Saturday, March 14, 2015

Review: The Beatles and the Avant-Garde

How often are you tempted to put on "Revolution 9" and really listen for the nuances? That's what I thought. Even the most devoted Beatles fan is unlikely to name the song as a favorite. It may be the only Fabs song you leave off your iPod. If you still have an iPod.

But it's probably the first tune that springs to mind when you think of the weirdest, wildest, most experimental song the Beatles ever recorded. It's also the most obvious, and least subtle example of the band incorporating avant-garde influences into their work.

It's these influences Aaron Krerowicz traces in his short but valuable study, "The Beatles and the Avant-Garde."

We've all read in various Beatles biographies how the group was influenced by Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and other ear-bending composers of the mid-20th century. But Krerowicz does more than drop their names. He provides history and context, explains how the music sounded and how it was created. And then he shows us how, specifically, the Beatles used similar ideas - knowingly and not - in their own compositions.

He traces, for example, how the "sound mass" in "A Day in the Life" -- the huge orchestral crescendos heard in the song -- are similar to features of earlier classical works by Jean-Féry Rebel, Charles Ives, particularly, Iannis Xenakis.

Drawing on the memoirs of Beatles producer George Martin and recording engineer Geoff Emerick, Krerowicz digs into the technical side, too, discussing how the Beatles used tape speed manipulation and loops in ways similar to those used by classically trained experimentalists.

He even wanders into that no-mans' land where most Beatles fans and authors fear to tread: The solo recordings of John and Yoko. Maybe some of us own a copy of Two Virgins just to shock friends with the cover. But how many of us have even heard Life with the Lions or the Wedding Album? If these recordings even get mentioned in books, it's usually just an aside: "Then John and Yoko made a bunch of weird, unlistenable records that nobody liked."

Krerowicz listens with open ears - not making any claims for the music's lasting value, but not disparaging it, either.  Instead, he considers Lennon and Ono's intent, describes the music and connects it to music of a similar bent by more academic composers. He goes briefly into the history of the Fluxus movement, Yoko's performance art and John and Yoko's short films, as well.

Lennon, being the most experimental Beatle, gets the most space in the book, although Krerowicz explains how Paul McCartney was actually the first Beatle to get interested in experimental music. It's his tape loops playing on "Tomorrow Never Knows." He's also the one who considered having the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop provide the musical backdrop to "Yesterday." And he led the sessions for the still-unreleased freakout track, "Carnival of Light," which pre-dated the recording of "Revolution 9" by more than a year.

George Harrison, in contrast, gets little attention apart from his Moog experiments on the Electronic Music album. Ringo Starr, not being one of the composing Beatles, gets nearly none at all. But Krerowicz logically explains these omissions in defining the scope of his study.

The material may seem lofty and Krerowicz is an academic with a graduate degree in musical composition from Hartford University, but the book is very accessible and clearly written.

More insight into how the Beatles' experiments were received at the time and how they can be traced into the music of later pop- and rock-based performers would have been nice, yet the book still serves a valuable purpose in its examination of the band's experimental side.

The book is available in the contiguous U.S. from the author's website and elsewhere via Amazon and bn.com.

The Beatles and the Avant-Garde
By Aaron Krerowicz
$17.99 list (discounted via author's site)
138 pages, 2014

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