The recent ballyhoo about Twin Peaks: The Return‘s inclusion in the Sight & Sound (the British Film Institute’s flagship publication) best of 2017 list has sparked much debate. Is it a film? Is it a TV series? Does it straddle a line? Definitively, the answers to those questions would appear to be “no”, “yes”, and “no”. Matt Zoller Seitz, editor-in-chief of the Roger Ebert site, which still publishes reviews despite its namesake being very much incapable of watching anything, much less writing about it (of all the categorical boundaries creative work may straddle, that between the penhands of the living and those of the dead may be, in the framework of this discussion, the most perverse), gives a thorough and well reasoned argument against the inclusion of David Lynch’s possible magnum opus in such lists on Twitter, and criticises the snobbish outlook that places the cinematic feature above the serial drama on the ladder of cultural superiority as the real reason for its lofty No. 2 spot on the S&S list. And I can’t help but agree. Television as a platform for high quality, mature, even artistic works has become normalised in our time. So many seasons of The Sopranos, of Mad Men, of Breaking Bad, and now a third of Twin Peaks, have taken what was once the idiot box and turned it into a place for serious art, allegedly. Lynch himself acknowledges this. Variations on a theme though they may be, plenty of interviews during and after The Return‘s unfolding have shown this much: the pop surrealist auteur views television as “the new art house”, and bemoans cinema’s present condition; he loves continuing stories, and he wants to do more—television, not necessarily Twin Peaks. But for all this, the point of contention: Lynch described his latest work as a movie, or rather, he described the shooting process as being akin to one long movie, but we must conflate the two and drag him too into this snob-callout-fest. (For the record: I do not accuse Mr Seitz specifically of this, he was brought up in the first place merely because his discussion is the inspiration—or impetus, if you like—for this article.) S&S editor Nick James has been forthcoming, however, in noting that the list this year, perhaps in recognition of the fact that television isn’t just episodic sitcoms and soaps anymore, allowed “any moving image work on any platform” to be voted for.
All that and what am I getting at? I don’t normally write about film or television. Actually I almost never write about film or television. And I am not breaking that habit with this article. No, I bring up the Twin Peaks snob talk for a simple reason: it mirrors so closely a discussion, or category of discussions, that I have had many many times in relation to classical music and its supposed heirs in the modern day. Film soundtracks, video game soundtracks, and metal music have their legions of fans, and if there’s any one thing to be noted as being common to any “fandom” it is the mass insecurity of its constituents. Recent Szechuan sauce inspired madness may be a particularly ugly and prominent display of such insecurity, but it manifests in smaller, slightly less vulgar forms on a frequent basis. In the case of our three subjects, it is the claim to classical ancestry, like the internet’s probably largely phony white supremacist contingent claiming their would-be Aryan purity, that lies at the root of these ladder-climbing vines, and that is what I address in these paragraphs.
Classical music’s history of exclusivity, its being for a cultural elite, is often unspoken but very much felt in the popular consciousness. Anything beyond the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, repackaged as a soundbite or—shudder—a disco remix, is art wanker country. Smart people in smart dress sipping smart drinks in smart environs, moneyed as Summer days in the extreme north are long, armed with a sizeable payload of razor-wit quips on a range of smart topics destined for timely dispensation during dinner parties—ah yes, that is classical music. While our technologies and networks thereof give us ease of access to something approaching the ever increasing sum total of human creative endeavour, inconceivable in the time of Mozart, our imaginations have yet to begin playing catch-up. Classical music, at least, is still for them, not for all. This sadly also exhibits itself among plenty of “fans” of classical music, those among us who took the “can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach to the problem, and now imagine themselves players in that very smart scene described above. That classical music is the jurisdiction of an elite is inarguable, that it ought to be is very much contestable and very much should be contested. But who will contest? Certainly not those who believe that it is a dead art form, the Latin of musical traditions. No, they will instead lobby for its replacement.
