Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Understanding Through-Composition in Post-Rock, Math-Metal, and Other Post-Millennial Rock Genres

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Understanding Through-Composition in Post-Rock, Math-Metal, and Other Post-Millennial Rock Genres

Article excerpt

[1] Many rock artists in the twenty-first century have moved beyond the compositional conventions of Top-40 rock and pop, yielding a meta-genre I have elsewhere deemed "post-millennial experimental rock" (Osborn 2010). While Top-40 artists are largely dependent on conventional song forms for their commercial success, groups outside of this category are freer to experiment with forms that rely less on choruses and recapitulatory endings-the staples of conventional rock forms. The subgenres within this experimental corpus are known by many names (post-rock, math-metal, art rock, and neo-prog, to name a few), but the compositions created by these artists can be grouped by shared characteristics. First, experimental rock compositions usually exhibit unconventional formal designs, and are frequently through-composed. Second, experimental rock compositions are, by and large, performed on traditional rock instruments. This facet ensures their ability to be marketed and recognized as rock compositions despite their technical complexity and ambitious scope.(2)

[2] My aim in this article is to examine the through-composed formal structures frequently used by artists in this post-millennial corpus, and to gain insight as to why a formal structure scarcely found in conventional rock music correlates so strongly with this experimental genre. Toward this aim, I have constructed a taxonomy that identifies four through-composed types based on two determining factors which emerge from the corpus as salient formal characteristics: the existence or non-existence of thematic unity, and the existence or non-existence of large multi-sectional units I call section groups. One of the strengths of such an approach is that, given these two guiding principles, the taxonomic model forces us to consider not only the expected combinations, but indeed all possible combinations-even those that result in uncommon formal designs. In addition to presenting several examples for each of these four types, I speculate on the correlation between artists who frequently use these formal structures and the specific post-millennial rock genres that develop alongside them. I will begin by situating this music in relation to familiar examples of through-composition.

[3] By virtue of their through-composed formal narratives, the post-millennial rock compositions analyzed in this article enter into a historical assemblage linking many disparate styles and techniques. In the nineteenth century, the term through-composed (durchkomponiert) was used to describe songs whose strophes were each set to new music,(3) a technique recognizable in the quasi-strophic designs of songs by post-millennial rock artists Emery and Hopesfall. Many pieces from the so-called minimalist period (ca. 1965-1972) take a different approach to through-composition by developing a central idea through some audible process (for example, Steve Reich's Come Out and Alvin Lucier's I am sitting in a room), and it is this process more than the musical material that defines the piece. A similar one-part monothematic form frequently appears in compositions by instrumental post-rock groups such as Sleepy Eyes of Death. Within the sphere of popular music, late '60s and early '70s rock artists (especially the forerunners of "prog rock") began structuring songs using non-recapitulating section groups,(4) a formal design used more recently by Radiohead who, though experimental, still depends on the commercial mainstream for success. The Beatles popularized this particular design in their late period, perhaps most famously in "Happiness is a Warm Gun" (1968). A brief analysis of the song's formal structure may serve as a familiar illustration for new terminology and notation to be used throughout the rest of the article.

Example 1. Formal Design of The Beatles, "Happiness is a Warm Gun" (1968)

[4] The three large section groups in Example 1 group the song's five thematically identifiable sections by shared musical characteristics. …

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