Reaching back to our roots through music

December 21, 2016

When I listen to any kind of music, I am intrigued by its influences and where its roots lie.

Melodies and lyrics have so much to tell us. They don’t just excite us, but also reveal hidden truths about the times they were written in. Some music is openly subversive – think of punk. But there are notes of revolution in the great pastoral works by Mahler too. Indeed, all musical could be classed as iconoclastic in its themes in some way; we are always challenged by what we listen to.

But what of the way musicians are inspired by their predecessors as well as current events? This is what gives great music its complexity. Think of Bach influencing in technique almost everyone who followed him. Helmuth Rilling, an outstanding Bach conductor, describes him as “the great consolidator, summing up the best of what had gone before, refining the best ideas of his own time”. And then, adding: “His music has influenced every later generation of composers and musicians – a heritage that continues right up to our own time.”

Bach’s influence can be seen in works from Mozart and Schumann to jazz and progressive rock. And his famous Minuet in G major from the Notebooks for Anna Magdalena Bach was turned into A Lover’s Concerto which was a hit for The Supremes.

To give it that distinctive Motown sound, its classic minuet time of 3/4 had to be changed to the common time beat of 4/4 and producers also orchestrated it for an expanded ensemble, adding in half-step key changes.

Of course, in turn, Motown music has also been inspirational for the most recent forms of music including hip-hop and even grime.

In fact, modern musicians owe much to Berry Gordy – the creator of Motown – who built a new sound which was less overtly blues-influenced than previous black music. When he wrote and produced songs for his favourite girl trios, he was determined to make them sound less ethnic so that they would achieve greater sales and cross over into the white music market.

From that idea, came other genres which broke bounds such as punk, or simply developed the rhythm and blues sound adding in electronic instruments as well as joie de vivre – such as disco. The lush orchestral arrangements which gave many Motown hits a classic touch were reused in the 1980s among New Romantics.

When we listen to the deceptively simple songs from the Detroit hitmakers we are touching the past, and reaching back to the old masters still. It is a comforting and yet exciting thought.

Bruno Wang, founder of Bruno Wang Productions