Minimalism and Post-rock in the music of
Godspeed You! Black Emperor & A Silver mt. Zion
A Silver Mt. Zion was born as an offshoot of the post-rock orchestra Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Efrim Menuck, the co-founder of GYBE, had some ideas that he felt did not fit the collective spirit of GYBE, where everyone wrote music together. When his dog Wanda died while GYBE was on tour, he decided to make an album in memory of the dog. The album is called ‘He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms…’. It includes the song ‘Movie (Never Made)’ which is the first song in the GYBE/Mt.Zion ouvre to make use of Menuck’s singing voice. A Silver Mt. Zion consists of a few members from GYBE. At first, Menuck felt uncertain about using his voice in this context and being the vocalist and front man of the ensemble.
Menuck had originally intended to make Zion an ensemble where he could learn how to score music. But this idea was abandoned for ‘playing whatever sounds best’. However, the first album has a composed feel to it, which is remarkable given the way in which it was created. It holds a special place in the GYBE/Silver Mt. Zion ouevre. The atmosphere is set here by Efrim’s minimalistic piano playing. It is indeed safe to classify the music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and A Silver Mt. Zion as post-rock.
Menuck has been noted to have a strong influence from modern classical music. In an interview in the magazine The Wire (2002), he describes walking into a church where Olivier Messaien was playing. He described how ‘the church was shaking along with the music’1. He seems to have been influenced by modern classical music, as well as by the minimalists and the avant-garde. This is an influence not often heard in rock music, especially not to the extent evident here.
The song ‘13 Angels Standing Guard ‘Round The Side Of Your Bed’ is a good example of this. The song starts with a simple phrase of 4 chords, played on a sampler, which seems to be playing back some kind of a vocal sample. Then a bassline is added, which quietly conforms with the root notes. The violin enters, and seems to somehow play around the main chord progression, which is repeated and grows into a mournful hymn. The rest of the song is a sort of exercise in dynamics, where the volume rises and falls again in the end. While most of rock music falls into the category of verse-chorus song forms, the music of A Silver Mt. Zion is not at all concerned with this.
Instead Efrim Menuch chooses to approach his music from a minimalistic standpoint. The song is based around the following chord progression, which is expanded upon, much in the form of a canon.
The year 1997 was an important year for post-rock. It was the year of the release of the EP Slow Riot For Zero Canada, one of the cornerstones of the genre. This album includes the track Moya, which is a good example of the post-rock build up that characterizes most of the later bands of the genre. This track had the working title ‘Gorecki’ by which it is still referred to in concerts. The actual piece by Gorecki which the musicians are inspired by here is not clear. However, listening to The 3rd Symphony, a symphony of sorrowful songs, I cannot but come to the conclusion that it could have exerted a strong influence on this track.
If not directly evident in the musical theme of the track, one can hear the basic ingredient of the music of Godspeed in Gorecki’s symphony. Extremely atmospheric landscapes of drawn out melodies, and droning deep bass notes. A fundamentally contemplative mood, which by some would be called melancholic.
Gorecki’s symphony starts off with rumbling bass, playing an otherworldly slow ambient line, which then builds into the violas and violins upwards and onwards. On a similar note, the Dead Flag Blues of Godspeed starts off with rumbling drums, and a slow guitar/violin melody.
„Post-rock is charistically defined as use of rock instruments for non-rock purposes.‘Post-rock brought together a host of mostly experimental genres — Kraut-rock, ambient, prog-rock, space rock, math rock, tape music, minimalist classical, British IDM, jazz (both avant-garde and cool), and dub reggae, to name the most prevalent — with results that were largely based in rock, but didn’t rock per se.’“2
The inclusion of minimalist classical music might seem surprising, but is really not if one takes into account where the classical composers of the late 20th century are coming from. These days most classical composers grow up with rock in their ears all day long as well as classical music. They draw from a breadth of available resources previoUsly quite unknown to composers. Whereas Bach only had the choice of listening to his own music, either self composed, or played by himself or some nearby instrumentalist, or of taking a walk down to the pub where the local troubadour would play some drinking songs, the modern composer has an endless amount of resources to choose from, from tribal music to rock, and to the classical music of the ages.
