Making Waves

On harmonic simplicity, and the music of Ludovico Einaudi.

Waves at Cabo Polonio, Uruguay. Photo by Johntex, cropped. Shared under Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

At some point while I was studying for music A Level, we had a class in which we were each performing for constructive criticism. One of the students sat at the piano and sang a song she had written. The accompaniment was simple – a few repeating chords, giving prominence to her expressive voice.

At the end, the teacher remarked that it had been very effective, but it would not be a good submission as composition coursework. This kind of minimal style, he explained, did not exhibit the variety of techniques that examiners would be looking to see that students were aware of.

In other words: the song was lovely, but it did not tick the right boxes for varied harmonic structure that, say, an Elton John song might do. Deeply felt self-expression, an idea which makes studying music attractive, was not what we were there for.

And yet the simplicity of my classmate’s song was certainly of its time. Wayne Marshall has noted how the four-chord sequence used in the 2017 hit single Despacito has become remarkably widespread in recent years. Another article by Dean Olivet identifies a decline of traditional ‘functional’ harmony in modern pop music. Instead, Olivet suggests, much of it meanders or cycles around, ‘like a lost monk chanting in the woods’.

Perhaps this is just a matter of changing fashions. It could be that a more rootless approach to tonality resonates with the zeitgeist in some way. Perhaps harmonic structure, with the potential to ‘modulate’ between keys, has simply become a less important musical parameter. Hip-hop – by one measure the world’s most popular music genre – puts more emphasis on lyrical content, rhythm, and the sonic possibilities of sampling.

Whatever the explanation, the priorities of our A Level were made clear when we learnt to compose perfect cadences in the style of chorales from 18th-century Leipzig.

At around this same time, I became aware of the pianist-composer Ludovico Einaudi. His albums Le Onde (The Waves) and I Giorni (The Days) had been taken up by Classic FM, and he blended the kind of chord sequences that saturate pop music with minimalist piano textures.

I came to admire Einaudi’s piano music as much for its gentle poetry as its audacious simplicity. The remarkable fan base it has gained, including a large cohort of young listeners, is something that should give pause for thought. To some, Einaudi is understood as part of a ‘dumbed down’ wave of classical crossover music. ‘The Land Modulation Forgot’ was the mocking sticker I once noticed attached to his drawer in the music section of a London book shop. Words my A Level teacher might have used to my fellow student, had he been less kind.

But to notice only a lack of modulation in Einaudi’s music reveals a curiously insular view. Besides songs like Despactio, how many musical traditions around the world do not use modulation to a great extent? It must surely be many, especially when – like European music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance – the capabilities of instruments do not easily facilitate it.

After a gap of several years, I recently revisited I Giorni, whose title track tinkles away in the background to BBC TV trailers. By chance it was straight after listening to Mali In Oak by Tunde Jegede, a kora player I have written about here. Suddenly, with this serendipity of juxtaposition, Einaudi’s music started to make sense in a different kind of way.

This should have been no surprise. I had completely forgotten that I Giorni was itself inspired by a trip to Mali. The sleeve notes describe a car journey near Bamako with another kora player, Toumani Diabate, where he explained the story behind an ancient Mande song playing on the radio.

I Giorni is not African pastiche, but it is interesting how Einaudi uses the piano much like the 21-string kora, with its far more limited harmonic range. He mostly keeps within one key centre, and manipulates textural figurations in ways that bring out the sound colour of the instrument.

Now our bookshop joker may or may not be culturally insensitive enough to dismiss Mande musical traditions as A Land Modulation Forgot. But either way, a careful listen to I Giorni reveals that there is a subtle musical intelligence at play. Einaudi understands the power of creating space, and making the listener wait. Often simply through pausing, but also by holding back harmonic movement, textural weight, or melodic prominence, and then variously releasing it to shape the music.

It sounds easy, of course. But as with composing text, the ease of simple communication can be deceptive.

With all this in mind, we can see how the idea of Einaudi representing the ‘Relaxing Classics’ touted by Classic FM is misleading. He is tapping into an aesthetic of graceful simplicity, of ‘less is more’, that can be found within all sorts of musical traditions, from Mande song to Gregorian Chant to the wildly successful recording of Gorecki’s third symphony. Einaudi studied under composers like Berio and Stockhausen, but has also said that ‘all my life, my heart has felt closer to Rock’n’Roll’. Many of his melodies would sound, in another arrangement, just like folk music.

Einaudi has never ‘forgotten’ modulation. But he does have an understanding of the broader and older ways that music speaks to people, and the role it can play in busy lives, which renders modulation a moot point.

The scope of his musical sympathies are exemplified most vividly in the 2015 collaborative album Taranta Project, which features African and Turkish musicians. Complete with upbeat percussion and electric guitar, it explores a colourful sound world that is a far cry from the marbled piano tones of I Giorni.

Nonetheless, it is true that much of Einaudi’s music is gentle, and avoids a sense of conflict. His solo piano works tend to move in phases, often separated by pauses, without any sudden extremes of dynamics. As I argued in relation to John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, this kind of approach creates a built-in versatility: the music can work as a background to other activities as well as the focal point of a concert experience.

But if listeners find Einaudi ‘relaxing’ – as a lifelong fan of relaxing, I take no issue here – we might also say that, like Olivet’s monk roaming the woods, it is transcendent or meditative. ‘The landscape is always the sand, the sky, the clouds, the sea,’ he writes about his breakthrough album Le Onde. ‘Only the waves change, always the same and always different’.

This peaceful scene painting also points to a humane perception behind his music. Its simplicity expresses a common yearning for a truer existence, the kind of impulse that fires idealistic dreams of quitting the city job and going to live off the land somewhere. The same sort of sentiment expressed in the oft-tweeted lines of Langston Hughes:

I am so tired of waiting,
Aren’t you,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?

In essence, Einaudi’s repeating arpeggios and gentle melodies suggest a form of contented self-limitation. And perhaps that is the one thing our bookshop vandal can never forgive. Such an outlook cannot be computed by the intellectual and aspirational value set that classical music is bound up in, the same values that my fellow A Level student encountered when her sincerely heartfelt song was deemed to be ultimately unworthy.

Like the omnipresent chord sequence of Despacito, his extraordinary popularity probably arises from a multitude of factors. But my hunch is that Einaudi’s quiet music embodies an idea which, for many, carries a quiet appeal. It is an idea that is considered dangerous to any overarching culture – musical, political or otherwise – that conditions us to strive, compete, demand more, and achieve the exceptional. The idea of simply saying ‘this is enough’. That most radical notion: choosing humility.