While listening to NPR’s review of guitarist Sharon Isbin’s latest release Journey to the New World the other day, I was reminded of something Ernie once suggested during a discussion on the composer’s role in popular music. Isbin’s album, which also features performances by Joan Baez and Mark O’Connor, presents a new composition and a world premiere recording by the late British composer John Duarte. Entitled Joan Baez Suite, Opus 144, the piece includes songs Joan Baez either wrote or helped make famous including The House of the Rising Sun, The Lily of the West, The Unquiet Grave, Silkie, and Where Have All The Flowers Gone. But instead of presenting these songs in familiar form, Duarte used them as fodder for something entirely new, discovering previously hidden musical secrets of these well-worn tunes by experimenting and altering the chords, the rhythms, and even the melodies themselves.
Ernie’s advice? Take a popular song and develop it into an extended composition. Starting with a simple theme, a composer can construct many variations, massaging a melody into new forms as well as altering the environment, or harmony, it lives in. Duarte seems to have done just that with these popular melodies, though it’s not a new idea. Swing band leaders and arrangers sustained successful careers by taking familiar songs and giving them a distinctive new twist. Even the great composers wrote compositions based on borrowed tunes, like Mozart’s Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman” [Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star].
Though a tried and true idea, it’s one I’d like to see more of in contemporary pop. Too much today’s music is centered around abandoned good starts, or “hooks”. Sure, a hook is a great device to grab the attention of your audience, but why be satisfied with the cut-and-paste repetition we’ve grown so accustomed to? Why not try altering the hook every time it comes around again? Change the chord progression? Discover a pathway to a new key? Turn it on it’s head and play it backward? Personally, I’d be more interested in listening to the pop music community if they spent less energy on the superficial and devoted more effort toward uncovering the creative roadways aching to be discovered.