Sunday, November 7, 2010

My Left Field

The organic approach is but one of many valid approaches to composition.

Thus spake a former colleague, when someone complained to him about a mix 'n' match so-called Postmodern piece that had been performed that evening. It's just not organic, he said.

Wait — did I type "thus spake"? Lordy. The pretentio-meter just a-sploded.

The piece in question contained a mishmash of fragments, as different from each other as possible, or so it seemed, and they came one after another, as if the piece had no collective memory. Thus the musical tension came from the startling juxtapositions, and perhaps the form from the proportions. The idea of the resolution of these tensions? The piece stops, I guess. Or maybe that's just the wrong question. It could be that one point of the piece was the connections the seasoned listener would make absent the conventional kinds of connections that pieces normally make.

The piece in question didn't do anything for me. Since everything was a non sequitur and anything could happen at any time, then there were no rules, and thus no expectations, no fulfilling or thwarting of expectations. I got bored. I leave the door open, though, that a better-written piece put together in this non-organic way, could be something I would love to listen to.

All music must be organic.

What's with one-sentence Italic paragraph guy?

Oh yes. He's holding up the straw man for us to knock down. Yeah, the metaphor of a kernel expanding like a seed that grows into a plant, etc. to explain how music goes, is a pretty popular one; and in traditional musical analysis, we reverse-engineer mercilessly to show that everything that happens in a piece must always have been destined to be so. Because it's in the DNA of the opening.

Speaking of straw men — once one is blown down, how come we never come back with a stick man, to be blown down again, and finally with a brick man? The second theorist built his theory out of sticks, we could say, and we blow that one down, too, but with more effort. And the (strangely ironically) iron-clad theory is built from bricks! See, that's what happens when you let squirrels applaud whenever they want. The only catch, though, is that you can't build any theory in this fashion unless you have hair on your chinny-chin-chin.

Well, music isn't a vessel into which substance is poured. We had that conversation already, even though it was only me talking, and already I'm having a dry heave over it. Very frequently, the most expressive, memorable, or affective moments in a piece of music are places where there's an anomaly — where it doesn't behave normally.

Not to mention (even though that's exactly what I'm doing — what's up with that?), most humor in music comes about bisociatively (I made that word up, but you recognize the root), when something outrageously wrong happens, based on the established normative (or as we called it in the early '90s, the Stormin' Normative). Case in point, the "Surprise" Symphony of Haydn, in which a forte dominant stinger (not a Vodka stinger, but I'm working on it) is tacked on to the end of an ordinary phrase played pianissimo. Squirrels, though, don't understand that moment.

Many, many pieces by Bach have endings in which the tonic resolution of a dominant pedal is delayed by said resolution being, instead, the secondary dominant of the subdominant — thus incorrectly resolving the leading tone down a half step, instead of up. The result usually makes this listener (that's third person Davy) feel briefly as if he is floating on air, as one must wait still longer for the dominant and its correct, final resolution.

There are those little anomalies and then there are the really big ones. A popular one to bring up being the tutti forte C-sharp that Beethoven tacks on after the half-cadence — in F major, on C — that ends the first section of the finale of the Eighth Symphony. That moment of C-sharpness is both funny and kind of tragic, since it is such an ugly duckling at that moment. The really cool thing about that anomaly is how Beethoven spends so much of the remainder of the movement splaining it, or more accurately, gradually bringing it into the piece such that it isn't anomalous. Thus a lot of really kooky things that happen in the piece — substantial episode in the distant key of F-sharp minor, tonicization of D minor, respelling to D-flat to resolve correctly down to the structural dominant — get to happen in a kind of non-organic way.

Beethoven? Non-organic? Get outta town!

I myself have used a few of the WTF-type anomalies in some pieces recently, and getting around to the splaining part is always fun. My current favorite splain is to have the anomaly happen in the middle of a seemingly ordinary phrase much later, as if the original anomaly was a teensy-weensy window that let you see the future. Call me Simile Guy.

And then there is the musical pun. I call it a pun because it's about a harmony that "sounds like" a harmony that could potentially have a different function. The most mundane pun chord is the pivot chord in a modulation, in which, say vi (minor) of the old key is recontextual eyesed as ii (minor) of the new key. In chromaticville, all the textbooks love to point out how the Italian and German sixths "sound like" dominant sevenths (and by the commutative law of "sounds like", vice versa) and thus can be used as pivots for very odd-sounding modulations themselves. Well, whoa — when your big honkin' dominant seventh chord suddenly acts like the Augmented Sixth in the key of the leading tone — it's very rare to write "now there's a composer with taste".

Or you could go the other way. Like our old friend Bobbie did.

Now there's a composer with taste.

As I mentioned in that previous post, the long-unresolved E-sharp from the end of the first song of Dichterliebe finally gets something of a resolution, eleven songs later. By which point we've probably forgotten we ever wanted it. Bobbie, though, makes it the bass note of the German augmented sixth chord of B-flat major — whoa doggies, starting on a dissonant sonority! What's more, since it's going to resolve properly to the cadential six-four, the note usually spelled D-flat is spelled C-sharp — since it's going to move up a half-step to D. This is only a detail, but it's cool to note that by the rules of chords, C-sharp is the root of a chord spelled C-sharp, E, G-flat, B-flat. That's nutty! The fifth of the chord is doubly diminished with its root! And the squirrels have applauded that.

