Few pieces of music have succeeded in drawing me helplessly forward into their psychological environment more than The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever. I remember my early fascinations with the works of The Beatles very clearly – Aimlessly wandering the landscape of my very early 20’s, I had recently dropped out of an English degree for which I had no passion in order to devote more time to writing and performing music. The Beatles, naturally, had been on my musical radar for essentially my whole life, but until then I hadn’t found them to be particularly exciting or relevant to my own experiences (they were just SO happy about everything). I’m not sure what it was that drew me to them then – perhaps a weariness with my own musical ideas, perhaps living truly independently for the first time, maybe because I had just turned 20 and thought that the contents of my mind should change with the arbitrary rolling of 9 into 0, maybe a recent interest in the experiences to be offered by psychedelic drugs. I don’t know. But what I do know is that one evening while sitting in front of my stereo, John succeeded in taking me to the place he imagined – his own psychological space that possessed real physicality – where the laws of physics operated in a subtly different way, where the light shone in an unfamiliar hue and with an alien intensity, where the colors were skewed ever-so-slightly so as to be simultaneously familiar and fantastic and just the smallest bit bothersome, as in a dream. I was dumbfounded. HOW? HOW did he do that to me? Further research into the composing, arranging, and recording of the song only raised further questions as to how the song achieved its effect. Was it the Mellotron in the opening that sounded like but was not quite a group of flutes? Was it the abstract and stream-of-consciousness lyrical content? The pseudo-modal harmonic and melodic moments? Or could it be the manipulation of tape speeds that threw everything just slightly off-kilter? Perhaps it was the fact that the formal scheme was immediately clear and yet, due to the constant timbral development and re-arranging of each new section, possessed an aimless yet forward sense of motion (until, of course, you reach the non sequitur outro full of nightmarish flutes and maybe backwards vocals and something like a guitar and have I heard a piano before just now in this song and my GOD WHERE am I and how does one think of that in the first place?). Just in case it’s been awhile:
To say that this song has had an influence on my writing would be a despicably hyperbolic understatement. It has shaped all of my recordings in one form another, and has driven me to seek otherworldly places in my own music that possess their own laws and logic and mysteries. On a technical level, it has spurred my insistence on either non-functional or modal harmony, the constant use of non-chord-tones in my melodic lines (I do not make things easy for myself as a singer), crystal-clear formal structures that are immediately accessible and yet still take unexpected turns. Most importantly, though, it has shaped my belief that the studio IS an instrument and that if I am to realize my full potential as an artist, I have to reach a level of virtuosity on that instrument the way The Beatles did in their middle-to-late periods.
Summertime is a song I wrote over three years ago, but never succeeded in fully realizing until (haha) this past summer. Some similarities between that song and Strawberry Fields Forever are stronger than others: Summertime is unabashedly modal – in this case Lydian – with the exception of the bridge section, which employs completely non-functional 11th and 13th chords, and sort of modulates away from the home key but is, in actuality, just nowhere. The form exhibits a clarity and simplicity reminiscent of Strawberry Fields (verse – wordless refrain – verse – wordless refrain – bridge – variation on wordless refrain), even if the specific details differ. Where The Beatles have truly left their mark, however, is in the use of the studio as an instrument to create a coherent and unique sound world that, at least to my ear, has a physicality and feels like a psychological space. In the recording process, I tracked nearly all the instruments (vocals included) at different tape speeds, experimented with microtonal relationships between guitars, and composed what essentially became a fully realized part on my analog delay/reverb unit during the mixing process. All of these are subtle decisions and effects, but they’ve helped me to create a much more vibrant and engaging sound world, and all refer back (in spirit at the very least) to what The Beatles achieved in 1967 at Abbey Road.