Thus we have our three sprightly competitors, tanned and ready to do battle for the imaginary throne. By dint of seniority it falls to the film score to first undergo the rigmarole of being found wanting. Of all three it has the strongest connection to classical music. We can trace a direct line from the Wagnerian endless melody to the classic Hollywood sound through Wolfgang Korngold. Korngold was an Austrian child prodigy, famous in Vienna before he hit puberty, and in Europe generally by his twenties, as a composer of ballet scores and for a piano sonata. While his most famous concert works today (the Violin Concerto and Symphony in particular) were composed in his later years, he is best known, or at least most profoundly osmotic in influence, by his Hollywood career, which shaped and solidified the sound we instantly associate with Old Hollywood. Melodramatic, harmonically convulsive, gushing wounds of Germanic late romanticism, divorced from the expansive but rigorously conceived forms of Mahler, which in hindsight seem the only way to contain such a turbulent language (Schoenberg very quickly realised that the adaptations necessary for the German style to survive the deeper environmental implications of Wagner’s chromatic bomb and the jet stream winds of Mahler which carried its fallout to modernity lay beyond reliance upon sanitised octatonic projections of the contours of the harmonic series), bleed out every which way in such productions as The Seahawk, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and pretty much every other, where unmistakably can be heard the bread if not the butter of John Williams, the current reigning grand old man of American blockbuster bombast.
So provenance is there. It doesn’t take much, however, to look beyond these links and into the music itself. Upon doing so it is clear to see that there is a fundamental difference between the two. Rather than moving in accordance with an internal clock, as one would find in a concert work, the hangers-on from the European tradition that remain in film music find themselves rhythmically magnetised to the buckling of swashes courtesy of Mr Flynn and Co. in The Adventures of Robin Hood. If external stimuli dictate, then integral structure, the fundamental guiding element which underlies material development in a piece of classical music, is necessarily anathema. Competing impetuses make for strange, possibly violent bedfellows, so the choice must be made between one and the other, and in film music it is the film itself that predominates, to accompany it is the music’s entire purpose. I can hear the “ah, but what about”s reverberating out there. What about ballet, or opera, or incidental music for a play? All these are recognised as part of the tradition, are they not? Well, yes, they are. In ballet, however, it is the choreography that is subservient to the music; Nijinsky could not so much as have pointed a toe without Stravinsky’s score. In incidental music, often what we see is music as glue. Between scenes, as sets are changed and actors perhaps change costume, musical interludes, which might sustain the previous scene’s mood and introduce that of the next, both communicated through tropes, but rarely if ever does it accompany a scene proper. Peer Gynt, Henrik Ibsen’s epic verse fantasy, which features an extensive accompanying score (some ninety minutes in total) by Norway’s master tunesmith Edvard Grieg, is perhaps the best example of incidental music for the stage in which this is not the case. Numbers in the score include parts for voices, and the overall organisation, though in effect it is quite different, is prototypical of the stage musical, a form in which spoken, sung, and danced material intermingle over several hours of performance. The musical’s great ancestor, opera, is much the same sort of hybrid. I would go so far as to call opera a separate but parallel tradition to concert music, feeding and being fed by the same stylistic trends and musical advances, but ultimately distinguishable on multiple levels. While it is, for practical reasons, a form which first calls for poetry and then for music, in practice it is the music that dictates, and music is certainly, along with the visual presentation, the primary means of interface with the audience in the form’s natural habitat. If art is about communication, to put the text above all else in an experience (as opposed to a study) of opera would be ridiculous. In opera, as in ballet, it is the music that speaks first and loudest, that drives the work in its totality as performed—its structures are the beating heart of the experience, that from which all else emanates. In film, music is only ever composed to augment something else.
