I wonder about the semantic transformation of "song" -- it used to mean something somewhat specific, i.e., a vocalist, singing words, usually structured lyrics, but sometimes non-verbal or nonsense sounds. For example, in Tin Pan Alley, that classic pop tradition of the English speaking world, a melody is sung over some kind of accompaniment, usually homophonic and instrumental (as with many songs today). In earlier Western art music, this was often the case as well – singer and pianist being the standard pairing. On the other hand, songs can also be unaccompanied. Or sung by a group of people all singing the same melody together.
There are additional permutations, but, point is, while the definition of “song” is broad and variable, there's at least one constant element: a minimum of one person is singing, and their singing is the main focus of the piece. But somewhere in the course of the 20th century – in the past 30, 40, or 50 years? Longer? – this meaning has bloated and given rise to the widespread practice of using “song” to mean just any old piece of music. Orchestra performing a symphony? Jazz trio playing instrumental standards? Church organ jamming out a fugue? A street busker sawing a reel on a violin? Lots of people would think nothing of calling all of these “songs.”
I don't want to come across as too curmudgeonly here. I agree with the sentiment that language evolves and changes over time and that we shouldn't be too rigid about meaning. So although I don't go around correcting people when they refer to a symphonic work as a song (because that would be incredibly obnoxious), I still can't help but be a little hung up on this particular connotative shift. I think maybe it's because while the meaning of "song" may have taken on new meaning, it's simultaneously wiping out, or at least suppressing, other terms for musical pieces.
Those other sorts of pieces of course still exist and proliferate (including lots of vocal works that aren't songs either), but the average listener ignores or dilutes their distinguishing features to some extent when they call everything a song. Interestingly, we don't do this with other art forms. With text, we recognise and use labels accordingly for things like articles, short stories, novels, and essays. Same with videographic content, we discern between television series, films, home videos, and commercials all the time. Yet, all different kinds of musical works are frequently reduced to “song.” equalisng the diff wks
It's especially ironic that this semantic blurring has happened in an era when both musicians and fans are obsessed with genre – transcending it, hybridising it, getting back to basics with it. What used to be considered (arguably erroneously) monolithic genres such as “rock” have now been fractured to almost infinitesimal degrees; whether or not the newer genre labels actually reflect significant musical difference or innovation is irrelevant here, the fact is music consumers are comfortable with a never-ending parade of genre labels – so why not compositional type?
To be fair, even for the initiated it's not always easy to distinguish between type, style, form, and genre nor can these three domains always be neatly separated. But in recent years a possible effect of using “song” to near exclusion has brought to my attention a concomitant difficulty to comprehend longer, multi-movement or sectional works such as dance suites, operas, or symphonies. You could say that this particular effect is tied up with – or simply highlighted by? – the general decline in knowledge of classical music, but it's the concept of a large work made up of a bunch of smaller, discrete pieces that trips people up all the time, and neither the concept nor the difficulty in understanding it is unique to classical repertory.
I know about this partly because during my time in music publishing I've come upon it repeatedly. I'm often asked things like “can we license 30 seconds of Faust?” When I ask which 30 seconds of Strauss's two hour opera they would like, the answer is usually a befuddled silence followed by “let me get back to you” once I've explained that what they're after is not simply a single piece with a single title.
This is in no way to criticise anyone's lack of knowledge of classical music -- that's not the issue here. Instead, I'm trying to underscore the one-to-one signification of “song.” It's become a common tendency to think one title = one single, self-contained unit of music, and that unit is identified frequently as “song.” Even generic terms such as “work” or “piece” seem to be not as familiar to a majority of music fans as they are less often used. What effect all this may have on music production and circulation is hard to say – are musicians unknowingly boxed in by the “song”? Does the idea of a piece, especially a multi-sectional one, that's not a “song” seem foreign? When thought of as “songs,” are all compositional types conceived of on the same plane? Maybe the main effect is that “song” has become the new generic term. If that's the case, can we still at least use a few other terms once in a while? Variety, anyone?
The past couple of weeks have touched on a few of different perspectives regarding the confluence of movement, space, and musical performance. It started at a Soundstreams' Salon 21 event where R. Murray Schafer discussed his work Isfahan for three brass quintets. Commissioned in 2006, the piece was inspired in part by the venue where it was premiered (St. Anne's church in Toronto) which, in turn, reminded Schafer of a visit he made to the Shah Abbas Mosque in Isfahan (or Esfahan), Iran in 1969. The excessive echo of the mosque's dome influenced the work's compositional structure in numerous ways, but on a more conceptual level it led Schafer to want 'to create a piece that would linger in the space as if it belonged there and would remain forever.'