So we're now twelve songs in to the poet's sixteen-song odyssey. Rejection — so two months ago. Resolution — dude, it's 1840. And what's happening in this song? It's a beautiful summer's day! — no longer May, as in the first song. And poet-guy now imagines that the flowers in the garden are talking about, and then to, him.

I see a vast potential for compositional anomalies. And a potential for vast compositional anomalies.

And Bobbie doesn't disappoint. But since he is a composer with taste, he is going to grow his anomalies organically.

Really? I thought anomalies couldn't be organic.

Then read on. Or read off. Whichever, I can't tell the difference.

So we already mentioned that Bobbie starts out using the oddly spelled German augmented sixth to begin the song, and that it properly resolves to the cadential six-four  to introduce the song. As the singer simply sings that it's a beautiful day in the garden, an ordinary chord progression with a smooth bass line accompanies — I IV V4-3/ii ii V7 I. The applied dominant to ii provides a bit of nice chromatic color, as well as a three-note chromatic melody (B-flat, B, C) at the top of the piano part. The phrase finishes with another German sixth properly resolved, introducing the new phrase.

Now in the second phrase, the poet notices that the flowers are whispering about him. To commemorate this odd feeling, Bobbie puts a German sixth right after the tonic, and spells it wrong — as if it were the dominant seventh of the raised tonic (or Neapolitan, or something). Of course, we listeners have heard the chord before, twice, spelled in its German manifestation, so we think little of it.

Here's where the pun comes in, as said dominant seventh resolves to — to — to what, really? A delayed suspended something or other to the Neapolitan? To an F-sharp minor triad over a B-natural bass? Theory students trying to do a Roman numeral analysis go nuts here. They write "N9" or N7", or they write in a brief modulation to B with the German sixth as the pivot chord — well, I suppose it's all of them and none of them. but it shonuff makes the vocal line tortured, and that's kind of the point, isn't it?

I mean, okay. Look at the flats and the canceling naturals in the vocal line above a piano part in sharps. Nutty! and when the "N7" or whatever it is kind of slides into a more normative V7/V, that causes a bunch of weird stuff to happen. The octave between the singer and the bass (well, not an octave ‚ C-flat and B-natural) is "resolved" to a seventh! Both voices must be spelled that way because of the voice leading — raised tone going up, lowered tone going down. It is exactly the opposite of how the augmented sixth resolves (in opposite directions to an octave). Hmm.

So when the voice "resolves" to B-flat, ah! Back inside the key, and the seventh that it forms with the bass will resolve down, properly. After all, in first year theory I have reiterated time and time again — so frequently that I always note which iteration it is — that sevenths resolve down by step. Always, always. Except when they don't.

And Bobbie/the poet's resolution of that seventh? Up by step! Nutty! How can Bobbie get away with that?

I'm sure you thought of the same thing; The bass line was B-flat (then F-sharp), B, C, as another manifestation of the 3-note chromatic line noted earlier. The voice, too, accomplishes the same line on slightly longer time scale — B-flat to begin the phrase, the C-flat "resolution" and the completion of the motive by the move up to C-natural.

Well, things return to normal soon thereafter, and the German sixth is once again a German sixth and B-flat major is back where it belongs. Now it's apparently normal for flowers to whisper, since the poet then sings those words again, to the "normal" chords of the beginning of the song.

Okay, reality has changed. Flowers talk. The important thing, though, is — what do they say?

Luckily, the poem ends with the flowers talking, and of course they can't be in the same key as the poet. How does Bobbie decide what key the flowers will be in?

Ah, here's an idea! Project the 3-note chromatic line on another time scale! Vocal line cadence in B-flat; have the flowers start on B, and finish on C! Oh, how's that going to happen?

And anyway, aren't we accustomed to vocal phrases being introduced by augmented sixths? Let's give the flowers their own augmented sixth, one not even associated with a country! In another breathtakingly slidy move, the chord with the A-flat bass moves smoothly. if strangely, into the Key of the Flowers: G major. A perfect place for a B-natural in the voice. And that augmented sixth? B-flat D F-sharp A-flat. The fifth with the root? Augmented!

That one isn't quite German and not quite French, either. I usually call it the Alsacian sixth in class, and am always entertained by how many ways the students spell "Alsacian" when they write about this song. Alsacian wines are very nice. Alsacian sixths are very weird.

And what do the flowers say, in their very own key? Don't be angry with our sister, you sad pale man. Flowers are name-callers. And sad pale man gets the old German sixth treatment again, with another chromatic slide in the bass to G-flat from the G of the flowers; but this time resolving directly to the dominant, and initiating a long dominant pedal for a piano postlude. Bobbie narrowly avoids parallel fifths by resolving D-flat to C early — thus making the augmented sixth very briefly French.

This piano postlude is a bit nutty, too — what with all the vagrant harmonies moving stepwise. And the postlude to the postlude will also be the postlude to the whole cycle, in D-flat.

And that long-unresolved E-sharp from eleven songs ago? Dude, it's 1840.