The music of the 20th century minimalists includes such different voices as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Henryk Gorecki, LaMonte Young and Terry Riley. These seemingly different composers have some things in common. They all choose to streamline their compositions to simplicity. This not only recalls rocks musical language, but also the return of classical music as sounding pleasing to the ear.. In the case of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, their approach relies heavily on the use of ostinatos. They are used building up polyrythmic tensions and resolving them as a foundation of their music. But they both for the most part shun completely traditional chord and melody progression. Reich is heavily influenced by African drum music, where the tension is built up mostly with polyrhythms. The music of Arvo Pärt, Henryk Gorecki and Lamonte Young along with Gavin Bryars is more connected to the aesthetic of GYBE and A Silver Mt. Zion. Here, instead of ostinatos we have longer notes which fade one into another, much like a hymn, or Gregorian singing in an empty church. Arvo Pärt for one calls his approach ‘bell tone’, due to the fact that when one note is held for an extended amount of time along with its corresponding 3rd or 6th, different overtones of the notes start to become more audible to the ear.3 Just as Western harmony was born in empty churches where monks singing Gregorian chants could hear the reverberation of the notes echoing back into each other. The rockers of the modern era draw this influence back into their music, and return it to popular culture.
Reynolds expanded upon the idea later in the May 1994 issue of The Wire. He used the term to describe music “using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbre and textures rather than riffs and power chords.” He further expounds on the term:
“Perhaps the really provocative area for future development lies… in cyborg rock; not the wholehearted embrace of Techno’s methodology, but some kind of interface between real time, hands-on playing and the use of digital effects and enhancement.” 4
In Post-Rock, electronics are used along with traditional rock instruments and more classically rooted instruments like violins, choir and wind instruments. Post-rock can be quite droney, especially as played by guitar-driven bands. But the more pop oriented bands sound atmospheric as well. They are all commonly the antithesis of rock, since rock, having become only a market formula, could not be rebellious anymore. The emergence of Post-Rock was a sort of silent rebellion.
The first movement of Gorecki’s 3rd symphony starts off with this simple bass line:
It’s in the key of E eolian. This then builds up in register over a time span of a few minutes, and starts to cascade into higher voices:
Notice that the higher voice starts from a note a 3rd higher than the first voice, which is to say it’s the same line only transposed up a 3rd.
Moya starts off with a drone, borrowing the idea of a static beginning. It states the key of Bb. This is then followed by the simple guitar/violin melody, accompanied by a cello drone:
The theme is played a few times in rubato, and then elaborated upon. Then we get the chord progression played by a guitar:
This is then followed by the other instruments joining in little by little, until the result is a wall of sound. Thus, the rock sound has become just another device available to the modern classical composer.
The new generation of rockers is sometimes labeled “cute” but when more closely looked at, one sees that this is simply an act of subverting the power of rock to itself. When rock ceased to be a real rebellion and became just another marketing device, the new rockers started to look elsewhere for inspiration. Post-rock was like an alternative to the alternative rock. When rock instruments were used to play music that is not rock, a new type of music emerged. But this music was like an archeological dig, rediscovering something that had always been there, in the light of rock’s raw power and directness. Much as modern classical music seems to have lost its way to the desperate escape from its tradition, which suffocates any new music being born, perhaps rock is the only musical form that can save it? After all, Beethoven, Mozart and other composers can be said to have lived and died like rock stars do. In the era in which classical music was being born, Beethoven and Mozart would both be known for improvising pieces of amazing beauty and grace, much like rockers “jam”. However, unlike jazzers who like to encode everything in complexity and suggestivity, this type of jamming could well have been closer to The Grateful Dead sound than to Charlie Parker. Bach was known to improvise during church service, and theories have been made that Air on a G-String is in fact an improvisation that somebody transcribed while listening to him, thus explaining its difference from all his other work.
I believe that the real new classical music is not only the one being made in academies, and spearheaded by professors, but also the raw instrumental music of post-rock, which has reached a level of sophistication which rivals that of classical music. This music is made with the rawness and energy of something new being born, and as rock has not lost the connection with its listeners, like so much 20th century classical music did, it stays close to the human spirit, and its infinite complexity.
New York, December 20, 2007
The live version of Moya, which goes by the working title ‘Gorecki’ and can be found on the internet at http://www.archive.org/details/gybe2000-10-31
1. Post-rock. (2007, December 12). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 00:42, December 21, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Post-rock&oldid=177330456
2. Post-rock/Experimental. (2007, December 12). In Modern Music. Retrieved 00:42, December 21, 2007, from http://www.themodernmusic.com/2006/02/post-rockexperimental.html
3. Hilliel, P. (1997). Arvo Pärt. Oxford University Press.
4. Reynolds, Simon. Simon Reynolds’ article on post-rock. The Wire. Retrieved on 2006-11-28.
1 Keenan, D. Godspeed You Black Emperor! the Wire, 195., p. 36.
2 Post-rock/Experimental. (2007, December 12). In Modern Music. Retrieved 00:42, December 21, 2007, from http://www.themodernmusic.com/2006/02/post-rockexperimental.html
3 Paull Hilliel, Arvo Pärt
4 Reynolds, Simon. Simon Reynolds’ article on post-rock. The Wire. Retrieved on 2006-11-28.