Form-wise, the Beatles’ Hey Jude is unusual. For 3 minutes and 8 seconds, it’s a conventional song, with melody, varying harmony, A and B sections that repeat in a predictable pattern — what you’d expect from a pop song. Then, for the remaining 3 minutes and 57 seconds, it’s something else entirely, a long vamp where the same static chord sequence repeats over and over again while the melody repeats with small variations and interjections. The proportion of these two parts feels like a bold move — there’s something about the length of the coda in relation to the body of the song that makes you question whether you just listened to a song or to… something else. Are we being tested? Are the Beatles daring us to walk away? If “art is what you can get away with” (Andy Warhol), are the Beatles pushing the limits?
Listening to it today, I was reminded of Keith Jarrett’s solo version of Treasure Island, from The Bremen Concert, another piece notable for its unusual proportions. It’s a fairly conventional jazz song, with melody, lots of nice chords, a solo section, and then poof! 3 minutes and 8 seconds in (coincidence!), it suddenly turns into an aggressively minimalistic vamp, which vamp lasts for 7 minutes and 51 seconds with nary a change as far as the content is concerned (well, there’s a tiny bit of blowing at first, but by the 3:56 mark he’s all in). For seven solid minutes, we’re listening to Jarrett play the exact same 2 bars over and over again, the only change coming in the form of dynamic variation, both at macro (gradual or sudden changes in the overall dynamic) and micro scales (choosing to bring out different internal voices at different times).
(He also occasionally throws a high C in there). To me, there’s absolutely no doubt that Keith is testing us, and himself. He’s daring us to keep paying attention, and he’s daring himself to make the extremely limited material so compelling that we’ll be rewarded for our attention. And he wins, no doubt about it. The gamble is huge, because all it would take is one tiny stumble — one moment of inattention to touch, to groove, or even to the integrity of the natural dynamic development — for our suspension of disbelief to come crashing down.
The Beatles win too, of course. In both cases, the pairing down of the musical content is a way for the artists to remind their listeners that there’s a lot that happens in music beyond variation in notes, rhythm and harmony. You take away variation and the what of the music falls away, leaving you only with the how. The Beatles put the emphasis on orchestrational and energetic changes. Jarrett takes it to the extreme, showing us that micro-variations in touch and phrasing can keep our attention rapt if done with sufficient skill, patience and concentration.
I don’t know if anyone reads these blog posts anymore (it’s 2018), but if you do and you think of a song with similar architecture, please share in the comments below.