The notion of influence

January 13, 2006

As an artist, being influenced by someone is a tricky confession. I once told ex-Byrd David Crosby that he was a tremendous influence on my compositional aesthetic. I played him some examples of my music where I heard an obvious influence, but he was baffled. Music critics are notorious in their descriptions of new music by referring to other composers or compositions, rather than actually trying to describe the music in prose without such crutches.

In 20th century Classical music, an explosion of musical styles and languages replaced any sense of a common tongue. In science, Thomas Kuhn wrote of a preparadigmatic period where multiple theories are postulated about the challenge of the day, and then one huge discovery is made, say, relativity, and scientists spend then next few centuries working out the ramification of this one discovery. Classical music is still waiting for its Einstein. In popular music, the Beatles would get my vote for the most important paradigm in the 20th century. Rufus Wainwright has many of those similar qualities for me. He combines elements of many different songwriters and composers; he is not simply a collage of styles, but, in my opinion, is becoming a paradigmatic figure.

Rufus has spoken in many interviews of artists the he believes to have influenced his musical language. As a guest host on a KCRW program, he played a bizarre array of artists who were supposedly influential on him, a roster that left many of us baffled. Artists are often blind as to their actual influences. What I am asking your assistance in is offering YOUR opinion of who was influential on him. I ask that you not just say “Jeff Buckley” or “Serge Gainbourg” but cite specific songs or compositions where you hear explicit similarities.

Rufus's Influence machine

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Rhapsody January 13, 2006 at 7:32 pm

On the “All I Want” DVD, Marius DeVries tells the story of how he and Rufus attended a benefit where Philip Glass was the musical conductor. DeVries recounts how they stood and listened to Glass playing piano during a soundcheck..and the DeVries noticed a contemplative look on Rufus’ face. Not long after the benefit, DeVries, in the midst of producing the Want project with Rufus, heard him playing a familiar staccato piano piece. That piece became “The Art Teacher,” and DeVries chuckles as he remembers teasing Rufus about quoting Glass.

In a TV interview for The Culture Show (UK), Rufus plays a short clip from a Verdi opera (“The Force of Destiny”) and then ties the simple bassline to his own work, “This Love Affair.”

Aside from the lyrical reference to Mussorgsky in Rufus’ song, “Ups and Downs,” the bassline from Mussorgsky’s opera, “Boris Godunov” (Prologue) is unmistakeable–although uniquely expressed through Rufus’ perception of what he has heard.

Rufus comments on the inclusion of Ravel’s “Bolero” in his composition, “Oh, What a World.” Although he didn’t borrow the notes from Ravel, he used the clip from “Bolero” within the context of his song to underscore the repetitive strains in the music.

Rufus also points to classical pieces that he includes in the background vocals of “Beautiful Child” and alludes to other snippets of melodies that he has assimilated and then managed to insert in some form in his own music.

Rufus seems to have a voracious appetite for sounds from an eclectic variety of sources, which he assimilates and re-presents in surprising and unique ways in his own music. His music crosses and blends many musical genres–opera, rock, pop, blues, swing, classical, country, and folk.

None of these observations answers your question as to *who* has influenced Rufus’ music. I suspect everything he hears influences him in one way or another. If I were pressed to name a *person* with influence on his music, I guess I would name his mom, Kate McGarrigle, followed by his dad, Loudon Wainwright III, and possibly his sister, Martha. Everything else that he hears makes connections with his own artistic talents and sensibilities to generate the music so many of us appreciate.

Meg January 13, 2006 at 8:20 pm

I know he’s listed Cole Porter as an influence in the past and I can hear that at times. Lyrically Harvester of Hearts reminds me a bit of a song like Easy to Love. In both the singer basically says, “you’re so great, and we’d be great together, and you might not see it now but I’m going to try and convince you.” It’s always struck me as a song that’s in the Tin Pan Alley tradition, so to speak.

sinisterimage January 14, 2006 at 1:43 am

Judging by the number of covers of French songs (mostly of the Chanson genre), which is not suprising with his French-Canadian heritage, Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel I can certainly see as influences. I know Rufus has namechecked both at some stage. From

“Warm in tone with pockets of sentimental chills, Wainwright’s songs recall postwar 1940s and ’50s French popular music, when people such as Boris Vian, Charles Aznavour, and Jacques Brel dished out sassy pop daffodils spiked with cynicism. “I was highly influenced by French culture,” he says. “It’s interesting because these French cultural influences have kind of been forgotten a little bit in America, and in France for that matter, but in Quebec it’s always been there.”

