Monday, August 14, 2006

First Impressions

They say that first impressions can be everything. Your whole encounter with someone can be made or broken by those first few seconds – including both verbal and silent exchanges. Furthermore, it is often within these first seconds that people form their overall impression of you – the entire you! Quite a lot of pressure!

Well, I’m no psychologist so I have no credibility to argue those points any further, but I certainly believe them. Recently, though, I started thinking about applying this concept to music. I started asking myself what are the pieces in which the first 5-10 seconds form the most amazing first impressions? What are the albums for whom the first seconds are instantly recognizable – classics? What are the pieces in which the first impression is actually “the right one” – you know what the whole work is going to be based on those first seconds?

Before I start discussing my list, let me once again set my ground rules. This time it’s pretty easy – only one. I wanted to look at this question across a myriad of genres, and so, I had to set the rule that a “piece” can qualify as one of the following:
1) A complete classical work, as in a symphony, concerto, sonata, etc. A “movement” of a complete work does not qualify (ie a particular Chopin Prelude does not qualify, but the complete preludes would)
2) A complete recorded album, not a particular song from an album.
Why do I set this rule? For classical music, it seems pretty straightforward. For other genres, such as rock, jazz, and hiphop, I am a big believer that the great “albums” are truly albums and not just a collection of songs. They are the ones which you start on track 1 and go through to the end. Meaning, the “album” itself is the piece, not each song. Simple, huh?

When I first set off to do this, I thought it would be easy. In my mind there were only a few that really rose to the top. As I started listing out the candidates, I realized how hard this would be. Close to 50 works came immediately and even then I knew I was missing a lot. In order to filter it down, I had to add criteria such as “quality of the entire album” (meaning a great album opener can be even better if the entire album is a masterpiece, too), “importance” or “recognition” of the opener, and, yes, I did have to factor in personal preference (it IS my list after all!).

Well, let’s start off with perhaps the greatest opening 10 seconds in all of western music. Ba-Ba-Ba-BUM. That’s right – there is probably no finer candidate than the beginning of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (1808). These 4 notes (8, if you count the subsequent repetition) are perhaps the most recognizable ones in all of music, let alone that they fall into this category as well. I might argue that even people who never listen to music, classical or not, still know these 4 notes.

The ominous pounding of these notes define the entire symphony – the beginning of the maddening of Beethoven combined with the spirit of triumph and majesty. For generations, conductors have slaved over how to perform these four notes – slow and thunderous? Fast and triumphant? The choice determines the entire tone of what’s to come, so think hard!

So that was the obvious one out of the way. Let’s proceed. Sticking with the classical theme, once I again I stress that there are so many options, including several others by Beethoven himself, but I thought I’d try something different with this next pick. How about the opening to Brahms’ First Symphony (1876)? The pounding tympanis, the inverse relationship between the strings and the winds (the strings ascending a scale with the others descending)…the syncopations…furious!

Coming out of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Brahms was on record as feeling skeptical about writing a symphony ("Composing a symphony is no laughing matter. You have no idea of how it feels to hear a giant's footsteps [Beethoven] behind you!"). In the end, he wrote 4 remarkable ones, all of which earn him the right to be considered one of the best symphonic composers in history, and all are held in the highest regard by me as well!

For those unfamiliar with Brahms’ work, his is one of the highest order of passion and romanticism. He can convey the pain of anger and rage, and at once switch to feelings of love and sorrow. With that, the fury that begins this first symphony means that much more, especially in contrast with the beautiful melodies to follow (listen to the theme that enters the 4th movement about 5:00 in – breathtaking!).

Many at the time saw Brahms as the successor to Beethoven. Some even refer to this first symphony as “Beethoven’s 10th”. Remarkable pressure for a composer, even one as great as Brahms, but these opening bars of this symphony prove his worth.

Moving beyond classical, let’s take on the next “major” genre of music to emerge – jazz. The first that I want to nominate to the list is the very opening to Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” (1964), including only the cymbal crash and piano and the opening cadenza for Coltrane’s godly tenor sax tone (the first 20 seconds or so, prior to the bass’s entrance). As if the heavens opening up with a ray of light to the earth introducing the piece to follow, the arpeggios dance in the saxophone over the shimmering cymbals and pianos. And then, all of sudden, it fades, making way for the bass to introduce the main thematic riff. It’s a simple few seconds that at least to me capture the essence of the entire piece – spiritual, ominous, beautiful – soul.

