Rock and Roll Woodworking

A musician friend of mine was recently talking about the differences between songs and performance pieces… He was saying that in pop music there has been a shift away from songs in the last 40 years, and more into performance pieces. There are certain songs that work in a stripped down context because they are better written or better crafted because they can work outside of the context of their recorded bed. Now, take Led Zeppelin. What Led Zep wrote, for the most part, are performance pieces. When you hear Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll”, you want to hear how the drums sound on the recording, how the guitar sounds, the voice sounding the way it sounds on the recording. You want to have a recreated version of that recorded performance in a live context. Which is what they excelled at, they were tremendous at that.

It isn’t so much the writing of the song rather, it is the presentation of the piece which is what you want. Which is quite a different thing than a written “song” song, which can work in any context. Going back past 40, 50, 60 years in popular music, you are dealing with Broadway tunes, Standards, Classics… “Pop”ular songs that can work in multiple orchestration, in many contexts. There is a chordal component and a melody: and that is the song. That is the thing that is the songwriter’s creation. Studios came along, and the studio became a place for experimentation. Recording techniques advanced… and the song extends itself past the composition into the guitar tone, into the drum sound, into the tambour of the voice. That can be enough to carry a song through and make it something interesting and iconic.
Start me Up” by the Rolling Stones has a particular sound. It has a certain guitar sound, a certain drum sound and Mick’s voice. It is a performance piece. Unless you are doing a massive overhaul, anyone who plays that Rolling Stones tune is going to be making an attempt to recreate that original, iconic sound.

Take a song like “Yesterday” by the Beatles, it is more about the chords[*] and the melody. Both “songs” and “performance pieces” are equal and valid in their appeal. Burt Bacharach songs are the same way, they work in multiple contexts because of the development of the chordal and melodic components. The same continues in Hip-Hop; you have to have that auditory hook that relates it back to the recorded version, these are less songs in their composition than performance pieces.

When you play Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” you might be blown away. Here are these really interesting chords and melody, and even when played on piano without the lyrics you still know what it is, and it is really strong and as interesting as when played by the boys in Nirvana.

So what is the goal? Is it a combination of melody and chords, and then you throw the interesting tambours on top of it? Geo says, yeah. You take melody of a straight forward Rock and Roll song and it is really very simple. It’s usually only a couple of notes, one or two, which is something that pop songwriters tend to shoot for. Any melody that they try to write needs to be able to exist on it’s own, unless they are shooting for that “performance piece” that follows with the specific sound on the band originally recording it.

That being said, the melody of “Close to the Edge” is really, really something else. Harmonically and rhythmically there are things happening underneath all that which are very cool. Which points out there are exceptions. If your melody can stand on it’s own, and can be very interesting on it’s own, that is the thing to shoot for.

What the hell does this have to do with woodworking?

Well, you look at Greene&Greene, and you have a particular style that works in many contexts – door frames, bookcases, crown moulding. You have a basic form for a boarded chest or a settlebanc,

This settlebanc is of the German type, with a chest beneath the seating planks. Image from

and despite the different decorative elements, the piece stands or fails based on it’s core elements. In many ways, the variations on a basic piece of furniture, designed by Classical Vitruvian and Boethean proportioning is very much like a four-chord song (Axis of Awesome). These are why mash-ups work.

Compare that to making a High Boy, where either your create a high boy following Chippendale’s design and formula, or you don’t create a highboy. Sure, you can take off or add on some embellishments, but it is undeniably a performance piece. You make a Windsor chair to the specifics that identify a Windsor chair. Changing any element results in something that is not a Windsor chair.

The actual use of proportional design gives us these particulars and allows us to more easily craft pieces in those milieu which can stand on their own as creative endeavors, without having to reproduce a specific piece.

Birka Turned Chair1

A Byzantine Turned Chair from Birka. Dated 13th Cen.

We could have a go a recreating the Duchess Agnes Chair, or one of the handful of other pieces that fit into the genre known as “Byzantine Turned Furniture.” In doing that reproduction, it would be a performance piece. Showing the ability to recreate the exact nature of the original “studio performance.” But if instead we look at the proportions of the chair, and use the elements found within the style, a unique “song” can be created. It will have many of the same notes, but will in itself be able to stand alone as a composition. The major elements of the piece to the right looks like, 3:2 width to depth, 2:1 from floor to seat:seat to armrest. I’d suppose the seat back is 4:3 from the seat, width:height… But that needs a little experimentation to discern specifically. The placement of the spindles on the front are fifths of the width, while those on the sides are at thirds.
Regardless, we see the notes of the melody: parts of five, parts of three. Chords of the harmony: 2:1, 3:2, 4:3.
The tambour of the piece might be seen in the orientation and number of turnings that make up the “panels” of the sides and back. The wood chosen for each part will have it’s own “rhythm,” and the paint (which is long gone from the extant original) would have been Mick Jagger’s voice, overlaying how the melody is delivered.

And just because this is my blog, and I can. Two more examples of a song that exceeds being a performance piece. Exceptionally detailed and a very involved melodies can be iconic, regardless of venue. I think of this one, and similar songs, as the Flambeaux Gothic of late 20th century popular music.

* Yes, that was Elvis Presley covering “Yesterday.”
This entry was posted in Design and Proportion, Furniture Research, Reproduction, Woodworking Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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