Friday, July 25, 2008

Musing on Prokofiev

Chills ran down my spine when I put on the recent live disc by Muse, H.A.A.R.P.; it opens, amidst a sold-out screaming Wembley Stadium crowd, with a St. Petersburg Kirov Orchestra recording of Prokofiev's "Dance of the Knights", from his Romeo and Juliet ballet score.

And so Muse displays up front (literally) what I've long thought is one of their primary musical influences. Their performance in a different concert of Rachmaninoff's ominous Prelude in C-sharp minor, another piece written by a Russian composer from the same time period, seals the deal. To put the icing on the cake (and to use another metaphor), a photo of the concert in the accompanying booklet shows a band member dressed in the sort of sailor suit which might have been worn in Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potempkin, another analogous period piece.

I've been heartened to see the resurgance and the resurgance of influence of possibly-lost musical styles in recent times. For nearly twenty years the advances pioneered by Brian Wilson (to name one example) were, for the most part, ignored or disparaged by the cutting edge. Nothing is less fashionable in any given time period than the last revolution, and in the '70s and '80s only XTC were willing to risk ridicule by utilizing Wilson's way of writing melody and instrumentation. Then came The High Llamas (originating from the primal melodic punk of Microdisney), The Wondermints, Belle and Sebastian, The Thrills, Super Furry Animals... now, forty years after Pet Sounds, it's hard to find groups who don't tip their hat to Brian; Pitchfork Media's top album of the year 2007, Person Pitch by Panda Bear, practically sounds like a Brian Wilson demo album circa 1968.

And so it is with Prokofiev, whose minor key, ironic, and gorgeously beautiful melodies have been informing alternative music for nearly thirty years. I first noticed the trend in early Depeche Mode; not on their first album, the Vince Clarke-penned Speak & Spell, but the follow-up lps A Broken Frame and Construction Time Again, all culminating in their moody goth masterpiece, Black Celebration (1986). Radiohead has practically built a career on utilizing the sort of melodic structures pioneered by Prokofiev; it's not hard to speculate that OK Computer is what Prokofiev would have sounded like had he been born in 1975.

In short, it's heartening to hear that good music need not die, but can live on in the work of future generations, even if the thousands of screaming fans in Wembley Stadium are none the wiser.
The Muse concert, BTW, or what I've seen of it, looks amazing, a bombastic display of agit-prop and earth-shattering anthems.

The guitar-carrying robots are cool, too.

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