What do an early 20th century composer and a progressive rock band have in common? Despite the historical context, technology, and decades separating them, the music of both artists demonstrates irrefutable characteristics of a movement shared by art and music at the turn of the century: Impressionism.
The term “Impressionism” was born late in the 19th century due to an iconic French painting and the artistic movement that surrounded it: Monet's Impression, Sunrise. As the name suggests, Impressionism, first in art and later in music, was used to create pieces that evoked tapestries of color and texture – an impression rather than a definition of the subject. Up close, an Impressionist work may only appear as a patchwork of pigment, blurred lines, and incoherent definition. But when viewed from a distance and as a whole, a nebulous scene unfolds.
Impressionism Becomes a Musical Movement
Eventually, the term began to emerge in the context of a musical style, most famously by composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. In the same vein as the French painting style the term originated from – and unlike its Romantic period predecessor – Impressionism was not focused on storytelling; it was meant to evoke, not describe.
Debussy, while often considered the first Impressionist composer, vehemently denied the description, saying: “What I am trying to do is something different — an effect of reality, but what some fools call Impressionism.” However, he admitted to a pupil that it was important to “Collect impressions. Don’t be in a hurry to write them down. Because that’s something music can do better than painting: it can centralise variations of colour and light within a single picture.”
After Debussy’s death in 1918, Maurice Ravel was widely deemed the premiere composer in France – despite having been expelled from the Conservatoire de Paris in his early years for failing to win awards for his work. Although he admired Debussy’s music, he did not want to emulate his colleague’s style, and they shared a reserved rivalry, privately calling each other “thieves” and “tricksters.”
Ravel became well known for works such as Pavane for a Dead Princess, Boléro, the ballet Daphnis et Chloé, and his String Quartet in F major. New York Times writer Alex Ross said of Ravel that his “originality, like Mozart's, tends to go unnoticed because he could not help pleasing the ear even as he set out to shock it.”
Radiohead Enters the Music Scene
Fast forward nearly 50 years after Ravel’s death to 1985: Rock band On A Friday was just starting out in the United Kingdom. After signing to EMI Records in 1991, however, they changed their name to Radiohead, and in 1992 they released their first – and now insurmountably famous – single “Creep.”
Three decades and nine studio albums later, with influences ranging from experimental electronics to grunge greats like Nirvana to 20th century classical music and jazz, Radiohead has cemented themselves as one of the most famous and respected progressive rock bands in history. “At some point in the early 21st century, Radiohead became something more than a band,” says All Music’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “they became a touchstone for everything that is fearless and adventurous in rock.”
Creating Sonic Landscapes
So, how does the Impressionist movement tie these unlikely artists together? Impressionism is characterized by several elements, including unusual chords, atonality, the use of diverse scales/modes, complex rhythms, and the emphasis on instrumental timbres, elements that are clearly defined in both Ravel and Radiohead’s music:
1. Texture and timbre over melody
In keeping with the ideal of impression rather than definition, the texture and timbre of the music could be considered even more important than the melody. This does not mean that melody loses all importance – both Ravel and Radiohead devised incredibly recognizable tunes. However, it does suggest that the elements happening under the melody are just as imperative to defining the “sonic landscape” of the piece.
Ravel, for example, in the 2nd movement of his String Quartet in F major, juxtaposes a soaring melody over frantic pizzicato (plucking) and 16th note accompaniment in the 2nd violin and cello. While the melody on its own has a beautiful, dreamy quality, the added articulation of the accompaniment creates an agitated atmosphere. This is important because, while the melody may stand out the most to the listener, the textures underneath it actually set the tone of the work. Additionally, the copious use of pizzicato and tremolo – timbres selected specifically for their striking sounds – provide an edge-like character that persists even through the slower moments of the movement.
In Radiohead’s song “Burn the Witch” off their 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool, the band creates a comparable landscape: The pronounced 8th note pulse, coincidentally a similar pizzicato sound to the one heard in Ravel’s string quartet, rolls underneath a long, legato melody. Again, while the melody is silky, the accompaniment contrasts with sounds like ponticello (an eerie tone created by placing the bow close to the bridge of the instrument), a dry drum beat, and the high pizzicato in the strings. Because specific orchestration is also important to developing certain tones, colors, and timbres, Radiohead’s use of string instruments to generate these sounds gives the song an unnerving and ghostly quality.
2. Unusual and Dissonant Harmony
During Ravel’s time, uncommon extensions were being added to chords, such as 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths, to create more dissonance and less clarity. These added notes expanded the variety of chords and fortified the complexity of the musical texture described above.
