Long songs

I discovered a cache of songs on a hard drive that I thought had given up the ghost many years ago, and spent a good part of the day listening to songs that were my favorites at some point in time over the last ten years. I realized something about my own taste in music from this random walk down memory lane. For short songs, which I define as less than five minutes long, my opinion about a song’s merits is governed primarily by its lyrics. But if I make a list of songs that I can listen to again and again and lose myself in the music, there is a strong skew towards really long songs. I think it’s very challenging to create real emotion in music, and the longer the song, the more a musician can do with it to make it memorable.

As a whim, here is a list of five long songs, picked somewhat randomly.

1. Private Investigations, 7 mins
Dire Straits. The beauty of their music is Mark Knopfler’s ability to create atmosphere with music, of which I think this song is the best example. I can never hear this sing without remembering the entire genre of film noir and Raymond Chandler. For about a minute at the end, there’s a really lovely instrumental section that actually communicates more than the lyrics do.

2. Echoes, 23 mins
Pink Floyd. The plink in the beginning is very famous, and the album on which this song features – Meddle – is the most satisfactory of their albums for me. Again an atmospheric song. Reminds me of Arthur C Clarke and Moby Dick. In my opinion, it’s the only good science fiction song (actually, it’s the only science fiction song I have heard, discounting the psychedelic Gong).

3. Saqia Aur Pila, 27 mins
Sabri Brothers. I love their music – they are a pair of Pakistani Qawwali singers, one tall and intense, the other fat and cheerful. This song is sublime. There’s a ten minute version on YouTube but the real deal is longer. It starts off with a patron asking a barman to pour him more liquor, and after an incredible journey through Islamic philosophy and history, ends with Hussain’s martyrdom in Karbala, when you realize the liquor is a metaphor for something quite different.

4. Into The Woods: Introduction, 29 mins
Stephen Sondheim. While this is usually split up into 4 songs in most CDs, if you watch the musical, it’s one contiguous, polyphonous masterpiece. The musical is a fairytale retelling, and this piece introduces all the characters – Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack, the witch, the Baker, and all their families. Tour De force, especially the way Sondheim creates a distinct style for each singer but they fuse so well. Polyphony at its best.

5. Die Walkure, 5 hours
Wagner. The Ring Cycle is my favorite western classical music, and Wagner is really the heavy metal of the genre. The cycle is a set of four operas that are the complete telling of a legend about a ring, which ends with the destruction of the world. Die Walkure is the second opera and contains the famous Ride of the Valkyries section.

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