In the late 1960s, Black Sabbath is usually credited with being the originator of the heavy metal sound, which would proliferate over the following decades into a vast and dense miniature tradition. For the purposes of avoiding pedantry I will use “metal” as a catch-all for this next couple of paragraphs, but it is within the insane web of metal subgenres that the subject lurks. The connection between metal and classical music seems to derive principally from Yngwie Malmsteen, the progenitor of “neoclassical metal”, which is even less an exercise in neoclassicism than Stravinsky and Schoenberg preferred to think their excursions into stylistic cribbing from prior centuries. The Swedish shredder is a devotee, we are led to believe, and not necessarily by the man himself, of both Jimi Hendrix and Johann Sebastian Bach, although maybe Paganini on an off-day is more like it. In his composition “Fugue”, an ironically—and you might say painfully—homophonic (it should be noted here that counterpoint, largely owing to the drum heavy instrumentation of metal and other popular musics, is pretty much a non-entity across the board) minor key showcase of what friends in my teenage years referred to as “widdly”, Malmsteen rattles through trite scalar melodies that always end in common practice style cadences and that are only more memorable than a typical original Reger subject because they are so gaudy. On YouTube you can find a whole catalogue and myriad addenda thereto of star-crossed interlocutors, half of whom think it “sounds like” classical music, while the other half, or maybe closer to a quarter, know that it “sounds like (sort of (a little bit (not really)))” but actually is not. Metal being a genre of popular music, that is, music most people put on rather than listen to, it is hardly surprising that advocates of Malmsteen’s work would say that it sounds like classical music, but as is so often the case with YouTube, the worst is yet to come. Dwelling on YouTube comments is the modern equivalent of whiling away the hours in an opium induced coma on the floor of a bordello, so I shall not linger. Yet let it be known that according to one commenter Mr Malmsteen’s queasy opus is “the height of complexity” and written to “the standards of music a few centuries ago”, while another, presumably with tears in their eyes, tells us that “in a world in which most people don’t know what a fugue is, this is refreshing.” What precisely is meant by this last we may never know, and that might just be for the best.
But surely metal is the most technically accomplished popular genre of our time? Well, maybe it is. There is certainly enough technical proficiency among its leading lights to support such a claim. I myself am partial to the early 1990s work of Atheist, especially Unquestionable Presence, and their contemporary Morbid Angel’s Altars of Madness, both from the Floridian technical death metal scene, and I used to be a huge fan of Dream Theater as a teenager. These are bands which place a great deal of emphasis on speedily manoeuvring through arrays of difficult riffs and solos, many of which contrast rhythmically in ways that were initially very jarring to my then 4/4 attuned inner ear. However, my complaint with such proponents of technique and mastery in metal, so far as it is relevant in making my case, is that they rarely if ever seem to look beyond the affects of performance and into the depths of composition. It is all good and well playing 32nd note shred over alternating bars of compound and common meter with dropped 16ths, but have you ever stopped to think why you’re doing it? In my teenage years (a personal point of reference for guitar wank which, though I apologise for it, is necessary to constantly dip into for this section) I wanted to play my guitar fast, so I learned how to do it. At the age of seventeen I was pretty fast, and I kept getting faster till I was damned fast. Friends were impressed at my speed, and I was happy to impress them with it, because I was not impressive in any other way. At the same time I became more and more interested in modern classical music, and in avant garde variants of popular genres. It took me a while to realise it (I would not really drop mindless shred guitar until I was in my early twenties), but I had begun to develop through listening to the music of Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern, Maurice Ravel, and others, the subconscious need to organise musical materials into coherent, self-contained structures. What metal of pretty much any variety seems to lack, in my experience—and I would by no means call myself an expert, merely someone who has heard enough to get the gist of it—is the organisational element, the deep structure that binds diffuse sections into a cohesive whole through the thematic interrelation of materials. There is rarely if ever any sort of development: there is one riff, then there is another, and perhaps another, and then the sequence is repeated, and those riffs may be related by a mood, but in truth one never talks to the other, the gestural back and forth developing to a climax is not there, and what resolution does come at the end is by necessity not resolution in the classical sense.
