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The next time someone says pop music is simplistic…

… play them this track, which is getting lots of da capo on BBC Radio 1.

The harmonies are stunningly sophisticated, the Sprechgesang is probably what Schoenberg first dreamed of and there’s more than a little of Nina Simone in the singer-songwriter, Laura Mvula.

It’s epic, possibly epochal.


The full album, Sing to the Moon’, is out on March 4.

UPDATE: And imagine where she comes from…

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  1. Next time someone says that I´ll say:
    “The easiest thig in the world is to complicate something”.
    And ask:
    “Beatles, Pink floyd or U2 are intrincated things?
    When you heard Webern, least time?”

  2. There are great composers in all genres! One of my favorites is the creator of Moonsorrow’s extended pieces. This Finnish Pagan Metal band has a set of two half hour compositions and daring harmonic shifts, thanks to Henri Sorvali.They also incorporate traditional instruments and folk melodies. I’ve heard them live twice and they played everything note-perfect. Their taste and sound knocked me out the way Pink Floyd did in 1970, with elegance and a subtle undercurrent of inner terror and suspense.

    part one of three

    good shot of them live in a folk/metal genre: “The Sun and the Moon”:

  3. Sam McElroy says:

    Fabulous. Totally agree. She just sang us through breakfast! Thanks for the introduction, Norman….

  4. Hi Norman, you do understand that the Vocal harmonies are “comped” from multiple, multiple takes, processed via auto tune then using various editing techniques their entries are “triggered” and “gated” in the recording process, and much more,, the “Art” of “Recorded Sound” is a different one to the “Art” of “Live” sound. Unfortunately, much of “Classical” music is way behind the curveball on this one. If one wants to hear live music go to a concert. but, please, please don’t make classical CDs as if one is just documenting a concert performance. Unfortunately, this is the philosophy with many classical recording producers, unfortunately, many just don’t know the possibilities. :)

    • Mark Barrett says:

      Derek, if you need comfort in Laura’s vocal capabilities, there is a lovely live clip on YouTube from BBC Sound of 2013 where she sings, very simply and beautifully, “Father, father” (Am I allowed to post the link?)
      I think we can give her (and Norman for that matter, though he can speak for hismelf perfectly well!) the credit of knowing how to make harmonies, whether in the studio or with a group of singers! Do investigate and enjoy!

      • Hi Mark, I did watch/listen to the ling, fantastic! My comment was in no way meant to be a critic of her as a performer or composer/producer, quite the opposite. Rather I was in fact lamenting the fact that in the Classical Music world too few producers know how to use the studio and the available processing possibilities as “an instrument”. One who does understand is Michael Fine. Go listen to the recording he produced of Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin with the LSO using the new all digital microphones. There is a clarity of the inner lines which are almost impossible to hear in a “Live” performance. Anyhow, it’s a BIg subject, :)

  5. Sean Osborn says:

    Actually, while it’s fine and a good song, I fail to see why it’s been singled out when there are plenty of pieces that have more “sophisticated harmony” as well as rhythm and counterpoint. The first one that springs to mind is “Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap.
    Or, how about “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes
    or, “Useful Chamber” by Dirty Projectors.

    If you want more, I got ‘em.


    • neil van der linden says:

      Track 1 is a bit like Laurie Anderson’s Oh Superman, but Autotune makes it easier to work with comlex chords than the vocoder.
      Dirty Projectors in a way is a further development of the Beachboys’ Smile, meets Wilco, Andy Pratt and Anthony and the Johnsons.

  6. Depends on your idea of simplistic. This is in 12 tone equal temperament, diatonic, square and regular. Compare to Xenakis, Scelsi, Gubaidulina, etcetera and it seems VERY simplistic.

    And before someone says I don’t know what I’m talking about, let it be known I have multiple music degrees and I used to be a session player for commercial recordings so I’m well aware of the processes on both sides.

  7. neil van der linden says:

    Dutch pop diva on the rise Eva Simons graduated in classical piano at the Amsterdam conservatory.
    Here she is with her UK number one hit with
    Although in the clipit is will who hits the 88 keys.

  8. neil van der linden says:

    And here is Eva with Dutch star DJ Afrojack.

    • neil van der linden says:

