alan w. pollack's
notes on ...

Notes on "Revolution #9"


Notes on ... Series #155 (R9)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: Various
     Meter: Sundry
      Form: Beginning | Middle | End (with fade-out)
        CD: "White Album", Disc 2, Track 12 (Parlophone CDS7 46443-8)
  Recorded: 6th June 1968, Abbey Road 2;
            10th June 1968, Abbey Road 3;
            11th June 1968, Abbey Road 2;
            20th, 21st June 1968, Abbey Road 1-3
UK-release: 22nd November 1968 (LP "White Album")
US-release: 25th November 1968 (LP "White Album")

The Duke was having problems

  Next note Friends and lovers have, for years, been preparing for this eventuality; "Ha, ha! what you gonna do when you get up to "Revolution #9", wise guy?"
  Next note To date, we've examined more than 150 Beatles' songs using an essentially unvarying analytical apparatus. The normalizing filter through which we've run these songs has yielded a nice set of apples-to-apples images which allow us to reasonably trace the patterns and techniques used from one song to the next.
  Next note But now, along comes this exceptional track which would seem to "prove" (in the archaic sense of "challenge") all the rules and be opaquely immune to our accustomed method of analysis. You run it through the program anyway just to see what happens and the results are analogous to the output you get from running a binary file through your Dos2Unix text filter. From the perspective of your filter's expectations, it's a simple case of Garbage In, Garbage Out; no negative connotation intended.
  Next note So here we are. No possible escape and no easy answers. I think we have to settle in this case for bigger picture ruminations than we're used to and let the measure-by-measure stuff ride. Can we handle the challenge? No reply.

To be where you belong

  Next note It's not a "song", you say; not a "brief composition written or adapted for singing", as defined in the American Heritage Dictionary. Yes, it does contain some bits of singing, but that's not of primary focus. There's nothing here in the way of the alternating formal sections, chord progressions, articulated phrases or characterizing tunes you've learned to expect. And brief it surely is not.
  Next note Therefore, it doesn't fit in on a Beatles' album, you say. "Within You Without You" tested your patience but this one is just more than you can stand.
  Next note But let me turn it around on you: in spite of what you may think about its belonging there, you cannot deny that it is on a Beatles' album; so there! You're trapped against your will by the experiential nature of the record album medium into encountering this track where it is to be found. And that indelibly influences your evaluation of, and reaction to both the track itself as well as the album which contains it.
  Next note John's relevant axiom reads: "There's nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be." You can derive, as if by corollary, the notion that the "White Album" would not be improved by the omission of "Revolution #9" but rather would be somehow lacking something essential in that case; similarly, you would hear this track very differently if it was completely by someone other than the Beatles, or had been released by them as an independent single.
  Next note Another John, Cage that is, wryly asked in one of his lectures on the compositional process: Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?

Somebody spoke and I went into a dream

  Next note It's the radical, progressive elements that demand your undivided attention while you immediately encounter the piece.
  Next note What you react to, especially in context of a "rock album" is the absence of the large number of traditional musical values you rightly expect. So strong are your conditioned expectations that the very first time you ever listen to this track you subconsciously strain your patience hoping that it's all going to turn out to be some kind of prankish, nightmare, surprise intro to a real song. I'd love to poll a statistically significant number of listeners re: how many seconds they lasted into a first listen of "Revolution #9" before getting the point and giving up the wait.
  Next note Even though the track apparently provides no coherent narrative threads, your mind has a way of imposing or projecting a continuity onto it, especially after repeated listenings. This phenomenon bears some analogy to the way in which your subconscious tries to account within the plot line of your current dream for random sounds that otherwise might rouse you from your slumber.
  Next note As one of the more infamous achievements of the mid twentieth century avant garde, this form of musical composition challenges the listener on both psychological and philosophical grounds. The extent to which the pervasive ambiguity of content teases the listener into projecting a personalized vision of continuity onto the music opens up a radical new dimension to the experience we call "listening". Similarly, the extent to which the background "noise" of real life provides the same kind of narrative ambiguity if we bother to attend to it as thoughtfully as we do to so-called music, then the line between what we call a "composition" and what is merely "random noise" is significantly blurred if not eradicated.
  Next note My gut suspicion is that in this piece John was using a process driven more by stream of consciousness than by the literally random, "aleatoric" techniques much favored by the more serious members of the Chance Musical Movement. Their argument is that the more rigorously random the composition, the more level a playing field is offered the listener on which to do his thing. Whereas, if the composition, no matter how superficially ambiguous, is based on a plot line provided by the composer (no matter how subconscious), the playing field is no longer level; or at the least, the game is somewhat rigged. It's a distinction worth making though in context of "Revolution #9" and a Beatles' album it's largely academic.

The farther one travels

  Next note There are several counterbalancing conservative factors here as well. You can more easily discern these by stepping back from the track and reflecting on it in afterthought.
  Next note The raw materials of the track, for example, are virtually all from pre-recorded musical and spoken sources, as well as some real life noises. Nothing here is "synthesized" from scratch. As a collage, all its elements were found objects in nature. Curiously enough, the choice of musical clips is heavily weighted toward the classical. Don't underestimate the impact all of this has on the finished product. Allright, granted: John was putting his thumb on the scale in recording some of the recitation pieces specifically for the purpose of using them here, but this is another nit, a real one maybe, but of academic significance in this context.
  Next note The random anti-narrative effect of the track notwithstanding, some of the sound sources recur furtively as motifs. None of them continues to reappear over the entire duration of the piece, but like familiar faces in a crowd scene, you pick out of the mix the title phrase, the slow, soft piano piece in the style of Chopin, the several classical snippets for orchestra or chorus, and the recitations by John, George, and Yoko.
  Next note The post processing of the various tape sources is gently limited to modifications of speed, running some of the tapes backwards, and a great deal of crosscutting between sources. Stockhausen's "Gesang der Junglinge" which has been acknowledged by Paul and others as an influence on the Beatles, is quite adventurous and technically arcane in the way it electronically manipulates its raw vocal sources; especially considering it's origins back in 1955/'56. I dare say that the semi-amateur low-tech approach to which "Revolution #9" clings is the root of much of its charm; it also is the saving grace that girds the piece against accusations of effete fatuousness.

Nothing to get hung about

  Next note Just like Schönberg's "Pierrot Lunaire", a particularly tough-to-take but undeniably seminal piece of atonal, Viennese hot house expressionism from 1921, "Revolution #9" has the dubious distinction of being more notorious and more talked about than enjoyably listened to.
  Next note It's a piece of music that inspires passionate reactions on both sides, even if the conventional wisdom does, right or wrong give rate it a big fat Turkey.
  Next note I prefer to take a measured view — it's neither anathema nor Lennon's supreme offering. If "Revolution #9" were a film you might render its capsule entry in Halliwell's film "Guide" as follows:
  • Synopsis: Dream-like collage of musical and spoken tape sources conjures up a mysteriously apocalyptic mood.
  • Assessment: Moderately ambitious media experiment. Not bad at all, but historically much more important because it appeared on a pop music album with the Beatles' imprimatur no less, than because of anything specifically ground breaking or outrageous in its production values.
  Alan (091398#155)
Copyright © 1998 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.