Highbrow notes into the mainstream: The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” (Part 2)

Sit down, wear your earphones and listen to The Beatles’ Revolution 9. It is a collage; you could even have fun trying to isolate all the sounds. I will help you with a few hints: you can hear edited samples from performances of classical music – such as the final chord from Sibelius’ Symphony No.7, and the reversed finale of Schumann’s Symphonic Studies. A mellotron, performed by Lennon and played backwards. Segments of random prose read by Lennon and Harrison. John himself repeatedly screaming ‘right’, ‘alright’ and later saying ‘Take this brother, may it serve you well’. After that (6’56’’) some chords that remind me of the piano at the beginning of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Yoko talking and saying phrases as ‘you become naked’.

Sound effects like a woman’s laughter, a baby’s noises and crowds screaming. Sometimes the voice is used just like an instrument – think of John’s inarticulate sounds. Intelligible and unintelligible speech coexist and are often juxtaposed, like in Frank Zappa’s The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet, which appeared in 1966 album Freak Out as one of the first examples of noise exploration in pop music.

White Album coverIn 1968, when Revolution 9 was released, many high-art composers had already realised similar montages, mixed electronic sounds with elements of speech and other extra musical sounds and used the techniques of vary-speeding, fragmentation and juxtaposition of different harmonies. The American John Cage had used pre-existing recordings and fragments of radio broadcasts in Credo in Us (1942), Imaginary Landscape No.4 (1951) and Variations IV (1963). In the late 40s, the French composer Pierre Schaeffer, a former radio drama studio technician, theorised the concept of ‘sound objects’, recognisable sound images manipulated in studio – e.g. the noises made by trains in Etude aux chemins de fer (1948) or the human voices in Symphonie pour un hommeseul(composed together with Pierre Henry in 1949-1950), both early examples of musique concrète. All this wouldn’t have been possible without the emergence of atonality and the 1913 Futurist manifesto written by Luigi Russolo, The Art of Noises.

Let’s go back to the German Stockhausen, thought by critics to be the main influence on John Lennon’s Revolution 9. He was probably the only genial contemporary music composer. He wrote over 350 pieces of classical music and each time managed to step ahead and invent something new. Stockhausen contributed developing electronic music, which flourished in radio centers in the mid 50s.

stockhausen hymnenHis fifth major electronic composition and his first to employ pre-recorded material on a large scale was the two-hour tape montage Hymnen (Anthems), composed in 1966-1967 and based on a number of national anthems. Like Revolution 9, it makes a large use of loops, musical objects and pieces of speech. Nonetheless, the recording was not available until 1969, after Lennon had created Revolution 9. Maybe Lennon had acquired it privately. We will never be able to state that for sure, although we know that Paul McCartney admired Stockhausen and owned a copy of his earlier work Gesang der Junglinge (Song of the Youths).

Lennon described his Revolution 9 as “an unconscious picture of what I actually think will happen when it happens, just like a drawing of revolution. Similarly, the use and juxtaposition of national anthems in Hymnen added a slight political meaning to the composition.

Hymnen begins with fragments of radio broadcasts and then overlaystaped national anthems, electronic sounds and recordings of Stockhausen himself speaking with other technicians in the studio. Every sound is modified, accelerated, moved in pitch and distorted through the use of electronic equipments.

Although Lennon and Stockhausen came from two different and mostly separate worlds, there was a mutual appreciation between them – as can be read in Michael Kurtz’s  Stockhausen: A Biography, when John was murdered in December 1980, the composer said in a telephone interview: “In my eyes, John Lennon was the most important mediator between popular and serious music of this century.”

This is intersection between high art and popular culture at its best. Enjoy.


Appeared on Outtagum.com.