, even between impressionism and what the folks in Les Six were up to), there’s a common ground to all of this material when examined through the specific structural lens of songwriting. Each of the things I listened to was a carefully crafted miniature, each containing memorable hooks and succinct transitions—after all each needed to get their message across in only a matter of a few minutes. And each was a direct response to language, a fundamental element to songwriting which can make it a truly transcendent idiom when it works.
I also listened to two EPs by the math rock band Battles. The textures, chromaticism, and rhythmic complexity of their instrumental music, which sometimes went on for a seeming infinity, was thoroughly mesmerizing; totally my sonic cup of tea. However, when I looked at the CD booklet to find out more about what I had just heard, I saw a reference on the disc to their songs. That was the one thing that the music could not be called—songs. I also listened to the four side-long tracks of the American drone metal band Sunn O))))’s LP only Dømkirke, amazing live 2008 performances recorded in a cathedral in Bergen, Norway. Happily I didn’t notice a reference to “songs” on their album. Indeed, what they were able to conjure up with only a few retuned electric instruments came closer in impact to a symphony.
Mahler famously only composed songs and symphonies. Songs are remarkably personal and intimate, even the Stranglers’ growls. Symphonies and other large scale forms are the sonic equivalent of novels, sprawling narratives that conjure worlds. Both are valid forms of expression, and both capable of transmitting life-changing experiences to listeners, but they are quite different.