Paul Jackson Music

Paul Jackson Music

Thursday, 13 June 2013

#8 Musical 'moments'

Among the many pop records I like there are a select few that contain a particular moment which I like to call… Well I don’t actually know what to call it really. It’s a peak point. A lift. Or maybe I should just call it ‘the moment’. It’s the point when there is some change or surge in the musical recording, arrangement and performance that raises the goose bumps and ‘shivers the spine’. It’s not something that occurs in all my favourite songs, and it’s not always something that I look for in a record. But when I find it, it’s hard not to keep going back to the beginning of the song and listening to it again. And regardless of how many times you’ve heard the song, the effect is always… always the same. It’s not specifically always connected with the composition, or a particular arrangement of the song, but for me it’s in the recorded and mixed version of a particular performance or studio production. The same band may perform the song live but I won’t always get that ‘moment’ in the same way because I can’t help comparing it to the version on the record.
The ‘moment’ can usually be a mixture of a familiar melody and chord change coming back in a bigger arrangement, or even just a key change, or sometimes something new happening. The ‘moment’ only works in context of the record for me. Jumping to that point in the song, regardless of how well you know it, never results in the full goose bump effect. It’s important to hear it at the moment it’s placed in the song knowing what it has followed. Context is key. 

A few of my current favourite ‘moments’ of ‘piloerection’, I believe is the technical term, are below.

The Divine Comedy “Generation Sex”  
This driving pop tune has a great arrangement throughout of brass, organ, timpani, harp and band that builds and sweeps along. If there are strings in the main part of the song, I can’t really hear them. But when the song drops back to the sampled speaking, there then occurs at 2.23 (on this linked version) a big surge of orchestra with strings high up in the air right at the foreground with the guitar solo. The whole coda then goes through a new chord sequence before bringing the track to a close.  Every time I hear the record, at a suitable volume,  2.23 is the ‘moment’ for me.

Pet Shop Boys “Left To My Own Devices”
In 1988, Neil and Chris teamed up with Trevor Horn for this lavish production of symphonic house pop with Richard Niles conducting a huge orchestra over multiple layers of sequencer lines. Anyone who knows this record must surely know ‘the moment’ I’m going to talk about.
After an orchestral introduction, the track kicks into a dance pop track with orchestral elements sitting in the background until the big orchestral break over a VI – VII – I chord progression (always a winner) swoops into action (2.37 on the linked file).
Pet Shop Boys sample this moment for their live concerts when they perform this as it’s such an important part of the song. Except in 2004, at the Trevor Horn 25th anniversary concert, they performed it with Trevor Horn’s band and full orchestra. So all aspects of the arrangement including a lot of the musicians and singers on the record were there in full glory.

Marc Almond “My Hand Over My Heart” 
Staying with Trevor Horn, he produced this track for Marc Almond in 1991 for the album Tenement Symphony. There are actually a couple of ‘moments’ in this. One is just simply a key change. The song is so full of orchestral colour as well as a choir that a surge in the arrangement doesn’t seem possible. Surely there’s no room! But a big keychange moment on a repeated chorus takes the track somewhere and my neck hairs are at attention. (3.20). The other ‘moment’ for me isn’t actually a surge in the music but almost the other way. Following what sounds like a big finale landing on the biggest orchestral and choral chord in pop history, the track kicks back in for a more laid back instrumental outro moving through various chords. (4.16)

The Divine Comedy “Our Mutual Friend” 
Returning to The Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon and Joby Talbot being masters of the orchestral pop arrangement, this song not only contains a goose bump ’moment’ but can often go hand in hand with an assault on the tear ducts. The whole arrangement from start to finish is so beautiful and pulls the heartstrings that you know you’re going to be in trouble should a ‘moment’ occurs. And it’s the orchestral high register strings and mid-range horns that do the job (3.44).

Adam And The Ants “Scorpios”
This is actually mainly for a one bar drum solo that leads into a short instrumental coda of the song. The whole song has an amazing brass and flute led arrangement and sounds like no other pop record I’ve ever heard. The record company wanted it to be a single but Adam couldn’t envisage a video or visual side to the song enough. The true visionary he is. So it remained only an album track, but what an opener to an album. The only live version of this I’ve heard doesn’t feature an orchestra so the ‘moment’ occurs only on this recording (2.28). It’s a fleeting moment but it does the job.

Benjamin Britten “Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra”
Now I’ve been saying that ‘the moment’ for me is connected with the recording and arrangement as much as the composition. When it comes to ‘classical works’ (in the general sense), these can be performed, interpreted and arranged in many different, and often subtle, ways depending on the choice of orchestral players, conductor and, when it comes to sound balance, the venue. This is a piece I first heard as a teenager and I’ve loved it ever since. The version I first heard and continue to play is the recording of Benjamin Britten conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. That is the version embedded in me that I can’t help but compare other versions to. So for me the ‘moment’ occurs on that recording. All the performances of it I’ve heard over the years either on record or in concert are aiming for the big finale in much the same way, but there’s something about the balance and mix of instruments on that first recorded version I heard that remains definitive for me. By comparison, other versions may be too fast in some places, the brass may be dominating too much in one part, the sound of the horns isn’t the same… all sorts of things jump out to me as being markedly different from the Britten recording.  The piece is quite a bit longer than the other examples above and the only version I could find close to it is in two parts on YouTube. I can’t find a link to the actual Britten recording and therefore I can’t point you to what is ‘the moment’ for me, but this version conducted by Michael Tilson-Thomas does a pretty good job. It is a little distorted but the excitement shines through I feel.
The piece opens with an arrangement of Purcell’s majestic Rondo theme before Britten takes you through various orchestral sections for variations on the theme and general 'playing-about'. Then at 5.31 (of part 2) we get the Fugue by Britten starting with piccolo and building up bit by bit until the full orchestra is unleashed into one big party. Then at 7.24, the 'moment' occurs where underneath this energetic and fast paced orchestral fugue, the brass come in with a rousing reprise of the Purcell theme.  The time passed between the introduction and this point is quite important as the familiarity of the repeated main theme, after such a lengthy journey through variations, is essential for its effect on my being.

Part 1

Part 2

So there are just a few moments, peaks, high-points, that occur on a selection of records I enjoy listening to. It’s not an integral part of whether I like a record or not, as a lot of my favourite records don’t have anything like it. And I wouldn’t want every record to have a ‘moment’ either. I like it being just a special occurrence that pops up every now and then on a record. Appreciated in small doses with some element of surprise.