Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Songs #395 & 396 - It's TWOsday!

Song #395 of 9999                                          Song #396 of 9999

Title: Tom's Diner                                          Title: Tom's Diner (Instrumental)
Artist: Suzanne Vega                                      Artist: Suzanne Vega
Year: 1987                                                      Year: 1987
Album: Solitude Standing                             Album: Solitude Standing

(no videos for this one—click on the links to play)

Suzanne Vega had "Tom's Diner" rattling around her head for nearly five years before it reached a mass audience as the opening track from her sophomore effort Solitude Standing. Although she had envisioned the song with piano accompaniment, she began opening concerts singing it a cappella and found it so effective she decided to record it as such for her forthcoming record.

The song has since become legendary for being the track that helped shaped MP3 compression, earning Vega the nickname "Mother of the MP3." Apparently, German audio engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg heard the song while working on his audio compression scheme and was convinced that an unaccompanied voice with such warmth would be decimated by his algorithms. After confirming his suspicions, he set out to refine the compression process, eventually uncovering a process that resulted in a satisfactory result. (Vega remained unconvinced, noting a "lack of warmth" and a "little more high end" in a New York Times essay from 2008.)

Having listened to a lot of music from 1987 over the past few days, "Tom's Diner" in its the original version sounds so naked, free not only from musical accompaniment, but also from typical studio effects such as reverb or delay. For an unaccompanied vocal, the tempo is surprisingly brisk, almost jaunty. Not every melody will work in this context but this one does because the key (F# Minor) is suggested by the melody, which begins with a tetrachord that suggest the beginning of the scale and the tonic triad (F#-G#-A-C#). As the verse develops, descending chromatic lines cohort with ascending leaps of a 6th and then 7th to suggest a bit of two-part polyphony carved from a single line! This hidden counterpoint works to convey a harmonic structure not readily apparent at the surface.

Vega maintains interest in the strophic form through the use of silence and variations in tempo. Consider this plot of the form:

Verse 1 (silence) | Verse 2 (silence) | Verse 3 | Verse 4 (silence) | Verse 5—rubato | Doo-doo-doo

The silence is extremely effective, facilitated by the use of monosyllabic words ending with (mostly hard) consonants (in, milk, head, skirt). Wisely, the silence is vacated between verses 3 and 4 and Verse 5 offers variations in tempo that signify the end is near. These cues help to structure a song that would otherwise risk being perceived as repetitive, especially without the normal textural variations that come with instrumental accompaniment.

Solitude Standing rather cleverly concludes with an instrumental version of the tune, which Vega hoped would be viewed as "Brechtian." It has the right feel I suppose but that fretless electric bass and synthesizer have 1987 written all over them. And anyway, I think she probably means "Weillian" as I'm unaware of any music composed by Bertolt Brecht. :)

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