Alice Trocellier - Strozzi by day, Streisand by night: The Early Music Nerd's Guide to Pop Music
Thumbnail collage: Théodora Grimmeisen
The myth of the socks-in-sandals early music performer, unimpressed by musical developments post-1750, struggles to maintain its relevance today. Artists such as Jordi Savall and Jean-Christophe Frisch have explored the repertoire beyond the Western musical canon, others like Christina Pluhar or Bjarte Eike have experimented with crossovers, and young artists are adopting a modern aesthetic when it comes to promoting their recordings (oh don’t we love Jean Rondeau’s wild beard and open collar). In other words we are cool, inquisitive and genuinely aware of the current state of affairs. Rare are the HIP musicians today who listen exclusively to early music, and most of us enjoy a bit of a boogie from time to time. But what about rap artists and pop bands? Don’t they love a bit of figured bass, plucked keyboard instruments, and well-crafted ornaments? Here is a quick presentation of a few bands and artists which have – in my humble opinion – a conscious or unconscious link with the early music repertoire.
TONAL AXIS & MIGHTY HARPSICHORD: FROM BAROQUE POP TO BONKERS EDM
The first use of the harpsichord sound in pop songs comes hand in hand with the birth of Baroque Rock (or ‘Baroque Pop’) starting in 1960s Britain – the adjective ‘Baroque’ here referring to ornate string arrangements, the presence of woodwinds, and a general sweet melancholy. If world-famous bands such as The Rolling Stones (Lady Jane) or the Beach Boys (God Only Knows) have experienced with this sub-genre, the lesser-known Honeybus, The Zombies and The Left Banke fully qualify as Baroque Pop. Some personal favourites include The Left Banke’s Walk Away Renee, with its harpsichord introduction and string quartet extravaganza, as well as the band’s Pretty Ballerina – a simple song enriched by subtle harmonic changes and a surprising oboe part. In the same vein, Honeybus makes use of the oboe (enjoy the questionable tuning) in the beginning of their song I Can’t Let Maggie Go. The song’s melancholic gestures, simple refrain/verse structure and the lyrics ‘I see, I sigh’ remind me of a certain John Dowland song…
On the continent, it’s in the context of film music that composers took inspiration from 18th-century composers, namely Bach and Händel. Armando Trovajoli, Piero Piccioni, Carlo Rusticchelli, Luis Enrique Bacalov and, of course, Ennio Morricone made extensive use of compositional traits such as contrapuntal melodies and functional harmony patterns. Bacalov’s Samba written for the movie A Ciascuno Il Suo (‘We Still Kill the Old Way’, 1969) mixes the sonority of the harpsichord with that of the jazz flute, and incorporates samba rhythms to circle of fifths sequences. The list is long but Gianni Marchetti’s L’Incontro is also a fabulous work of 1960s Italian lyricism, again using harpsichord and oboe. A modern band, which traces its influences to the Italian cinematic tradition, and is also known for its blend of disco-sounds and 90s electronics, is the French band L’Impératrice (“The Empress”). Their title Sonate Pacifique might appeal to the Baroque aficionado, with its smooth instrumentation, introductory descending fifths sequence (Dmin7/Gmin7/CM7/FM7), and befitting title.
The 1990s saw a second pop resurgence for the harpsichord with bands such as Belle and Sebastian (The Model) or later on Massive Attack (Teardrop), and the hauntingly beautiful Extra Ordinary Thing by Aqualung. Today, it’s in hip-hop and electronic music that the instrument still catches the attention of artists and producers. From Cypress Hill to Eminem, via Outkast and Destiny’s Child (!), the sound of the harpsichord – often sampled directly from records or replicated electronically – has made a name for itself on the hip-hop and R’n’B scene. A recent and very elegant example of a re-worked harpsichord sound effect in rap is heard in Alxndr London’s April, as recorded in his live-session for Colors. The harpsichord preset is used here on the Nord keyboard, heavily affected with added reverb, thus diminishing the attacks on the first notes and lengthening the note duration – have a listen!
This first introduction to the pop harpsichord cannot be closed without throwing out the French DJ SebastiAn and his 2012 track Tetra for Ed Bangers Records – a display of plucked fugal madness. Another song worth mentioning is the obscure Mindmaze by E.M.M.A. for Coyote Records (2017), described by the artist as ‘medieval funk’, which relies on obsessive repeated harpsichord motives and a juicy descending tetrachord.
BORROWING: FOLIA AND AMEN BREAK
Looking for a connection between Ortiz, Frescobaldi, Marais, Grandmaster Flash, Nas and Dr. Dre? Here is one: they’ve all borrowed bass lines. As we know, our repertoire has got a very strong link with the practice of borrowing – from the Chanson masses of Dufay and Frye to Bach’s take on Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins among many others (there isn’t time or space to dive into the subject here unfortunately, for more info see Honey Meconi’s Early Musical Borrowing). Ground basses and dance frameworks are of key interest here because they involve melodic variations on a bass or standard harmonic pattern. Frescobaldi, and later on Corelli, Marais, or Scarlatti all drew on 17th-century musical frameworks that had developed within the Renaissance dance style such as the bergamasca, ruggiero, and the renowned folia, and used them for sets of variations.
Now. Hip-hop is an artistic form which is based on pre-existing material – artists sample from previous records in a form of aural collage or use the samples as a ground for the development of an upper part (either rapped or sung). Common to both baroque and hip-hop is thus the drive to use borrowed material in order to enable expressivity in newly created upper parts. Not unlike La Folia, some frameworks enjoyed unprecedented levels of popularity like Bernard Edwards’ bass line in Chic’s Good Times (sampled 180 times, most famously in Sugarhill Gang’s Rappers Delight) or the legendary Amen break – a 6 to 7 seconds drum solo heard in The Winston’s Amen Brother, sampled more than 2000 times! Marais and Corelli not only transcribed the standard harmonic pattern of the Folia theme, but also changed the bass line through rhythmic diminutions and augmentations. The same applies in hip-hop; snippets of bass lines are sampled but then re-worked through looping, scratching and other imaginative techniques. Some of my favourite examples include Diagable Planets’ Rebirth of Slick (1992), which slows down and loops Dennis Erwin’s animated bass line from Art Blackey’s Stretching (1978), or A Tribe Called Quest’s take on Ronnie Foster’s Mystic Brew in Electric Relaxation (1993).
Pushing the connection even further we can enjoy the many samples which use the music of 17th and 18th-century composers. Top of my list is Eminem’s Brainless and its sample of Bach’s Toccata in D minor – enjoy the inégalité (actual pure syncopation) of this version. Wendy Carlos’ arrangements of Bach and Purcell in the mid-70s gave way to a multitude of sampling opportunities such as Xzibit’s Symphony in X Major (Brandenburg Concerto No. 3) or Cage’s Agent Orange (Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary). French Rap has paid homage to Händel and Vivaldi with La Ligue by IAM (Zadock the Priest) and Booba’s Duc de Boulogne, which samples Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in D Major Op 3.
FRENCH TOUCH: BON GOÛT AND AGRÉMENTS
‘The fact is that we write differently from how we play, and thus foreigners do not play our music as well as we play theirs.’
(François Couperin, L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin, 1717)
‘Moon Safari proves that the French really do it better themselves.’
(the magazine Rolling Stone on Air’s Moon Safari, 2011)
You’ve guessed it, this next section is about the superiority (or is that an illusion of superiority?) of French music. The striking element of comparison here is the similar reception of this music. The idea that French music triggers a sense of sophistication, simple efficiency and careful craft exists in contemporary accounts of Lully’s orchestra but similarly in reviews of Daft Punk’s Discovery (2001). Just like the influence of Lully and Couperin is acknowledged in scores, treatises and letters throughout Europe in the early 18th-century, the birth of the French Touch in the mid-1990s is often regarded as the main influencer for the disco resurgence of the ‘00s and America’s further development of electronic dance music.
Take Lecerf de la Viéville and his flourished defence of the French style over the Italian (1704): ‘imagine a young woman of noble but modest bearing, (…) without excess; (…) with lovely natural colouring, far removed from all that is false or imitation; (…) speaking well without flattering herself that she is a great speaker and without wanting to speak all the time… This is a lady that you should easily recognise; she is French Music.’ A quick browse through reviews of major French Touch records made me come across a similar lexicon: from Saint Germain’s ‘cool and ineffable sophistication’ to I:cube’s ‘subtle and enchanting’ tracks, Air’s ‘polite arpeggios’, and Phoenix’s ‘nonchalance.’
If the music itself doesn’t share a lot with our treasured Jean-Baptiste and François, I would recommend giving it a chance. One could argue that some song titles by the French multi instrumentalist and bearded legend Sébastien Tellier somehow echo Lully: the composer’s Dialogue de la guerre avec la paix (1655) becomes Tellier’s L’amour et la violence (2008), whilst the songwriter’s Ritournelle draws on Lully’s many ritournelles in his opera-ballets. Coincidence? Of course it is, but still funny to point it out.
Further to this, the drive of Couperin in his later career, echoed by Sénaillé, Blavet and Telemann amongst others, to achieve les goûts réunis - the synthetic fusion of European styles - can be paralleled with the eclectic genre combination hailed by Daft Punk and Motorbass. Both acts are known to blend diverse influences, from frantic disco to cocktail lounge crooning, hip-hop and new wave rock.
Leaving aside the French Touch movement, the one artist who I think pays homage to the music of Couperin particularly, is the Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan. The link between jazz and baroque music has been explored in academia, with an emphasis on the shared practice of improvising on a framework (figured bass or chord progressions). Yet I think that it is in his ornamentation that Tigran Hamasyan assimilates the language of the 18th-century French harpsichord school most strikingly. French music and its self-proclaimed bon goût is articulated most clearly in contemporary sources dealing with the use of ornamentation. Far removed from the Italian brilliant and virtuosic ornaments, the French aimed at an embellished moderation, one marked by its delicacy and preciseness. These qualities are carried in Tigran’s playing, in my views, and can be heard particularly on the tracks Fides Tua and New Baroque 1, in which the pianist ornaments his uncluttered melodies with subtle embellishments - not far removed from Couperin’s or D’Anglebert’s pincés and ports de voix.
I started this article thinking that I would struggle to find material, and there I am, battling with the word limit. I hope you discovered or re-discovered some artists here, and appreciated or disagreed with my remote connections to early music aesthetics. It has been fun and I think the main message here is to be curious about music as a whole, and that much can be learnt from other repertoires. Crossovers are becoming increasingly common in the early music scene - if you’re in London, I’d recommend the new Baroque at the Edge Festival, whose line-up promotes a new sense of interaction between our repertoire and that of others. As for myself, I hope to be back on here with more to explore, from the spezzatura of Mac DeMarco and The Lemon Twigs, to the sass of some top female composers from Barbara Strozzi, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre to Barbara Streisand and Beyoncé.
Alice Trocellier is a viol player, currently finishing her Masters at the Royal Academy of Music under the tuition of Jonathan Manson, thanks to the support of the Countess of Munster Trust. She previously read music at Bristol University, where she wrote about musical taste in 18th-century France, the influence of Dimitrie Cantemir on the development of Turkish music, and intertextual references in French rap amongst other things. When she isn’t playing or listening to music, Alice explores the free museums of London, watches Sunday BBC drama, and sings praises to Stephen Fry and Richard Ayoade - her own sophisticated way to give Brexit the middle finger.
Main sources and further information
On Baroque Pop and the harpsichord:
- Bob Stanley, ‘Baroque and a soft place’, The Guardian, (September, 2007)
- Bob Stanley, Tea & Symphony The English Baroque Sound 1967-1974 (CD Compilation)
- David McNamee, ‘Hey what’s that sound: Harpsichord’, The Guardian, (January, 2010)
On Italian Film Music:
- Javier di Granti, ‘Barroco Moderno’ and ‘Barocco … ma non tropo’, Raider of the Lost Ark: Lounge Cinematica Series - amazing website (in Spanish) presenting 1960s Italian cinematic music and jazz artists. Expect some absolute gems and rare finds!
- Justin WIlliams (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)
On the French Touch:
- Ben Cardew, ’Deeper Than Daft Punk: A Love Letter to the French Touch’, Medium, (April 2015)
- Rolling Stone contributors, ‘100 best albums of the 90s’, Rolling Stone, (April 2011)
- Honey Meconi, Early Musical Borrowing, (New York: Routledge, 2004)