Theme Song

December 23, 2010

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor is widely regarded as a defining moment in the history of Western music, and the choral “Ode To Joy” from the final movement is a theme song (or “signature tune”) and a celebration of European culture. It has for that reason been adapted as the anthem of the European Union.

I have to admit, I don’t like music of the Viennese Classical Period. I love Renaissance and Baroque (especially J.S. Bach) and the impressionist movement (Debussy, Ravel, Satie). Some composers of the late 19th century who incorporated national folklore in their work, life Falla, Albeniz, Granados in Spain or Villa Lobos in Brazil are also acceptable for me.

Any music between Bach and Debussy makes me itchy. Beethoven was a genius composer and he knew, how to use the laws of musical acoustics and the working of the human brain (pattern recognition, memory) to build interesting structures in lavish and long-winded orchestral pieces. For me his music nevertheless sounds bombastic and imperious. And in the historical content perfidious and dishonest. Let me explain my sentiment with the “Ode To Joy”, it is a perfect example for what I mean.

The first few verses of Schiller’s lyrics are:

Freude, schoener Goetterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium!
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, Dein Heiligtum.
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Was die Mode streng geteilt,
Alle Menschen werden Brueder,
Wo Dein sanfter Fluegel weilt.

That means in English:

Joy, beautiful sparkle of the gods,
Daughter of Elysium!
We enter, fire-drunk,
Heavenly one, your shrine.
Your magic again binds
What custom has firmly parted.
All men become brothers
Where your tender wing lingers.

Maybe people with a taste for grandiose and theatrical art will feel elated, when they read these words. I see the historical context: After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814 Beethoven’s opera Fidelio was played in Vienna dozens of times for international visitors, but the original premiere in 1805 had been prevented by the Austrian censor. Schiller’s “Ode To Joy” was originally an “Ode To Freedom,” but such a text would never have been allowed. In 1824, the year when Beethoven completed his Symphony No. 9, there was no joy and men had not become brothers. Not at all! Emperor Franz Josef and his chancellor Metternich had established a police state with secret police, informers, spies and repressive bureaucrats.

Beethoven is of course not to blame for this and he was deeply unhappy about the situation. He was railing against the aristocracy and the church and his friends had to undertake much effort to keep him quiet and out of trouble. Beethoven was an integer and honest person, yet his “Ode To Joy” is not an appropriate and representative theme song for this period, and the lyrics sound hollow and hypocritical in regard to the political environment.

In my humble opinion a “Theme Song” or “Signature Tune” should represent the “Zeitgeist” and should describe the predominant way of life in the most poignant and characteristic way. If I would want to create a theme song of our time, I would take a very different approach than Beethoven.

How would my “Theme Song” look?

First, the music would be of minor importance. Most of todays popular music hits are produced with computers. It doesn’t matter if one uses Logic or Ableton Life or Propellerheads Reason, even Garageband would do. Just take a few sample sounds from any of the thousands of sample archives, add some ready made loops from the thousands of loop archives and you are done.

Don’t worry about the recording equipment. I always have to smile, when I hear my friends from the audio engineer community hold endless academic debates about artifacts from clock jitter or THD distortion, the Nyquist–Shannon theorem and the advantages of 96khz/24bit recording. Put the high quality recording through the master brick wall limiter (L2 or Finis or Sonox or Antress), encode it in 256 MP3 and let it drive an ipod ear bud, after these transitions there will be no audible difference between the most advanced recording and a crudely compiled recording made in the sleeping room on a laptop.

So, the music for a theme song would be no concern at all, the crucial part in a theme song project would be the lyrics.

We live in noisy and hectic times and most people are multitasking and have a greatly reduced attention span. The lyrics therefore have to be clear and understandable and short. Subtle nuances and artful poetry would be a waste, the lyrics can be reduced to a few words, words which accurately represent the “zeitgeist.”

Nobody, who has a Twitter and Facebook account and is following the newest “Memes” will hesitate to name some significant and characteristic words of our culture. As our perception of the world is very subjective, the choice of words may slightly differ, but I am sure, that most readers of this text will agree to my list of words. Here it is:

1. We live in a culture of consummation. Our destiny is, to acquire things. We have to do this to keep the economy going and to sustain the profits and the shareholders dividends. The most characteristic word for this aspect of our life is: “BUY”.

2. We live in a “Macho” culture. Every action has to be taken to the limit. People like to look reality TV shows and sport competitions to see things going awry. They cherish the deadly accidents in car races, they like to look action movies with lot of explosions and debris raining down. The most characteristic word for this aspect of our life is: “SMASH”.

3. Without proper exercise and a lifestyle where you spent most of your time sitting and looking onto a screen (computer or TV), there is a lot of epinephrine (adrenaline) hormone building up in the endocrine system that cannot be properly used. People need to get rid of their aggressions. They want to see action movies and reports of deadly accidents and disasters. People want to see their opponents executed, they support wars against anybody who is different or supposed to be a threat to their way of living. The most characteristic word for this aspect of our life is: “KILL”.

4. If we have to buy things all the time to keep the economy going, we also have to get rid of some old belongings. If we wouldn’t do that and keep everything, our life would become very complicated and unmanageable. Many of the goods, that we have to buy, are designed for one time use only, what happens with them after that, it is our responsibility (the disposal of used goods is for sure not concerning the producers — people are not obliged to buy their ware). All other goods (the goods which are not “one-way”) are designed and manufactured with the goal, that they don’t last too long, because if they would be durable, we would not buy new staff, and that again would hurt the economy. So we have to trow away, remove, discard all the garbage and the broken or outdated gadgets and appliances. The best word to characterize this aspect of our life is: “TRASH”.

We have now the four words that characterize modern culture in the most significant and substantial way and I suggest, that the lyrics of the theme song (or “signature tune”) of our time should not consist of anything else, because that would only be a dilution from the message and increase the confusion of the average listener (who is already immensely confused by this complicated life and by the information overkill). So the lyrics finally would be:

Buy, smash, kill, trash
Buy, smash, kill, trash
Buy, smash, kill, trash
Buy, smash, kill, trash

The text is not difficult to memorize and not too long, it will not exceed the diminished attention span of todays multitasking generation.The accents are here on the second and fourth beat, this makes the lyrics perfectly suitable for pop music.

Of course, in more innovative versions the words could be arranged differently, for instance:

Buy, smash, trash, kill
Buy, smash, trash, kill
Buy, smash, trash, kill
Buy, smash, trash, kill

The word KILL would here be accented, that means, the accents of this version have to be on the first and the fourth measure. This version could be usable for alternative punk, gothic, death metal etc.

If you omit one of the words, for instance “SMASH”, you will end with lyrics in three-quarter time:

Buy, trash, kill
Buy, trash, kill
Buy, trash, kill
Buy, trash, kill

This version of the lyrics would be perfect for military brass bands, C&W, alpine folk music and Viennese Waltzes.

I hope, that my song poetry will find it’s way into mainstream music. The lyrics are copyright protected but provided for free to any music producer who has his finger on the pulse of the time and wants to produce a “buy, smash, trash, kill” hit.

Maybe one day I will compose some tunes with these lyrics by myself but for now I don’t have any time for such a project, I’m busy with the recordings of my acoustic guitar composition and the writing of blog entries.

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