Personally, I can see touches of Brel (also one of my favourite artists) in songs like “The One You Love”, and I’m not musical, but Brel had many songs with a similar ‘marching’ (for want of a better term) percussion. I think lyrically, the self-effacing honesty of his lyrics is similar to Brel who wrote about love, loss and death in an incredibly candid way.

Although not thorough, Rufus has performed various French songs including:

– Quand Vous Mourrez de nos Amour
– Coeur du Parisienne
– L’Absence
– Le Roi d’ys
– Complainte de la Butte
– Au Fond du Temple Saint
– Nuits de Miami

Valkyrie January 15, 2006 at 10:32 am

There are other influences that I hear when I listen to Rufus’s music. In the song “Pretty Things”, I was reminded of Schumann and his broad, unusual chords. “Memphis Skyline” always reminds me of Stephen Foster and the warm and humid South during the piano interlude. The song “Crumb by Crumb” brings to mind the music of Maria Muldaur and nightclubs of the past. “Peach Trees” makes me a think a bit of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks as well as 50’s crooners, such as Ricky Nelson. Yes, . . I said Ricky Nelson. “Beautiful Child” makes me think of Woody Guthrie with a bit of Hank Williams mixed in for good measure. And a lot of Rufus’s music reminds of the huge musical productions of the 30’s and 40’s, leagues of women dressed alike, diving in synch into massive swimming pools, huge numbers of identical young men in tuxedoes descending a staircase. . . . . .

ShadowWing January 17, 2006 at 12:15 pm

On “Agnus Dei,” from Rufus himself: “ I’m very inspired by Middle Eastern music. Egyptian singer Oum Kalsoum is one of my all-time favorite singers and it was great to include that flavor. I guess if I have to explain it I can say that I like the naturalistic feel of Middle Eastern music with the [explicit] lyrics of Western music.”

In “Vibrate,” I hear influences of Italian Art Songs. I am also reminded of the “La Traviata” aria that Georgio sings to entice Alfredo back to Provence. Also some of the chord progressions (though not the time sigs.) remind me of “Habanera” from Carmen.

I hear influences of the Kinks’, “Father Christmas,” both lyrically and musically in “Spotlight on Christmas.”

The beginning chords of “The Maker Makes” and “Dinner at Eight” remind me of each other. If you consider “The Maker Makes” a traditional “cowboy” song (ie: “Old Paint,” “Red River Valley,” “Streets of Loredo”) you will recognize the simplicity of the tune and the rocking motion of the music (evocative of riding). I hear musical influences of Honky-Tonk Waltzes (“Sweet is the Melody”), Country Hymns (“In the Garden”), and Lullabies (“Pretty Little Horses” and “Sweet Baby James”).

“14th Street”: Turn-of-the-Last-Century Honky-Tonk, and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”

“Harvester of Hearts” reminds me of Harry Nilson’s album, “A Little Touch of Nilson in the Night,” lyrics, melody and delivery.

Melody of “Oh What a World” reminiscent of “Rhapsody in Blue” (and as Rhapsody said, “Bolero” in the bridge.)

kae January 18, 2006 at 9:27 pm

Apart from “Sally Ann”, that I interpreted as Rufus’s version of “Suzanne” because of the Cohenesque mood, I am not very good at pointing out influences. However, I would like to bring some ideas for research. One influential person that has not been named yet is Gabrielle Latrémouille, Rufus’s grandmother. In an interview given to L’Actualité, Kate McGarrigle was saying that “Gaby” practically raised Rufus. She was a contemporary of “turluteuse” singer La Bolduc and sang herself in improvised evenings. She would listen to songs of the 20s and 30s. She liked “grivoises” songs as Rufus once said and transmitted her taste for singing to her children and grandchildren.

I try to think about what, in the musical landscape of Montreal, could have been influential, if anything. There’s Leonard Cohen, of course, but Rufus also named both Gilles Vigneault and Claude Léveillée. Vigneault is known for the writing of “Quand vous mourrez de nos amours”, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle worked with him for one of his albums. Perhaps there is something to be found in the melodies and rythms or his large discography? Léveillée hasn’t been mentionned much otherwise, but I would like to look more closely at his work, because he has had a tremendous impact in the francophone world and because he is a piano composer. He also was one of the collaborators of Édith Piaf.

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