Arranging Music History

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What is the fascination with producing medleys or theme & variations pieces that trace a tune through a series of historical styles? I’ve seen a couple of barbershop quartets do this, construing ‘music history’ as either popular song styles since the emergence of barbershop in the late 19th century or as the standard grand narrative of classical music periods. Ward Swingle also did a chart called ‘Music History 101’ that starts with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, then launches into a series of pastiches. (Never mind that this tune actually post-dates the first style he arranges it as….) It’s also something that I’ve seen Conservatoire students propose for musicianship projects.

Some of these medleys are done very well (Michigan Jake could be pretty impressive singing anything, in my view, and they always worked with great arrangers), while others are less successful (some of the student projects I’ve witnessed haven’t lived up to their aspirations, alas). But I always find them a bit odd, and I’m trying to work out why.

First, there are always question-marks about which styles the arrangement engages with – why were they chosen, and how does the arrangement represent them? There’s often a sense of the slightly arbitrary in these choices: they’re being driven by which styles the arranger feels comfortable with, or by which ones they can make the theme work in. (Although another oddity is the way the theme is often distorted beyond recognition or completely sacrificed in the service of the different styles – what kind of theme & variations is that?) For instance, a schools community music project I saw picked five styles, of which the first was ‘classical’ – which they took to mean smooth and with no beat. I’m not sure I’d have recognised that as classical had they not told me.

There’s also the way that the arrangements may sketch out a universe of what constitutes ‘different styles’, then place one at the edge to mark the point beyond which those musicians will go no further. The ‘classical’ variation in the schools project seemed to play this function, while barbershop examples will almost invariably reference rap or hip-hop as point of extremity of what counts as music.

I worry about musical integrity too. I was brought up in that high-art tradition that likes to see music have a sense of unity, and while I have shucked off the more transcendentalist imperatives of that world, I do have this old-fashioned liking for music that kind of hangs together. I used to find the Hooked on Classics albums maddening by the way they would shove together a bunch of tunes that had no musical reason to be played back-to-back except perhaps similar tempi and general fame, and expect the continuity of stylistic presentation to knit them into some kind of coherence. The historical medley has the inverse issue: there is (at least ostensible) thematic continuity, but the stylistic handbrake turns keep breaking it up. I guess that’s another point about arbitrariness.

And of course, it’s all so self-reflexive. Most music, to the extent it is ‘about’ something, is connecting with something out in the world – evoking an emotional state, or presenting a narrative, or a sense of character. It has a style, and uses the conventions of that style to make its expressive point. These medleys, by contrast, are about style; the musical substance becomes the content rather than the vehicle with which to present the content.

And I think this self-reflexiveness is what gives us a clue to the psychological value these medleys have for their creators (and perhaps also their audiences). Sketching out a collection of styles is a way to define the musical universe that you inhabit, and doing it chronologically becomes a way of connecting yourself to a wider musical tradition. Sociologist Anthony Giddens suggests that our self-identity is something we build and maintain through a perpetual internal autobiography: our sense of who we are is constructed out of the stories we tell about ourselves.

These historical medleys, then, are a means for their arrangers and performers to locate themselves vis-à-vis the other musical worlds they encounter, and to select which ones are meaningful to them and – crucially – where their musical boundaries lie. They are part of their project of the musical self.

I still find them odd to listen to, though.

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