Abundant use of chromaticism also contributed to the ambiguity of the tonality.
Radiohead is also well known for their unusual use of complex chords, extensions, and chromaticism. Just as in Ravel’s music, this leads to tightly stacked, dissonant chords, as in the example from “Burn the Witch” below.
Such dissonances are meaningful to the overall sound of an Impressionist work: The discord creates its own tone color by leaving the listener suspended, sometimes without an anchor in one key or tonality. Because color contrast is vital to the concept of Impressionism, such harmonies can help create a palette for other textures to layer on to.
3. Experimentation as a Result of External Influences
Finally, both Radiohead and Ravel were inspired to experiment with elements such as rhythm, meter, and non-traditional scales as a result of increased technology, globalization, and other external influences.
In Ravel’s case, the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris, or the world’s fair, exposed the composer to non-Western music; he and Debussy were particularly inspired by the shimmering quality of the Javanese gamelan and endeavored to imitate the aesthetic with Western instruments. To do so, he composed using uncommon meters/rhythms, the unusual chords described above, and exotic scales such as the whole-tone scale (frequently associated with Eastern music) and the pentatonic scale (commonly heard in Asian music). The composer also displayed a particular fondness for Spanish music in his Pièce en forme de Habanera, a Cuban dance form popular in Spain at the time, and his orchestral work Rapsodie espagnole.
Ravel demonstrates several of these foreign influences in the fourth movement of his string quartet: Not only does he utilize the pentatonic scale, he plays with frequent meter changes, particularly in uncommon times such as 5/4.
In turn, Radiohead’s music - thanks to the band’s diverse endeavors and tastes – progressed in an increasingly experimental way that pushed the boundary of existing pop/rock structures. The song “15 Step” off their 2007 album In Rainbows, for example, is a labyrinth of complex rhythms in a 5/4 meter and uses of the pentatonic scale (like the 4th Movement of the Ravel String Quartet), with raspy electronic influences and a divergence from the traditional pop form.
Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan credits the band’s earlier album OK Computer for using external influences to create something wholly new and unique to Radiohead, saying:
OK Computer masterfully channeled the band members’ diverse tastes, which ranged from touchstones both common and outré. There’s a live-in-the-room recording style and nods toward the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Phil Spector, but also clear traces of composers like Italian film-score giant Ennio Morricone and Polish avant-garde luminary Krzysztof Penderecki. And it’s not hard to tell that Radiohead had been listening to the looping and splicing experiments like DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, and records by Krautrock titans Can and Faust.
Making an Impression
Ravel and Radiohead are unique influencers in the progression of music, and are fundamental examples of how artistic genres – including visual art – and cultures can inspire each other. Just as Ravel’s compositions pushed the boundaries of Western classical music, Radiohead has innovated within the pop/rock industry: “Radiohead’s parallels can be heard today less among bands whose music resembles theirs,” says Marc Hogan, “than in artists of all genres who share a certain restless audacity.” The Denver Nexus Project seeks to showcase that very audacity by highlighting the musicians who, throughout history, have transformed the sonic landscape of music.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2009, March 30). Impressionism: Music. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/art/Impressionism-music
Myers, Rollo H. (2019, March 3). Maurice Ravel: French Composer. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Maurice-Ravel
Ross, Alex. (1995, March 28). Debussy and Ravel, All Day and All Ways. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1995/03/28/arts/music-review-debussy-and-ravel-all-day-and-all-ways.html
Hogan, Marc. (Date unknown). Exit Music: How Radiohead’s Destroyed the Art-Pop Album in Order to Save It. Pitchfork. Retrieved from https://pitchfork.com/features/ok-computer-at-20/10038-exit-music-how-radioheads-ok-computer-destroyed-the-art-pop-album-in-order-to-save-it/
Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. (Date unknown). Radiohead Biography. AllMusic. Retrieved from https://www.allmusic.com/artist/radiohead-mn0000326249/biography
Cornelius, S. Natvig, M. (2016). Music: A Social Experience. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=GKhJDAAAQBAJ&pg=PA46&lpg=PA46&dq=ravel+at+the+world+fair&source=bl&ots=0BOcmzOh6i&sig=ACfU3U20DIMgySJbUSrcORRwgzYNh8kBHw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiW0s2UwI_hAhVi7oMKHQvgA2sQ6AEwD3oECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=ravel%20at%20the%20world%20fair&f=false