REVOLUTION NUMBER 9
BY IAN HAMMOND
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Revolution 9 (4) Voices and Form
Meanwhile back at Studio two... this is a series of posts which
examines Revolution 9. In the first three posts I presented a
detailed view of the first two minutes of Revolution 9. That gives
us enough source material to start discussing the piece in more
In this post I look at the structure of Revolution 9 at three
levels. At the lowest level we have the individual "voices" or loops.
At the highest level we have four large sections. In between we have
the structure within the sections -- the most difficult area to get a
A reminder (mostly to myself) of some goals. This first set of posts
looks at Revolution 9 at face value, without inquiring into issues
of origin, history or reception. This is the reporting level. After
that I intend to do some posts at the commentary level on origin
Revolution 9 is constructed largely of prerecorded tape loops. The
key to studying the piece, I think, is to treat these loops as
voices. I believe that a focus on the idea of voice reveals
Revolution 9 to be a well organized piece of music. That, anyway, is
the guiding principle of my approach.
Built initially from the outro of Revolution 1, it's interesting to
note that what survived that track were Lennon's voice (alright) and
Ono's voice (you become naked...). [Although a recent RMB post
suggests that the piano in the coda came from the original outro.]
Revolution 9 has distinct sections with varying numbers of voices,
suggesting the language of vocal works (solo, duet, trio etc). But it
is the VARIETY of voices that strikes us. Some examples:
Spoken: Four different kinds of crowd (rabble, kids, demo, footy). The
opening duet with Martin. Cackling laughter. Baby. JohnAndGeorge and
Sung: Lennon's alright, the tenor (again and again), two main
choirs, a climax choir and a stretto choir.
Strings: A soft soothing piece. A rapid string section. A solo fiddle
with string band. The plunging string climax.
Wind: Various backward instruments that sound like woodwind. The Oboe.
A meandering clarinet.
Brass: Two main pieces. A rising bass horn. A fanfare.
Piano: the iconic Waltz, a repeated note, glissando and crash that end
the body, and the cadential theme at the end of the coda.
Guitar: Almost none. Guitars are represented by a single repeated
note, as is bass guitar.
FX -- Sound effects, such as a bell, honks, whistle, guns, white
noise, electronic noise, etc.
Lennon selected and prepared these fragments with great care. Taken
together, the voices add up to something resembling a large symphony
orchestra with soloists, choir and percussion. Lennon employs standard
techniques of orchestration in handling these forces. He assigns a
characterizing role to many of the voices:
Structure: Lennon's Grand Fugue
Lennon is restricted in what he can do with a pre-recorded voices.
He can't do much to vary a voice, or write new notes for it. After
experimentation, he chose not to alter the speed (and pitch) of voices
(with some interesting exceptions). He does reverse some voices, but
not in order to vary them within the work.
What can Lennon do with these voices? He can decide when they enter
and when they stop. He can combine them in different groups. He can
play with dynamics (loudness) and placement (stereo). One thing that
adds real character to Revolution 9 is that we can sense him as a
performer, doing all these things with such obvious and tangible
vigor. We envisage him as a performer, at the mixing desk.
There is a musical form that shares many of the restrictions and
opportunities listed above: the fugue.
A fugue can be thought of as a more sophisticated form of the round,
such as Three Blind Mice, or the outro to She Said She Said. See a
musical dictionary for a more formal definition.
A large fugal piece consists of a number of sections. Each begins with
a presentation of the subjects (and their answers). More complex
fugues may present multiple subjects (double fugues etc). The material
is recombined and developed in episodes. The main dramatic device is
the stretto where the voices enter higgledy-piggledy, piling up on
The fugue is a strict form that is focussed on the voice. No less
important is the issue of the overall composite texture achieved by
all the voices taken together, and in particular, the variety of
textures achieved in a piece.
I am not supposing that Lennon was aware of fugal techniques. I'm
suggesting, perhaps more audaciously, that he reinvented the
principles, because he was faced with the same set of problems faced
by the fugue. It is remarkable how many features of fugal writing are
shared by Revolution 9.
I first obtained a good overview of Revolution 9 when I listened to
it with the fugue idea in mind. All the pieces fell magically into
place. Perhaps too magically? Here is the rough outline of the work,
and a road map for the posts to come.