Video game music, which may indeed contain music akin to both previous subjects, is almost so broad as to not be worth discussing. Its stylistic range runs the gamut from ambient to (don’t quote me on this) zydeco. There is nothing from which it does not crib, and indeed many game scores have been created by established artists in film music, electronic dance music, rock, pop, metal etc. and fully embrace the respective stylistic conventions thereof, but its relationship with classical music in this sense tends to be highly superficial. One of the great video game soundtracks is found in the three hours of music Nobuo Uematsu composed for Square’s massively popular Final Fantasy VI, and like all Final Fantasy soundtracks, at least up until the series made the leap to the PlayStation 2 in 2001, it features a wide range of musical styles—here done up in the inimitable and wonderfully nostalgic sounds of the SNES soundchip. Arguably Uetmatsu’s finest work, it begins with the unmistakable sound of a quartal ascension, and then notably does not resolve, instead letting a fairly heavy dissonance from the organ sit for a little while before moving through the harp interlude to the main theme which lets you know, in case you were not already fully aware, that shit is about to go down. As an integral component of one of the most memorable and atmospheric introductions to any game, it immediately makes the game stand out on a different level from previous entries in the series. These themes reappear many times throughout the soundtrack, but as anyone who is familiar with the game will know, Dancing Mad is really where the titular “omen” of the opening track is fulfilled. Often thought of as an extremely ambitious way to score the climax of the action, Dancing Mad is some sixteen minutes in duration, and moves through several diverse sections before concluding with a boss-battle-ised variation on another theme which we encounter early on in the game. Classical, right? Well, no. It certainly has the duration to match a movement from a great big symphony, but its contents are more in line with the operas of Philip Glass than with the rondo-finales of Gustav Mahler. In the final battle sequence each section of the piece corresponds to a different level of a literal tower of enemies; as the player defeats a level of what are essentially preparatory sub-bosses, they ascend to the next level and the music moves on to the next section, so each section will be heard multiple times. In the OSV (Original Sound Version, a soundtrack album featuring the music exactly as rendered by the SNES soundchip), this means that the sixteen minutes mostly consists of repeats. When at last the top of the tower is reached, that goosebump-inducing quartal ascension sounds on the organ, and we’re in for another ten minutes or so of music. But where it is exciting—and perhaps, if taking a particularly long time to beat the final boss, at least tolerable—in game, listening to it spin its wheels out of context is about as engaging as the average daytime soap opera.
While it was certainly ambitious in its conception as a piece of game music, and especially for the early ’90s, written for a soundchip that could not pretend to realism and which was all the more charming and memorable for it, Uematsu could not deny it its essential role, which was to form something bigger than itself. A large part of the reason why it, and indeed any video game soundtrack, cannot operate in the same manner as classical concert music, is that it must be designed to accompany something else. It is not in the same boat as film music, which accompanies scripted events captured on celluloid or more recently digital storage media, because video games, while they are made up of scripted events, ultimately move to the rhythms of the player, which forces their soundtracks to accommodate a broad range of potential events. In the case of Final Fantasy VI, the player’s control over events is limited to moving the party’s avatar on a grid until an encounter, either random or scripted, is triggered. Up until that point Uematsu’s job is to reinforce a sense of place by creating music which generally suits the area of the game’s world that the player is in, but when an encounter starts, he ceases to be appropriate to location and instead must be appropriate to situation. The demands of writing to location, situation, mood, character etc., and to always be servile to the player’s whims, are absolutely necessary to address materially when composing a game soundtrack, they are also totally divorced from anything encountered when composing concert music. Naturally, use of music as mood enhancer in games has only become more complicated in the time since Final Fantasy VI, and now it is commonplace to have realtime switching between multiple tracks to reflect the dynamic nature of the gameplay itself—I am most familiar with this through the Metal Gear Solid series of stealth games, which uses multiple variations of a track to indicate whether the player is in combat or being searched for by the enemy, but this is hardly the most complex example in the industry today.
