Rush, Synesthesia, and Musical Resonance

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Several years ago, I had an email exchange with a couple of my fellow music obsessives about a certain rock group. We never got to the details of the music, instead focusing on “love ’em” / “don’t.” Actually, “don’t love ’em” isn’t quite right. It was more like “don’t understand the attraction”.

Being the musical evangelist that I am (and aren’t we all…just a little bit?), I decided to describe, as concretely as possible, why I like this band’s music.

Now, of course I knew this that this was going to be no easy task. Describing in words what is inherently abstract is tough enough. The added requirement, why I like it…well, that’s something else. I let the idea ferment in my head for a few days. Procrastination? No, just my way of giving my subconscious time to have its say.

Except that’s not really what happened.

What did happen was that I found this great article by author Louis Menand about “the art of short fiction”. A critical review of The Early Stories (a collection of John Updike’s early short fiction), it’s introduced in the most ingenious way: a parallel is constructed between the “invisible” technique behind the professional golf swing and the effect that an author is trying to create. “The effect” is that moment when the reader “gets it”…the moment of “ahhh”. So, just as each little mechanical element serves to support the swing, each word in the short story is there to contribute to “the effect”.

What’s this have to do with music? Menard goes on to say that this effect is tough to describe…but it is felt by the reader(or at least that’s the author’s hope). James Joyce referred to the effect as an epiphany. In his words, “…a revelation of the whatness of a thing”.

The whatness of a thing.

Yep, that’s what I want to describe. It’s an elusive topic. In the past I’ve put the question “Why does that sound good to me?” down on my writing to-do list. For the longest time I could not gain traction on the issue, mostly because it has always seemed like a huge undertaking, with too much mental and emotional inertia. More recently, artists like Mary Halvorson have inspired further explorations.

What I want to do now is describe the “whatness” of the music of the band Rush. The word “music” is emphasized because that’ll be the focus here. I’m not a lyrics guy when it comes to most rock music and Rush is no exception. Though Neil Peart is known for his lyric writing (and of course: spectacular drumming) the music is what I’m there for.

Before I get to the specifics I’d like to try to put into words the musical events (epiphanies?) that I listen for: you should know their whatness.

Despite my musical background (started off with violin and sax, then played guitar for over twenty years with almost ten years of jazz improvisation formal training), I almost never think about music in an analytical way. I don’t really care about key, time signature, major, minor, etc. No, I think about music visually. Yep, when I close my eyes…pictures appear. Call them musical landscapes.

Warning: this is a little weird.

The bits of a tune that remain constant, that form the foundation (rhythm guitar, bass, any kind of repeat) are seen as the surface of a body of water. This surface can have all sorts of textures: smooth & glassy (or mat), rough, choppy, wavy, jagged – depending on what the foundation is doing.

The melodic parts of the music show up as lines stretching over the lake’s surface. These lines can form any and all shapes in three-dimensional space and can be as close to or as far away from the surface as necessary (things like tension, release & energy of the music have influence over this) and project shadows down to it.

Note: I told you this was weird.

Depending upon what’s going on in the music, any element can switch its function from “foundation” to “line” or vice versa.

Note: this does not involve drugs of any kind.

That’s it. Well…almost. What’s missing is what makes these things “good.” What I tend to listen for are scenarios where the elements interact with one another — where the shadow(s) projected down upon the surface change the surface in some way.

Ok, back to earth for a concrete example (sort of).

La Villa Strangiato:

Subtitled “An Exercise in Self-Indulgence,” this tune clocks in at 9 minutes and 35 seconds of pure rock instrumental fun.

After a short Spanish guitar introduction an electric guitar arpeggio repeats (the “surface”). Various synth figures and orchestral bells comment on the guitar. The “surface” gains some texture as a repeated hi-hat pattern joins in to boost the intensity. The bass jumps in with the hi-hat (with kick drum soon to follow) to imply a space for some power chords. A few cycles later, when the tension is nearly unbearable, those chords do show up…setting off the first (of several) mini-climaxes of the song.

