“If we decide to call singing the heart of music – at least of the music of the past –” writes the pianist Alfred Brendel, “what then is harmony? The third dimension, the body, the space, the mesh of nerves, the tension within the tonal order, but also the tension in the apparent no man’s land of the post-tonal.” Harmonic events such as transitions, transformations, changes of musical climate and surprises, Blendel goes on to write, all resist calculation. But it is nonetheless the task of the performer to reveal the tensions they give rise to right down to their tiniest ramifications.
It seems that shoegaze music is based precisely on the incalculably consequential climate changing events that Blendel writes about. Though great shoegaze music often relies on excellent song-writing, the emphasis in it is not so much on an arresting vocal melody or some surprising chord sequence or bold harmonic transition, but rather on the tension created by the mutual relations between the melody and the harmonic space, between the music’s heart and its body, a tension which often manifests itself in relatively subtle changes in texture, tone, colour and atmosphere that produce a big sensory, dynamic and emotional impact.
Consider for example the wonderful “Futurism Vs. Passeism Part 2” by Blonde Redhead. A slowed-down guitar arpeggio that drops onto the song from nowhere at 2:35, after the lyric “et on recommence” (and you start again), suddenly disrupts its headlong rush into the future and pulls it back into a stumbling engagement with a personal past:
Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley was never a flashy drummer, but he is a master of subtle changes and developments in rhythm patterns and drum-kit parts selection, which help turn the band’s songs into compelling musical stories. In the beautiful “Disappearer” he drives the song on its foggy highways, drops out to create viscous bogs of sound, leads passages of dark inner reflection and starry implosion, and finally gets the song back on track for its final disappearance:
On My Bloody Valentine’s “Nothing Much To Lose”, the simple device of switching from dense distorted guitars in the intros to chiming acoustic guitars in the verses creates a breath-taking, heart-warming opening-up effect:
In “Wild Heart”, Abe Vigoda’s mini masterpiece, a surge of piercing metallic guitar overwhelms the song’s nervously pulsating heart in the choruses, opening up immeasurable expanses of fear and fearlessness that finally make the song’s whole intimate body stand on end: