I usual like to credit Art of Noise for starting me on the path to wannabe modern composer. Music magazines liked to describe the band as rock music’s answer to musique concrète, and of course, I had to look up what musique concrète meant in my dad’s music appreciation textbook.
In reality, the seeds were planted far earlier, unbeknownst to me.
In 1982, TRON hit theaters, but Disney built hype around the movie months before its release. By the time my family went to the theater to see the movie, I had already played The Story of TRON to death, essentially spoiling the plot. In addition to the narrated story, I twisted the arms of my parents to get the soundtrack by Wendy Carlos, which I also played day in and day out on the turntable.
The music of the movie was also tied closely to the arcade game. To this day, I can’t hear the “TRON Scherzo” without visualizing the completion of a game within a level.
In essence, the Disney marketing machine had me in its grip.
I was too young to appreciate the mechanics behind Carlos’ score. To my 10-year-old ears, it was futuristic music played on tomorrow instruments. It wasn’t John Williams or Star Wars, and I didn’t care.
Three decades later, listening to the soundtrack reveals how much of Carlos’ advanced score sank into my consciousness. The whole tone scales, the limited modes of transposition, the polyrhythms — the shadow of Olivier Messaien’s arm looms long over the score.
My parents bore it with some grace, but the angular music must have sounded absolutely noisy to them. I’ll admit to some impatience with the portions of the soundtrack that weren’t in the video game, but I internalized it nonetheless, not realizing I was preparing myself for a lifetime of listening to atonal music.
Film scores these days amount to little more than wallpaper, so it’s rare when a soundtrack such as TRON, AKIRA or The Piano can be decoupled from its source.
I’m mystified TRON hasn’t yet entered the orchestral pops repertoire. If Seattle Symphony ever performed the score live, I’d cut a bitch to get tickets. The orchestra musicians might appreciate the challenge.
In 1987, I turned 15 years old, an age when music discovery exerted its strongest pull. The same Spotify analysis that charted music tastes over time claims most teen-agers highly identify with popular titles. Had the same study been done when I was a teen, I probably would have been an outlier point.
Kronos Quartet, Black Angels
The first Kronos Quartet album I purchased was Winter Was Hard, and it was something of a Reader’s Digest for modern classical music. Then Black Angels followed, and it exploded my perception of what music could be.
John Zorn, Naked City
I was a pissed-off teen for a lot of reasons, most of them mundane. But it gave me drive to find music that would alienate everyone around me, and the howls of Yamantaka Eye and John Zorn fit the bill nicely.
In Tua Nua, The Long Acre
This album introduced me to the idea that popularity is not the same thing as merit. I couldn’t find a filler track anywhere on this album, and the confrontational “The Innocent and the Honest Ones” mirrored my own dissatisfaction with being raised in a monotheistic culture. It should have been a hit, but mostly, you’ll find it in the 99 cent bins.
U2, The Joshua Tree
U2 had to score a number one album in order for radio stations in Hawaii to pay attention. I knew about the band beforehand but hadn’t taken the plunge till I saw the video for “With or Without You.”
Andrew Lloyd Webber, The Phantom of the Opera
Andrew Lloyd Webber gets a lot of flack for his signature hit tunes, but for a young burgeoning composer, his scores are incredibly instructional. I’ve yet to encounter another pop writer who can make a hook out of an atonal melody.
The Art of Noise, In Visible Silence
Before I learned about Kronos Quartet, John Zorn or Andrew Lloyd Webber, I encountered the Art of Noise. I would later learn (Who’s Afraid Of …?) The Art of Noise! had some bonafide songcraft, but its follow-up, In Visible Silence, essentially jettisoned all that.
Arcadia, So Red the Rose
Of the two Duran Duran splinter projects from 1985, Arcadia hews closest to the parent band and engenders the most sentiment from long-time fans.
Stephen Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George
Sunday in the Park with George arrived at time in my life when I was just starting to learn about modern classical music. I looked to Lloyd Webber to bridge my interests in classical and pop musics, and I turned to Sondheim to go further into modernism.
Eurythmics, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)
I loved Eurythmics singles, but their albums tended to have quite a bit of filler. Sweet Dreams is the deserved obvious choice, but Savage and In the Garden deserve some props.
Duran Duran, Rio
This tops my Desert Island Disc list, so of course, it’s going to be here.
Wendy Carlos, TRON Original Soundtrack
I listened to this soundtrack to death because I loved the computer graphics of the movie. It wasn’t till much later that I discovered how rich Carlos’ harmonic language was. This soundtrack pretty much planted the seed that would be nourished by the Art of Nosie, Kronos Quartet, John Zorn and classical music after 1900.