What a song.* It begins with nothing more than a hint of stillness, a tiny flick of wind through grass, a gnat’s heartbeat, a cricket’s wink, a cat hair’s whisper in the imagination. Then, emerging from beyond the frequency at which human biology can detect sound, an indeterminate buzzing, perhaps of an insect, a rhythmic crunching, and a rustling like the uncurling of forest foliage. Next, the low thrum of a distant double bass, a rumble of timpany, a bass drum thud, then a snare, repeating and rising like the approach of a far-off army. Is that an oboe or a clarinet through the trees? Joining out of nowhere, the sounds are reminiscent of industry, the pushing of pistons, the hiss of steam, the banging of hammers. These instruments quickly and indiscernibly align into the rhythm of a human heartbeat.
Suddenly, cracking like jagged sunlight across the sky, a guitar riff breaks out, and throws strange shadows. It does it again. Then cutting across, a piano plays a rhythmic counterpoint. The sounds intertwine. A string section joins. The energy rises, the pace quickens, and building, all the instruments quickly take a second’s breath, until a voice, at first soft but distinct in the verse, lets out a low howl, rising to a scream as it drives into the big corner of the chorus, joined by more voices and doubled guitars. The pattern repeats itself, each cycle building in intensity, the lyrics alternating between absolutely heart-wrenching and utterly joyous. Vocal phrases are echoed first with organ, then brass, then bells, until all hell breaks loose in a middle-eight section with the sound of a chainsaw. Somehow it cuts back to the verse, then into a chaotic final chorus where emotions are unleashed into a hurricane of the unspeakable, all instruments straining in anarchic energy at the edge of each register, out of which we hear, to an uproar and climax, a herd of elephants – trumpeting, thudding, tramping, triumphant.
Building is a process that happens in most songs, but this week we’re looking for the ones that do it in the most effective, interesting ways. Your approach may be less about the technicalities of song structure, perhaps even more all about how the song makes you feel and how it carries you. And song building doesn’t only have to be about increasing volume. It can come from more subtle multiple layers of sound and instruments. A song’s sense of crescendo, of whatever type, can, for example, build with suspense through the story it tells in lyrics or the delivery of the vocalist. The effect might be explicitly or otherwise sexual, or simply offer a physical release, and create moments of so-called “eargasm”. It can build slowly or fast, it can increase and develop to high level of joy, or anger, or other emotions, and the intensity doesn’t have to come at the very end, but at another point. Yet often the best building up songs move from a whisper to a scream, and finish with a climax that leaves your feelings and ears resonating.
Songs or pieces of music that build can originate from many genres, from classical to dance, but don’t have to be lengthy to build successfully. Three minutes can be enough. They can spark emotions with careful pace of rhythm, structure and delivery. The standard intro-verse-chorus-middle-eight-verse-chorus or similar structure could seen be a hindrance to momentum, but there are songs that still use this sort of shape but build and increase intensity within it. Dance music often simplifies structure and builds from a constant beat and baseline, but there are many interesting crossbreeds that bring momentum in various forms, from New York’s indie-dance hybrid LCD Soundsystem to Sacramento’s guitar-based !!! (also known as Chk Chk Chk), and Montreal’s Arcade Fire.
The classical genre, with length at its disposal, may also bring many prominent examples, from the great composers – so Tchaikovsky, Beethoven or Wagner may be on some lists – to lesser known modern figures. Finland’s Einojuhani Rautavaara is an unusual composer who uses sounds from nature and builds with a mystical quality and unusual stringed arrangements. Artists from Iceland, such as Sigur Ros, also build songs with their own otherworldly quality, and are equally inspired by the powerful forces of their landscape.
Folk, country and different forms of world music may also come frequently into the build-up category, with an emphasis on storytelling. Even if the language is not understood by western listeners, there is now shortage of infectious buildup momentum in African artists such as Tinariwen from the Saharan Desert of northern Mali. Combining folk and the passion of soul and Motown, of which there may well be many contenders, Van Morrison is also an artist who can build, and uses unusual structures, evoking many mood changes, from the peaceful shores of Donegal to the fierce passion of his city of Belfast or Detroit.
Rock has no shortage of bulding ability either. So Smashing Pumpkins and Godspeed You! Black Emperor may be among your thoughts of many. Funk and soul is also an ideal genre for building up energy, and of course James Brown and in a different way, George Clinton, were also pioneers of the build, while Otis Redding was an outstanding star of emotional climax. But who whether these or others, has done it best, and in what songs?
Time then to briefly look at some other forms of building to help inspire your choices. These may express the feeling that your song inspires. Malcolm Gladwell’s book of philosophy, science and society, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, reached its own huge sales momentum with a fascinating read on how small things can start trends of accelerating energy. So let’s look at a quirky, musical example in the form of how one eccentric, lone dancer at the Sasquatch festival, Washington, in 2009 helped build up a surprising about of momentum. Better watched, in my opinion, with the sound and commentary turned down ...
Nuclear fusion is perhaps the ultimate form of energy building up, a chain reaction speading rapidly into explosion. How then to illustrate, in a basic way, what happens? Ping pong balls and mouse traps, of course.
Does your song suggestion do this in your mind? Finally, buildup doesn’t have to be explosive, but delicately determined and unstoppable. In 1987 two Swiss artists, Peter Fischli and David Weiss with an extraordinary talent for using old bits of scrap, as well as a great grasp of physics and chemistry, created an installation film, Der Lauf Der Dingen (The Way Things Go). There have been other versions since, not to mention controversy over an alleged copycat Honda car ad, but here’s the original, speeded up four times. Does it remind you of that feeling of playing the Mousetrap game or watching dominoes fall?
This week’s brillant baron of buildup and master of momentum, not to mention the great keeper of all built-up records in Readers Recommend history, is the magnificant Marconius. Perhaps mentioning how and particular points when they build, put your songs suggestions with links in comments below, and optionally in the Spotify playlist by last orders (11pm BST) this Monday 1 June for the results to be published next Thursday 4 June.
Interested in compiling a list of songs from readers’ suggestions? We’re looking for writers for subjects starting from 18 June. Email email@example.com to arrange.
* The identity of this song is to be revealed later …
To increase the likelihood of your nomination being considered, please:
• Tell us why it’s a worthy contender.
• Quote lyrics if helpful, but for copyright reasons no more than a third of a song’s words.
• Provide a link to the song. We prefer Muzu or YouTube, but Spotify, SoundCloud or Grooveshark are fine.
• Listen to others people’s suggestions and add yours to a collaborative Spotify playlist.
• If you have a good theme for Readers recommend, or if you’d like to volunteer to compile a playlist, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
• There’s a wealth of data on RR, including the songs that are “zedded”, at the Marconium. It also tells you the meaning of “zedded”, “donds” and other strange words used by RR regulars.
• Many RR regulars also congregate at the ‘Spill blog.