Saturday, December 19, 2009

the epic and the pop song

There is a statue of King Geser in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia. It is really quite impressive in person, I might add.

King Geser was a legendary, well, that is to say, epic, in the literal sense, King of medieval Tibet. His epic has spread wherever Tibetan style tantric Buddhism has spread - including what is now the Buryat Republic of the Russian Federation.

Check out the Wikipedia entry on Geser. There are something like 140 living Geser epic singers. They know the entire epic by heart, with only the expected regional variations. It is an oral tradition. Some of the singers are "illiterate." It is one of the only living epic traditions in the world today - the way the Iliad and the Odyssey would once have been living oral traditions in ancient Greece.

Then there is pop music. We have no living epic in our modern western culture like King Geser. I used to think about this in a negative way. Something like: pop songs are a dime a dozen. Pop songs are trite, meaningless. How many pop songs does the world need? When I would set down to write one, I would ask myself: does the world really need my poor amateur pop song added to it?

I now think this kind of thinking is all wrong. The famous structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said that modern western art music ("classical" music) has filled in the vacuum left by the evacuation of myth under the conditions of modernity. I think there is a depth to this insight that I fundamentally agree with and that is too huge for a blog post. But I think that there is an analog here: the endless generation of pop songs on the same template but with a near limitless number of finite instances fills for us in the modern west the pre-modern art of epic singing in the same way that art music fills for us under modernity our lack of pre-modern myth.

How do those epic singers remember all of it? They have a form, a template. They have an over-arching narrative. They have tones and sound structures within their folk-music theory. And from this they generate the epic over and over again. The almost infinite form gives birth, over and over again, to new finite instances.

And isn't this what we do when we make a pop song? Four instruments: rhythm, bass, treble, and melody. A few basic chords. One basic structure: intro-v-ch-v-ch-bridge-break-v-ch-coda. And we have a narrative: a story to tell. Even if we are trying to obscure it by being "alternative."

So, when I ask myself: does the world need one more pop song? Does the world need me to fill it with my silly attempt to craft another ditty? The answer is now more subtle. No, the world does not necessarily need my pop song. But I need to do it, because this is how I share in the epic.

Thanks for following. Peace