Now we’re into the verses. While Peart plays a supporting ride pattern, Alex plays the theme of the song. Geddy Lee’s bass, instead of merely holding up the bottom end, mirrors the guitar theme…in a mutant sort of way.

A few extended guitar chords serve as an introduction to the next section…where the skeletal drums and periodic bass notes (Taurus pedals?) provide plenty of room for an extended guitar solo that builds and builds and builds…

…Until it stops to begin a muted staccato pattern that again builds to…

A “tumbling” section that both frenzied and controlled. It’s like a rock band falling down the stairs. Gracefully.

Some call & response, some start & stop…and then we begin a highly modified restatement of the original verses, which morphs into some wild and crazy bass/drum unison bits.

A few more nearly indescribable rhythmic chord workouts and we’re again back to the final theme revisit before the song’s finale is encountered – where again descending shards of chords build monumental amounts of energy. This “exercise in self-indulgence” ends in a flurry of unison bass and snare drum notes followed by one last clipped guitar chord.

What I love about this music (besides the “visual” aspects) is the sense of shared adventure. Sure, all bands play together. But not all bands have togetherness. Rush puts together musics that overflows with enthusiasm for rock’s possibilities. Yes, the players are supposed to be virtuosos. Who cares?! What matters is results: how those air molecules are wiggled.

Other candidates for adventures with Rush (though I don’t want to turn this into a “what’s your favorite” kinda thing) are “Free Will” from Permanent Waves, “YYZ” from the breakthrough record Moving Pictures and the introduction to the epic 2112. Lots and lots of textured surfaces to be explored.

Well, there. How I perceive music (sort of), some Rush epiphanies, and an extension to everybody’s vocabulary: whatness.

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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  • Richard Choi

    Mark, I get it. I get it.

    As an older Rush fan (I’m guessing older than Tom Johnson judging from his comments about where he was during the Columbia disaster), I’ve had decades to muse about what I love about Rush.

    I fancy myself a bit of a lover of lyrics, and I will proudly say that was what first attracted me to Rush (mind you this would be in the late 70s). But I will also tell you that, looking back over the years, I was sorely naive. Some that stuff I find pretty cringe worthy — The Trees? Even 2112’s arrival of “The Solar Federation” makes me now shake my head and smile about what I once found so meaningful.

    But this comment is not about their lyrics, but about how — like discovering that the hot blonde has depths of intelligence and charisma — Rush was more than the words on that album sleeve that I used to pore over for hours on end. The lyrics pulled me in, but then the music took over.

    Over these 30-plus years, the virtuosity of Peart, Lee and Lifeson grew to make them “musician’s musicians”. And in that time I’ve been following and for the most part appreciating the musical evolution (and their twice-return to their roots — spiritually once in Feedback and instrumentally again in the keyboard-free Vapor Trails). In my youth, I was a fan of their changing time signature, though my current favorite Rush moments are when I hear the swapping of melody parts between the three.

    My synesthesial metaphor is not a lake, but I think of their music in terms of LAYERS. I think we’re on the same wavelength here. My mental picture is an orchestra score, with several bars on a page. I try to follow the melody — the musical focus, anyway — across the page, up and down.

    You know: that part where Neal’s mini-solo gives him center stage for 4 bars, then clicks back — under Alex this time — so Geddy’s bass can take over. Then Alex backs out of his drone as he stomps on that pedal and emerges into a solo with an arpeggio from, well, wherever he gets his arpeggios from, but with Geddy’s percussive fingers calling attention to the fact that he now has the rhythmic foundation, not Neal. We grin and take it all in, knowing it will all change up again in a few measures. Oh, the whatness of it all.

    This to me is the essence of what I love about Rush and why I instantly connected to your post. Rush plays with musical conventions — and they know what they are doing. When I listen, I feel enriched and energized.

    My “go to” tracks: La Villa Strangiato (Hemispheres — though my favorite version is the new one from Time Machine with the polka intro), YYZ (Moving Pictures), Leave That Thing Alone (Counterparts), Alien Shore (Counterparts, OK I guess my love for this record is pretty obvious), Sweet Miracle (Vapor Trails).

    Whatness, indeed.

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