As I discussed in the paragraphs on film music, concert music always moves in accordance with its internal clock, and it is complete unto itself. In the case of music where the goal is to accompany something that is being viewed, and not only that but interacted with and controlled, the music cannot be complete in itself, because if it is then it cannot augment with the other components of the hybrid that they together are intended to form. Consider that in the early days, not Pong early, but fairly early, most games featured simple loops that had no real beginning or end, they just were. This was important because you could lose at any time, and the music would have to be able to transition without jarring to a lose jingle; unlike films there was no real way to know when the action would really peak. In modern games, which are often designed with a “cinematic” approach in mind, the player is many times guided via scripted sequence to a climactic moment, and if such a sequence is designed to take a specific amount of time to complete and to hit moments A, B, and C at times X, Y, and Z, the composer may then be able to operate on film score terms, at least for a handful of circumstances. Still, for all such advances made you could say that a little bit of character is often lost, and the classics just have that je ne sais quoi that makes them hard to beat. Another Uematsu piece, the mawkish and somehow internationally famous Aerith’s Theme, from Final Fantasy VII, gives old RVW and his Lark Ascending a run for their money in the annual Classic FM poll of listeners to determine the greatest classical works of all time. Yes, that’s right, you heard right: the greatest classical works of all time.
Why? Well, there is the unspoken understanding, inculcated in equally wordless fashion through osmosis, that objectivity—though we will always at least pay lip service to the idea that “art is subjective”—necessitates a ladder, almost as wide as it is tall, upon which musics of all sorts can and must do battle to secure supremacy. Classical music, frequently considered to be at the top of this ladder, has the distinct advantage in this competition of possessing a deeply felt gravitas of the sort afforded only by longevity. Like the Western literary tradition, we can ultimately trace the classical music of our time to Ancient Greece. As recently as the 1600s, the Pythagorean “pure perfect fifth” (expressed in tuning theory by the ratio 3:2) dominated Western music, and it was not until the advent of well temperament (as in Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well Tempered Clavier) that the now standardised notion of the division of the octave into twelve equal pitches was introduced. Prior to this invention, music, especially for keyboard instruments, was limited because uneven division of the octave rendered many keys wholly dissonant and therefore unstable according to the theory and tastes of the time. History of this sort is matched only by traditional folk musics that have existed for millennia, much of which is passed down through generations by oral tradition, as opposed to the literary tradition of classical music.
Popular music has no such grand history, its rise is tied to the invention of sound recording and reproduction, and many of its recognisable forms today have histories most appropriately measured in decades rather than centuries or millennia, and this also means that time has not been able to do its work in establishing anything like a canon. The fact of contemporaneity, or near-contemporaneity, of witnessing first hand, up close, the creation and development of popular genres, makes them much more difficult to assess. Classical music, with its centuries of development as a recognisable tradition, has had time to develop a canon; that is a single line of era defining figures and works which, viewed chronologically, chart the development of an entire cultural outlook on music. But the closer we get to now, the more fragmented this supposed single line becomes. This problem is compounded in popular music by its “lay” nature and the ease with which the tools to produce it can be acquired. To put it another way: a trained composer’s Op. 1 is most likely the culmination of years upon years of rigorous study, but most people can pick up a guitar and learn to reliably play the stock selection of pop chords to a beat in a matter of months. The amount of rock, pop, metal, and especially hip hop being produced each week is staggering. Just look around on streaming services like Bandcamp and SoundCloud: hundreds if not thousands of new songs are uploaded every day, and most of this is just the work of unsigned acts, amateurs, hobbyists. You can never listen to it all, and it may be that only future generations will have the hindsight necessary to sift through the detritus and find gold, but then what of the music of their own time? Oversaturation will undoubtedly mean that, even in the fairest of all worlds, most work, good or bad, will reach only a few ears, and those ears may be closed.
Instead of a tradition, popular music has many traditions, grouped together only by their uniform adherence to verse-chorus structure. Furthermore, musical progress is rarely if ever made by any of these traditions, rather fashions and fads come and go in cycles, the only lasting changes afforded purely by technological circumstance. At best, novel approaches to pop song composition (such as Roy Orbison’s through-composed “In Dreams”) are regarded as just that, novel, and are not adopted or adapted by others. The only major changes between the 1940s and now are that the music is largely electronic, and hip-hop has become the dominant aesthetic force in popular music, just as the blues did when it was sanitised for white audiences in the 1950s. Given that hip-hop is largely based around short, simple loops acting as sonic terrain for rappers to negotiate, it seems to me that if this trend of dominance continues then popular music will become even more musically simplistic than it already is. This process of simplification, however, does not begin with hip-hop. To begin with it was largely tied to the introduction of music videos, essentially song length advertisements which enabled “the artist”, or rather the executives behind them, to distract from the reselling of old rope with flashy visuals and “the personality of the artist”. Over the decades this has taken its toll. Popular music, at its worst, has become a primarily visual form, a verbal form second, and a musical form dead last. Like general elections in the US and UK, more so than quality and substance, we are encouraged to find impressive mere image and PR groomed personality, a total dead end for the field and a cheapening of the culture. But hey, the people behind it make a whole lot of money, so who gives a fuck?
