Adjustable Wrench

adjustable wrenchEvery memorable pop song is constructed with two important ingredients: a catchy hook and a satisfying rhythmic groove. These basic musical elements also can be heard in American composer Michael Torke’s Adjustable Wrench, written in 1987. The piece is scored for a small chamber orchestra and includes piano, synthesizer and marimba.

As you listen to Adjustable Wrench, enjoy the feel of the jazz/pop inspired rhythmic groove and the insistent melodic hook. How is the music flowing and developing? Why do you think Torke chose the title, Adjustable Wrench?

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I love the way this piece evolves gradually out of the single clarinet line at the beginning, becoming increasingly complex. We feel the repetitive groove in the same visceral way we would experience it in a pop song. The pulse stays the same, but listen to the way the groove changes subtly and becomes more intense in some places (1:04-1:37).

The piece shifts gradually from one section to another by overlapping voices and allowing old melodic cells to fade out while new ones emerge. You can hear this in the passage after 2:12. Steve Reich uses a similar technique in Eight Lines.

Michael Torke explains the structure of the piece further:

[quote]Each group of four instruments combines with a keyboard: four woodwinds are matched with a piano, four brass with a marimba, and four strings with a synthesizer. The texture is simple- melody and accompaniment. After a melody is introduced, it is then harmonized into four note chords. The chords become an accompaniment for a new melody, which in turn is harmonized to work with the accompaniment. The old chords drop out making the new chords become the new accompaniment for yet another new melody. The keyboard instruments, around which each family of four instruments is grouped, simply double exactly what is being played; the piano, marimba, and synthesizer add no new material. Instead, they provide an extra envelope to the four-note chords as well as reinforce the attacks. The music falls into the kind of four-bar phrases found in most popular music. Overall, the structure of the piece is arranged in four identifiable sections.[/quote]

There are interesting but probably coincidental similarities between Adjustable Wrench and Van Halen’s 1983 rock song JumpIn this interview Torke says that he had not heard any Van Halen at the time, but that another more obscure rock song provided influence.

Adjustable Wrench is a great example of the power of rhythm and the importance of finding the groove.

Pop Meets Classical

Recently, I ran across an interesting post by Kathryn Judd, a member of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s marketing team, called Rachmaninoff Goes Pop. It showcases famous Rachmaninoff melodies which were turned into pop songs.This got me thinking about how many other melodies from classical music have found their way into pop music.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Stranger in Paradise[/typography]

The first music to come to mind was the Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor by the Russian Romanticist, Alexander Borodin (1833-1887). First listen to this beautiful melody as Borodin wrote it:

The 1953 musical Kismet adapted Borodin’s music. Here is how it sounds as Stranger in Paradise:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]A Groovy Kind of Love[/typography]

You wouldn’t think that the Rondo from Sonata No. 5 by Clementi (1752-1832) would be ripe pop song material…

…But it became A Groovy Kind of Love, released in 1965 by Diane and Annita, and later covered by Phil Collins in the 1980’s:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Apocalyptica’s Hall of the Mountain King[/typography]

Here is In The Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907):

The Finnish progressive metal band Apocalyptica created its own version of the Grieg. The descending chromatic intervals in the melody and the chord progression seem at home in the rock genre:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]What Do You Think?[/typography]

In the Baroque era and earlier it was common to “steal” melodies. Handel used popular melodies, as well as recycling his own. Later, composers paid tribute to existing music and sometimes influences subconsciously crept into their writing. Leonard Bernstein made a clear reference to the end of Stravinsky’s Firebird in Make Our Garden Grow in Candide.

This kind of musical adaption can work as long as the new creation brings its own unique slant and as long as it’s done with musical integrity. When classical music is dumbed down and sanitized (a melody stripped of its original rich harmony), it is a true desecration. What do you think? Are the examples above musically successful? Should pop musicians look to classical music for ideas? What other pop songs do you know which draw inspiration from classical music?