At the risk of running long, I actually had another candidate for jazz (one of John Coltrane’s mentors), but I’m going to forego that choice. I’m eager to move into rock and roll and have another several choices to get to.

The year was 1969, and the “British Invasion” was well underway in rock and roll. The Beatles had first hit America 5 years prior and The Rolling Stones were in full force. Rock and roll was transforming, splitting into the more singer/songwriter “folk” singers, pop singers such as Elvis, and on the other side, harder edge rock and roll, the spawn of classic rock, heavy metal, punk, and other such genres. It was in that year that we first heard from perhaps the greatest rock band ever, Led Zeppelin. The first album, Led Zeppelin 1, a collection of blues songs re-interpreted in the rock style, introduced us to Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones, a collection of musicians of the likes we may never see again. The first song off the album is “Good Times Bad Times”, and those first 2 chords (fierce E Major chords on top of the drums) alone said enough about who Led Zeppelin was going to be – that classic Page guitar distortion, the pounding drums, the hihat interludes between the chords, ultimately followed by the drum fill to lead us into the song. Rock and roll at its finest, done by its finest band. Though Led Zeppelin 1 may not be their greatest single album, they are a band whose catalog can be considered singular, and this opening few seconds is one of the finest first impressions a band could give.

Nearly twenty years go by before my next selection, in 1987. In the late 70s, Larry Mullin Jr posted a bulletin in his school to form a new band. Several lads showed up, including 3 by the name of Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, and Adam Clayton. In 1980, they had released their first album, under the new moniker that we all know as U2 (Paul changed his name to Bono Vox or simply Bono and Dave is now The Edge). Several good albums transpired, but their greatest gift to music came 7 years later in the form of “The Joshua Tree”, an album chock full of hits, representing U2’s perception of America (country, folk, gospel, R&B). The first track, “Where The Streets Have No Name”, begins softly and spiritually, with a quiet organ on top of atmospheric whispers, as if waking up in a cathedral in the sky. The Edge then enters with a guitar riff whose sound is unmistakable and whose harmonics play on the organ perfectly. Finally, the band jumps in (bass and drums), and the song begins. It’s truly a masterpiece opening segment for a masterpiece album.

Staying in sequence, the next choice is perhaps one that most will not recognize. In musician circles, especially alternative rock, “Loveless” by My Bloody Valentine (1991) goes down as a crowning achievement. However, I must admit that the first time I heard this album I wanted to go back to the store because I thought I had bought a bad copy. Everything just sounds “off” – detuned, distorted – off. And that’s what brings it to this list. This whole album is aurally spectacular, haunting melodies hidden behind curtains of sound throughout. It’s an album about beauty in sound, and in order to appreciate it, I believe that you have to forget most of what you know about listening to music and drift into another world. Those first few seconds define it all and will tell you everything you need to know, but don’t worry, you don’t have a bad copy. That’s just the way it is.

My final choice for this session comes a year later and in heavier form. It’s more of a personal choice, but I still think it qualifies. It starts with a shout, but Alice In Chains’ 1992 album “Dirt” ranks as one of the finest hard rock albums, and pulses throughout. And that opening scream, ah that opening scream. Out of nowhere and all of a sudden, layered underneath with distorted guitars and racing drums, Layne Staley’s scream sums up the entire album. The world will miss Layne (Layne passed away a few years ago after long battles with drug abuse), and this album should remain as a good memory of him. And what an opening!

So I know I’ve probably missed countless others that you may have on your list. I wanted to list all 50 or so that I had as candidates, including more Beethoven, Brahms, Grieg, Miles Davis, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Janes Addiction, and others, but I feel like the above are a very good representative set of some of the best works with accompanying great first impressions. Remember that you never get a second chance to make that first impression, and these artists have done it amazingly in these works. I hope you enjoyed the list and I look forward to your thoughts.


At 6:46 AM, Blogger Mihir said...

Up for consideration/conversation: The Chronic, Appetite, and RATM. Let's also not forget Saigon Kick...riiiight...


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