      This song by Eva Simons and Afrojack is certainly not an unavoidable masterpiece.
      The song with may be more lasting.
      With the Black Peas has made some songs that will last; paradoxically acts as the master of the perfect throwaway pop. And yet some of his pieces will [robably turn out to be as timeless as some Abba and Beatles songs.
      This was not even the Black Eyed Peas’ biggest hit, but I think it is a masterpiece. Including the video. And the beginning is a parody on how some pop music is made, or is thought to be made.
      Plastic pop meet IRCAM and Fritz Lang or Steven Spielberg.
      Just another example from the rap and hiphop world that for me is interesting is this one, basically based on one cliffhanger chord with some harmonic development here and there even raising the tension. And a good clip.
      This guy, Drake, a Jewish black rapper from Toronto, had one of his biggest hits with this very commercial piece featuring the currently omnipresent Rihanna
      But now he dared to release a new single based on just one unresolved chord the clip is somewhat puzzling
      Of course there is a big Bentley in it.. by the way he is from an upper middle-class background and that is maybe his mother in it
      By the way this one came out in 1982 in fact when Pierre Boulez premiered his Reponse in Holland and really I was thinking giving the state of synthesizers then who is doing the most adventurous thing in electronics in music at the moment; maybe it were Jackson’s producers Jam & Lewis.. almost the whole piece consists of clusters
      And of course since the Shangri La’s and Elieanor Rigby we know that pop music can create mini-music drama, equivalent to Erlkönig, and also rap has its momente; here is the late great 2Pac with Brenda’s Got a Baby
      We diverted from our topic, none of these musicians has a classical background.. maybe some of the acccompanying musicians do or the synthesizer programmers, but many of them are home grown. Or street grown.

  9. I had “shared” the blog article on my own FB page and a friend posted a comment which had some great observations. I thought some would be interested to I share it here:

    ” It’s excellent – no denying that – but all of the harmonies are played in on keyboard or entered in in non-realtime into a DAW and then applied via vocal design technology to the backing tracks – i.e. – they are not sung in live. Furthermore, the background sequence is noting more than a simple repeating sequence syncopating with the rhythm track, and of lesser sophistication to say, Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield or a typical Tangerine Dream track form the ’70′s. Not to sound like griping – it’s an absolutely excellent track -.” :)

  10. Very compelling, aurally and visually! Nice to hear something positive and refreshing for a change! Thanks for the post, Norman!

  11. Timon Wapenaar says:

    Make no mistake, this is hip. But where are the epochal harmonies? Sounds like good ol Berklee College of Music (ca. 1989) to me. I mean, there ain’t nothing here which we hain’t heard Debussy or Liszt do… And it doesn’t make a difference whether they are realised in the studio or in the traditional manner (involving the employment of musicians), because the result is the same: yet another take on “La Mer”, harmonically speaking.

    • neil van der linden says:

      It is cleverly produced and (with a bigger prodget) creates some very slick sounds. Their ambition was not to advance further than La Mer harmonically, which is already quite a benchmark if they would reach that. And we know that in model music in principle sometimes harmonically nothing happens except for possibley a harmonical cliffhanger that continues through the whole of the piece, like in some of the best pieces of James Brown (if he doesnt go ‘to the bridge’) or Miles Davis. In this case it was rather where a good classical education can lead one too in pop music, that was Norman’s starting point. Pop artists who have deliberately tried to create ‘art’ have sometimes come up with the irrelevenat and boring stuff, while a lot of the best pop music has been created without the pretention to create ‘art’; while it became ‘art’…. The examples are numerous.

  12. Timon Wapenaar says:

    The whole “pop music” vs. “art music” debate is starting to smell fishy to me. It’s a product of a time when “art music” and “high culture” were approaching the top of a very high ivory tower, while an explosion of new technologies gave extended scope and reach to the world of popular music. George Crumb couldn’t compete with Jimi Hendrix. Theorists started agonising about the state of affairs, and the idea emerged that as composers withdrew into the rarefied air of the harmonic world post Schoenberg and Ives (and particularly post WWII), the public would become more alienated, concert attendance would drop off and eventually classical music would atrophy, and then petrify. Thus was born the idea that somehow, if the public was to be recaptured, it would be necessary to bridge the two seemingly opposed worlds of “Pop” and “Classical”. The success of works which attempted this union were to be judged on how adeptly they’d married the two worlds.

    Here’s the problem I see with the situation: it’s rather like looking at the drop in sales of novels and attempting to address that by consciously creating works of literature which borrow from the world of the comic book. Which is, of course, happening, and has produced some great books. However, when one looks at literacy figures from the US, where people read a book a YEAR on average, and functional illiteracy is exploding, it begins to look like we’re fiddling while Rome etc. etc. Style is not the issue. The method is not the issue. The form is not the issue. What is at issue is the way in which music is heard, and the ability of the public to listen, which, as recorded music becomes more pervasive, becomes more diffuse. If you walk into a room with a ticking clock, eventually your brain will screen out the sound of it. Your ears receive the signals but your brain doesn’t process them. The more pervasive music becomes, the more it begins to resemble the ticking clock. Eventually, listening becomes less of a habit and more of an effort.

    Who was it that said (roughly), “It is the function of the musician to educate the critic, of the critic to educate the public.”? The musician forms the public taste in music, not the other way round.

    • neil van der linden says:

      Meanwhile the pop that tried to be taken ‘serious’, like Deep Purple in Rock, Tubalar Bells orchestral, a lot of the more pretentious music of Yes, the later Soft Machine, of all the Pink Floyd albums their ‘symphonic’ Atom Heart Mother, Gentle Giant, not to speak of many lesser attempts, turns out to stand the test of time the least.

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