Not only did this require a close study of the acoustics of the church, it also involved utilising a greater amount of space during the performance itself. In Isfahan, the 'stage' expands – perhaps even dissolves – beyond that single, central focal point at which all the audience is facing and gradually encompasses aisles and alcoves throughout the venue as the musicians move about whilst playing, literally bringing the music from once place to another. The movement is carefully choreographed, too, so that each change in position makes its own contribution to shaping the music (mostly in terms of dynamics and accent) and evoking the idea that sound is coming from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Some alterations are required with a change of venue, as was the case with the October 30 performance at Koerner Hall (thanks to Jennifer and Inés at Soundstreams for setting me up with tickets!), but nonetheless the effect of the choreography was an apparent and stunning component of the work.
I began to think about all this in contrast to your standard rock show. Many forms of popular music are noted for their prominent kinetic elements, not least of which is the physical energy of the performers on stage (statue-like bands such as Portishead or shoegazers excepted). But, apart from the occasional crowd dive or run-through, most rock shows are exactly the same as most classical concerts in that the stage is the fixed performance location. The micing of rock shows adds an unavoidable uniformity to the sound as well – while a blaring PA system can equally saturate every inch of a performance space, no matter where the musicians move to or a listener is situated, the sound will remain largely the same (feedback and equipment failures excepted). Even if this wasn't the case, the musicians' mobility within the venue can still be limited by patch and mic cords.
Then there's the audience. At classical concerts, the standard and sometimes derided practice is one of immobility; the audience ought to listen attentively and sit stock-still. Despite this constraint, they might yet make an occasional impact because, as one attendee to the Salon asked, wouldn't a full house versus a half-full or empty house change the acoustic effects of so delicately constructed work as Isfahan? Indeed, it would. Conceptual and aleatoric works such as Cage's 4'33'' can also be influenced during a live performance by the actions or even mere presence of an audience, but such effects and especially active audience participation are much less common in classical music.
Rock shows are, of course, another affair altogether with a very different set of expectations for the crowd: if they aren't moving around, visibly and audibly demonstrating their enjoyment and appreciation of the music being played, they can be seen as cold, reserved, or plain up-tight. Toronto audiences in particular have a bad reputation for this. It's a little strange to me to think of an audience as sucking because, well, they didn't show up to perform, they came to observe, but interaction and reciprocation are much more highly valued, encouraged, and even demanded in the popular music world.
That said, can you really blame people if they only want to casually take in a band and not deal with the chaotic negotiation of space that goes on at rock concerts? Just look at this Reddit post titled 'Made it right to the stage at a concert? Great! Now GET YOUR GIRLFRIEND OFF YOUR FUCKING SHOULDER!' and we can see there's a lot to contend with:
Do NOT show up right as the show starts and attempt to "squirm your way in front". People there waited in line for hours.
Do NOT make your way "back and forth because [you] need a beer or a smoke or have to pee." If you do, don't expect your place to be saved.
Do NOT stand right at the stage and attempt to photograph and/or record the entire show with your cell phone. You're there for the music, not to upload shitty quality videos of every song played on YouTube or Facebook. Try and listen to the music, you might actually like it.
[Digression: Here's another plus for classical concerts – they don't allow this recording business at all. I witnessed a new level of this unfortunate trend at rock concert recently when I was standing near one of the venue's numerous flat-screens simulcasting the performance on stage. People – many people – stopped to take photos just of the flat-screen.]
Do NOT go to a concert and assume a location in the standing section with the expectation that others around you do not plan on moving.
This is getting more complex than classical concert etiquette! It also sums up pretty well why I usually stand at the back or as isolated from the rest of the audience as I can get (I also don't like blasted by the stacks). Then again, maybe I'm an all too typical and reserved Toronto concert-goer...
Anyway, the last item involves an entirely different kind of space – outer space – and I mention it because I thought it was neat and I hadn't heard about it previously. In 1986, Rendez-vous Houston was a large outdoor concert intended to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the city of Houston, the 25th anniversary of NASA, and an album release concert for the event's headliner, Jean Michel Jarre. A friend of Jarre's, astronaut Ron McNair, was going to play a piece on his saxophone during his next mission in space, the video of which would then be projected on a multi-storey screen during the concert and accompanied live by the other participating musicians. Unfortunately, that next mission became the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster and the concert ended up being a memorial one, but, nonetheless, it was quite the multi-media spectacle and it's a shame there was no attempt to finally realise Jarre's 'space collaboration' idea before NASA discontinued its shuttle program. Maybe it will eventually be picked up and carried out elsewhere?