That music outside of the classical tradition cannot be classical music, that it lacks on a fundamental level the very things that make classical music what it is, that film scores, video game music, metal, chamber pop etc. are all their own things and should be viewed as such—all this should by now be clear if I have done my job adequately. What is left then is to try to explain the why of it. Insecurity of the fanbase is one thing, but greater—in the case of the genres discussed—than a need to prove the worth of what you like, is the need to prove that that worth is greater than the worth of other things. Undoubtedly, classical music attracts a lot of snobs. Recently I encountered this shining example on YouTube, in which one commenter expresses concern that many people probably do not have the patience to enjoy the symphonies of Mahler, and this is suspect enough in itself, but then along comes another fellow with the reassuring words: “No! You are among the fortunate, Jim. I feel sorry for them, truly! They waddle through the third dimension getting what little comfort they can – but this is purely a wonderful, spiritual experience.” But this, I think, is that same need to prove something about the quality of one’s taste, and it tends to manifest itself very strongly in public spaces for the non-specialist. That is, someone without a great interest in classical music finds this Mahler performance on YouTube (for we live in such wondrous times that stumbling upon classical music can be a perfectly ordinary occurrence) and, having had some kind of reaction to the music, scrolls down just a few minutes into the performance to see if others feel the same way. Well, you have to grab this person’s attention, and either admonish them for disliking it, and thus “waddling through the third dimension”, or praise them for liking it, and thus “being among the fortunate”. In specialist discussion spaces, this kind of thing, though it is not totally absent, is typically seen for the insubstantial and self-congratulatory buffoonery that it is. But even unpretentious people who know what they’re talking about can take on the appearance of snobs very quickly when they use specialist terminology, and this can make newcomers wary. So at least some of the problem can be thought of in terms of insecurity, and the question is one of whether the outsider can overcome a potential feeling of alienness to a community which has a reputation for mostly attracting highly intelligent people, thus the feeling that they may be stupid if they don’t get it. Believe me when I say most classical fans ain’t all that, and the ones that are generally aren’t going to shove it in your face.
That “popular” and “mainstream” do not mean the same thing in this discussion should be clear. A lot of the music discussed in this article is not mainstream at all, but “popular” indicates a kind of democratisation—after the Western model of pay to play democracy, in which people are at least allowed to luxuriate in the illusion of having a voice that can reach those ears above the clouds where money’s great gramophone blares eternal—that is the idea that anyone can do it. Classical music is “ivory tower” by comparison, or at least, that is what people still believe. I do not think it is too extreme to say that I hate this. Sure, you need to study to be a concert pianist, and you need to get a good teacher at an early age and later have the money to see you through years at the conservatory, so basically if you weren’t born into money you will have quite a struggle on your hands. There are, for better or worse, barriers to entry as a performer that keep the common rabble like you and me, we waddlers of the third dimension, out, but barriers to enjoyment of the music itself? A decade ago this was maybe still arguable, but today you can find pretty much anything on the beloved YouTube, or, failing that, most libraries have vast catalogues of music these days. Our imaginations have yet to catch up with the reality of our day. Everyone has access, the idea that classical music must be the preserve of an elite no longer bears scrutiny. So, too, the idea that other forms of music should compete to out-patrician each other in questing to take the place of what is wrongly assumed to be a dead art form. It is simply a question now of dealing with fandom insecurity and the need for what you like to be seen to be objectively better than what you don’t like. In other words, it is possible for Twin Peaks: The Return to be a great work of television and for that to be sufficient in itself, and all that is left is for those who are loath to admit that they enjoy television to relax.