Note: This article is also available at Super Fanicom here
Note 2: This is not really a formal entry in the Eureka Seven series blog, but it is related to the series.
Electronic, ambient and post-rock music, in which melody can be a far more fluid and delayed thing than in other genres, is of great interest to me. The importance, I believe, of this kind of music, is in the entire piece as a journey; while passages may have recognisable melodies, the entire track becomes one long melodic phrase, often building in tone and timbre. There is a great joy in repetition because centuries of musical tradition have associated a repeated motif with a sense of building towards a climax – by removing the climax, the release of the musical development, modern artists can play with musical tradition and expectation and turn an entire track into an almost-fugal experiment.
It is almost fair to say that this style of music is the natural evolution of the variation on a theme. While a piece like Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini or The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra takes a known melody and explores it, changing the key, tempo, instrumentation or even rhythm, the modern ambient musical exploration dispenses with the appropriated melodic theme and instead works on building a melody from harmonies and chords. This has some precedent; pieces like Barber’s Adagio for Strings or even Debussy’s Prelude A L’Apres-Midi D’une Faune can fruitfully be described as similar types of soundscape – but the form has become less focused on specifically telling a story, and the instrumentation and harmony has changed. It’s this modern soundscape that is of particular interest; popular music of the late 20th century saw moves more towards shorter tracks with highly memorable melodies and so longer, meandering tracks more in the vein of progressive rock became less popular for a time.
Nowadays, the “post-rock” genre is the most interesting example of the expansive, repetitious song; artists like 65daysofstatic and True Widow produce aurally immense tracks which have constant melodic forward motion often without vocals or a clearly defined melody line; this blurring of the roles of elements of a band results in genuinely interesting and powerful music. Tiger Girl, from the 2010 album We Were Exploding Anyway, is a perfect example. The closest thing to a defined melody within the track is initially played by the untuned percussion; a dancelike drum beat that defines the entire sound. Even when synthesiser lines are added, they closely follow the rhythm and even the sound of the drums, with the most melodic sections comprising staccato repeated notes. It is clear that in this track the tuned, melodic instruments are each forming part of a complex harmony and the melodic movement is on a far slower scale. Each change in instrumentation, and subtle variation in the chords, is like a single note in the melody of the piece. The overall effect is that over several minutes, a single crescendo plays out without the expected release – what resolution there is is the completion of the building harmonic picture as finally all the elements are playing together. This gives the whole a truly epic sound – not through traditional brass fanfare or orchestral flourish, but through a perfect, almost mathematical resolution to the building sound. It’s similar to variations on a theme, but at the same time like a medieval round; the climax of the piece is the completion of a puzzle-like whole.
It is interesting to compare 65daysofstatic’s track, which can be considered almost music for its own sake, an indulgent aural landscape which works divorced of visual context or any kind of melodic reference point, with a piece of soundtrack music that has the same sort of subversion of melodic progression. Soundtrack music is generally tightly focused, written to accompany a specific scene, and even the most “ambient” generally has a clear melodic progression that mirrors and represents the action on-screen. Readers of this site may know I am writing an on-and-off series blog on Eureka Seven and its soundtrack is of particular note here.
The soundtrack, composed largely by Sato Naoki, encompasses a range of musical styles; while the majority is standard orchestrated works, there is, as befits the setting, a strong dance- and electronic music influence. Tracks such as Tiger Track and Acid Track Prototype use the traditions of dance music but one track, which recurs throughout the series, uses a similar style of delayed release to Tiger Girl – but marries it to a more traditional rock form. The track is Storywriter, and accompanies a number of important plot developments and scenes of action – most significantly the Gekko’s journey into space. While the soundtrack has employed standard sweeping strings on tracks like Nirvash Type Zero to give a sense of grand heroic scale, Storywriter is comparatively languid. It has a sparse, digital opening with cut-up samples and static used to punctuate periods of silence, followed by a constantly building melody. The melody is far more defined than in Tiger Girl but at the same time has the same kind of growing instrumentation; the actual melody is a very short repeated motif over a driving percussion line, picked out in a droning vocal which is employed almost as a melodic instrument rather than as a traditional vocal part and which blurs with the guitars and synthesisers to create the same sort of very slow progression that post-rock employs.
One of the most striking uses of Storywriter, as mentioned above, is a scene of a space launch; the constant building and growth of the sound from the almost silent intro section to the “climax”, the culmination of the different timbres and melodic snatches; coming as it does in a section of the plot when the characters are anticipating a new, optimistic future. Soundtrack music is at its best when it closely mirrors on-screen action, and while Eureka Seven‘s soundtrack does employ more traditional “epic” music at scenes where the plot “climaxes,” the use of post-rock like ambience, with its focus on building up to an anticipated yet uncertain release, is thematically appropriate and far more epic in execution than a simple orchestral piece would be. Untuned percussion can be employed as a melodic voice since a repeated drum rhythm provides constant motion behind which slower harmonies can develop, while the demotion of vocals from the clearly-defined focus of a piece to another timbre employed as part of a soundscape creates an expansiveness through ambiguity.