How might a composer of modern concert music engage the conventions of popularsong? Can those conventions themselves become the raw material of a new creative practice—one in which the affective power and immediacy of popular song are at once reanimated and thought anew? What might such a reanimation sound like, especially if it resists the all-too-familiar stances of postmodern irony and meta-commentary? And how might a composer catalyze such a practice if his principal tool of composition and performance is a drum kit, that iconic emblem of popular music’s commitment to body and beat?
The present collaboration, VoiceGrooveSong, seeks to inhabit these questions. As the title suggests, we aim to rethink the three musical categories of voice, groove, and song, considering them at once as a fused, holistic group, and as parameters amenable to strategic separation and recombination. The categories themselves are heuristic, but they would surely be central in any account of the essential elements of popular song. First, voice. Song is—at least by traditional definition—sung, and the singing voice in mass-mediated popular song is at once an object of vicarious identification, a vehicle of semantic delivery, and a sonic emblem of a performing persona (Aretha’s voice, Dylan’s voice, Rihanna’s voice…). Moreover, hip-hop has taught us that the voice in song need not always sing; the rapping and speaking voice can be just as much a locus of affective attachment, narrative coherence, and charismatic identity (Kendrick’s voice, Nicki’s voice, Kanye’s voice…). What remains is voice, in all its material specificity and unruly potential for signification and storytelling.
In much popular music, groove is as indispensable as voice: it is the body’s way in, a site of entrainment, social cohesion, and sheer pleasure. Adventurous art-music composers have engaged voice in diverse ways, but they have all but shunned groove. Ben Neill states this concisely:
"It is the beat that draws the dividing line between serious and vernacular, visceral and intellectual…While composers used to define themselves in terms of tonal style (atonality, serialism, octatonic, modal, etc.), those distinctions have been largely superseded by rhythmic content. The two worlds of high art and popular electronic music may use slightly different tools, but their aesthetic approaches are most clearly defined in terms of the presence or absence of repetitive beats."
- Ben Neill, “Pleasure Beats: Rhythm and the Aesthetics of Current Electronic Music,” Leonardo Music Journal 12 (2002): 3.
While postmodern critics and artists have long sought to level or obliterate the high/low distinction, the groove/no-groove split that Neill identifies has remained remarkably durable. Vanishingly few “serious” composers write groove-based musics, and those who do often thematize or “quote” grooves as a special effect, not as a basic element of their musical language. The present collaboration deliberately transgresses this “dividing line.” We seek to explore ways in which groove can re-emerge in contexts traditionally considered “high.” In so doing, we wish not only to harness the power and pleasure of groove for aesthetic purposes, but also to challenge audiences to rethink the kinds of engagement and behavior that a “composerly” music should elicit (e.g., “Is it OK for me to move?”) and to foreground the cultural and class-based associations that often accrue to beat-based musics.
Finally, we invoke song as a category to highlight the formal conventions and idioms of songwriting itself. Popular songs across a wide range of genres employ a relatively consistent set of formal routines, structures, and textures: verse–chorus form; bridges, solos, and outros; regular phrase length and consistent meter; division of the texture into beat, bass line, voice, and harmonic filler; etc. These familiar conventions underwrite the quick assimilability of popular song—they constitute the shared code that makes popular song the ubiquitous soundtrack ofour everyday lives.
As with groove, “serious” composers have largely avoided engaging these structural idioms, eager to create their own codes rather than to adopt those of the vernacular. And yet composers in earlier eras did not hesitate to adopt the conventions of vernacular song (think of Mozart, Schubert, Verdi). What would a modern composed music sound like that took these conventions seriously as a compositional option?
Glenn Kotche’s status as a drumming composer gives these issues a singular inflection. Groove is of course one of his stocks-in-trade, and he is extremely well versed in pop song structure due to his work with Wilco, one of the most acclaimed bands in the world. But voice presents a special challenge—and opportunity—in his creative practice. Seated at the kit, he can activate voice samples with pads, effectively making the voice one among many sounds at his disposal. But do such triggered voice samples afford anything like the sort of affective identification that physically present, in-the-flesh singing or rapping voices do? And do the verbal sequences created thereby afford a mode of semantic engagement that can approximate that of the conventional popular song? These questions present an opportunity in that they allow us to test the boundaries of vocal accessibility and to invert the usual academic composer’spriorities, in which voice finds a comfortable home, but groove and song do not.
We imagine a workshop of experimentation, in which subtractive and additive logics obtain among our three components: grooves removed or distorted but voice and song form left largely intact; voice and backbeat floating free of the conventions of song; diverse components multiplied and freely layered; etc. Each new constellation will afford opportunities both for aesthetic investment and for critical reflection on the inexhaustible potential of popular musicas an agent of pleasure and of institutional challenge.