0.00 Section 1 (exposition)
1.30 Major stretto
2.00 Section 2 (development)
4.30 Major stretto
5.00 Section 3 (development)
7.00 Section 4 (coda)
Lennon's Strip Form
Revolution 9 has four sections of two or three minutes, each about
the length of a pop song. What does Lennon do within these sections?
Do we have a stream of random sounds? A programme? A structure?
Just as Lennon abstracts the instruments of the orchestra, so he
abstracts the basic elements of any dramatic form: a start, a middle
and an end. Some voices are dedicated to particular functions, such as
marking the start or end of a section. Some appear mostly in stretto
areas. Some as climaxes.
Having done that, Lennon arranges these voices in tableaux which I
call strips. Each strip has a start and an end. Most have a middle.
Most are about a minute in length.
Musical form is an elusive butterfly. The rules of music apply more
to the lesser than to the greater composers. So, I will find it
difficult to prove a cut and dried case for strip form. At the very
least, strip form provides a good conceptual model for following and
discussing the piece.
In the table below I have marked the occurrences of three events:
Number nine: the position of each Number nine entry. These occur
typically at the start of a strip. Note, the Number nine entries at
[5.00] and [5.45] were present on the preliminary mix, but deleted
during mixing and editing. Both of them distorted or sped-up Number
The stasis strings or string plunge (in section 2). These tend to
mark the middle or the beginning of the codetta of a strip.
The patches of near silence and/or where Lennon sings Alright or
related sounds. These tend to mark the end of a section.
Start: Middle: End:
"Number Stasis/ Silence/
Nine" Plunge Alright
(S1) ===== ======= =======
0.00 0.10 0.25 1.20 Strip + stretto
2.00 2.10 2.20 2.45 Strip
3.00 3.00 3.08 3.50 Strip + stretto (9 #9)
4.00 3.58 4.12 Strip
4.30 4.30 4.30 Stretto
5.00 [5.00] 5.35* 5.50 Strip Climax
6.30 6.33 6.40 Strip
7.00 Strip (very weak)
Many of the remaining voices also help to mark the ebb and flow of a
strip. Here's some further examples:
Dubs ("Claret", "Baby", "White noise"
Usually only in first passage of a section
Backward Piano, Palestrina Choir
One or more new entries
Combinations of voices
Middle or End
Stasis strings or string plunge
A theme designed to signal the end phase of a passage
"Alright", "uh huh" etc from Lennon
End of stretto
Lennon has abstracted the elements of a story into a succession of
voices. Given the Montage analogy, this is like a tableau, or comic
strip arrangement of sounds as pictures. Lennon uses strips within the
first three sections where it provides the punctuation of the fabric.
Now, Lennon's blunt instruments paint an rough impressionist picture
where we seem to be too close to the picture to identify what we are
looking at. Like Lennon's television set, untuned, because he couldn't
see it clearly anyway. Images of broken light which dance before me
like a million suns.
The clever bit is that he repeats this sequence of blurry events. With
each repetition the contour becomes clearer, but it's the contour of
the form which emerges, not the content. The effect is one of deja vu,
the method is that of myth. We, the listeners, get to paint in the
shadows with the detail that appeals to us. There is something
primordial about Revolution 9 that stems from this process.
At a much more practical level, the strip form provides Lennon with
all the tools he needs to raise and lower the tension and volume of
Meanwhile Back At Section Two...
Armed with this basic idea of the structure of the piece, the next
post will examine the second section. Hopefully this will not take as
much time as the first section, now that we have the basic conventions
I have pointed out in earlier posts that this is a work in progress.
Naturally, all the conclusions outlined above are presented as
tentative and subject to confirmation or rejection. This section has
cost me more work than I had planned and I am still very dissatisfied
with it. It's all a bit vague. But I think the main points will stand
up to further scrutiny. We'll see.
copyright (c) ian hammond 1998 -- all rights reserved
For pleasure I would never listen to [my own records].
When I hear them, I just think of the session... the
eight hours of mixing Revolution 9 -- whatever... I
remember every detail of the work.
IAN HAMMOND'S BEATHOVEN: PAGE 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, - Back To Revolution Number 9