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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Norwegian Wood: Inspiration From the '80s

a-ha: Mags Furuholmen, Morten Harket, Pål Waakatar,
on the cover for "The Sun Always Shines on T.V." © 1985 Warner Bros.
It's a cold, rainy day here in New York City, and I thought I'd do a little change-of-pace today. On a morning like this, even the cheeriest works (Beethoven's Sixth, Mahler's "Titan") just aren't cutting through the gloom. No, this job will require...a drum machine.

It might surprise readers to learn that your faithful Superconductor doesn't just listen to classical music from Adams to Zimmerman. And this morning, I'm listening to an interesting collection of songs from 1985 from the trio of Morten Harket, Mags Furuholmen and Pål Waakatar, better-known as...a-ha.

In 1985, I was 12 years old, I made the great leap of going into a record store and actually...buying a rock album. And it wasn't an album. It was a cassette!)

The first one I bought was Tears for Fears' Songs From The Big Chair. The second...was Hunting High & Low by a-ha. (And yes, I'm having fun with HTML but they really wrote their logo that way.)

Now, the immediate appeal of this record was the incredibly catchy "Take On Me"," the group's first single buoyed by the MTV video--the one with the cool black-and-white rotoscoping and the girl trapped inside the comic book. But it was the group's second single, "The Sun Always Shines on T.V." that really blew my mind. The video--a sort of sequel where the dude runs away from the girl and rocks out with his band in an abandoned church--wasn't bad either. Here's the video:

The video for "The Sun Always Shines on T.V.", directed by Steve Barron.
"Sun" combines a driving beat, operatic, countertenor vocals from lead singer Morten Harket, and a memorable chorus that is built around a dropping perfect fifth in C major. (G to C, try the piano at the bottom of the blog to see what I mean.) The singer then goes up a third, back down to the tonic, and down another third to send shivers down the listener's back. In musicologist terms, it's the same set of intervals as the opening to Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra. Just backwards.

But the best part of the song (which comes at in 3:47") is when a string orchestra (generated by keyboardist Mags) comes barrelling in for an extended, Wagnerian flight that wouldn't be out of place in Lohengrin.

By the way, "Take On Me" is built around the same interval.

The whole album as some interesting instrumental touches. "And You Tell Me" is built around a different set of Beatles-like minor intervals. The title track has some soaring lines and a serious workout for Mr. Harket's crystalline falsetto. And (my other favorite track) "Living a Boy's Adventure Tale" has a sad, insistent hook for English horn. Yes, that's an actual English horn on there. Listen:

A-ha weren't the only band to use English horns in the '80s. But that's another column.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats