Archive for May, 2011

Tonality and tonal strategy in pop

May 22, 2011

I’m a sucker for the unexpected key change in tonal music, particularly the broadly unprepared one.

The song above contains an especially mischievous – and thrilling – example, with its leap from the Eb resolution implied by the bridge (which itself is an enrichment of the Bb of the verses), into the brightest of F majors for the chorus. (This lift seems also to help shift proceedings beyond the reach of language; the wonderful ‘o ah oh’ triadic hook in the voice that occurs here matches the hyper-condensated energies apparent in this tonal moment of release).

Upward modulations of a whole tone like this one occur all the time in pop music. ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ jumps up buoyantly from A to B within its verse (although the argument could be made, because of the presence of flattened seventh chords ornamenting both of these tonal regions, that we actually move from E to F sharp), before twisting, via a minor mode dominant of B and then of A (which represents a neat reverse of the strategy of the verse), into C major, which movement is itself made somewhat ambiguous by the big release substitution of the sub-dominant for the tonic chord in the key of C, which substitution serves to delay the final resolution onto the putative home key (C). As soon as this resolution happens, and it does so only fleetingly, we jump unprepared back to A for the next verse.

Many other cases exist that make more of the tension being played with in the flattened seventh major chords used above; for example, ‘Waterloo’ turns its initial tonic D into that flattened seventh for a charged momentary modulation into the dominant at the head of every verse. This delaying of tonicisation only adds further weight to the confirmation of that tonic that takes place in each chorus (though it could also be argued, in a cheaply Foucauldian way, that all of this deferral of the home key – instead of weakening it – only serves to bring it into sharper focus, creating a sort of tonal discourse and a concomitant spiral of delay and subterfuge that actually serves to strengthen the tonic all along). Ingenious variations of these types of strategy are legion in the pop canon.

The Beach Boys’ humbling and beautiful ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ outlines a simple and elegant transition from E to F sharp major from verse to chorus, with chord iii in E being used as a pivot, substituting for ii in the conventional ii-V cadence in the new key. In contrast to the expected heightening of energy that is usually suggested by an upward tonal shift, the modulation in ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, perhaps because of the structural preparation, has a calming, soothing feel. The pivot is used again, in reverse, to accomplish the transition back to the verse, with B major turning from sub to dominant amidst a bed of transitional vocals.

Brian Wilson uses subtle upward modulation of a semi or whole tone all over the place in his early music, as in, for example, ‘Warmth of the Sun’ and ‘Surfer Girl’, where the shifts are almost imperceptible, creating a sense of sonic illusion or trap-doorness, and, to me, shaming the X Factor’s fetid, telegraphed use of a version of the same modulation on the chorus repeat. And we shouldn’t even get started on the many and varied tonal folds of ‘Girls on the Beach’!

His later work (by later I mean 1965 on) is filled with sophisticated chord substitutions and chord alterations derived from Broadway and jazz composers and musicians, but it is Wilson’s especial obsession with the subtlest grades of inversions, particularly on Pet Sounds and tracks like ‘Surf’s Up’ (the pinnacle of pop music?), that marks that later work out from the common musical language of pop. This sort of harmonic approach was of course enabled by Wilson’s habit of composing at the piano – chord inversions, without due care being paid to voicings and voice leading, sound thin and askew on conventional pop instruments such as guitars, and as such are comparatively little used.

Anyway, these songs and more besides show us that tonality has been used in a discursive and dialectical manner in popular music, a realm where funk droning vamps (see Hip Hop) and blues-derived triad doubling and chromatic derivations thereof (see Extreme Metal) often dominate, but surely do not tell the whole story. Tonality has in some important examples determined form, affect, and musical dynamics in popular music as much as it did throughout the symphonic repertoire of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Passenger

May 20, 2011

Art works usually appear unified to their audience, at least broadly speaking. Yet strong works invariably contain moments, passages, elements, which have little cognitive or structural impact on the spectator or listener. Conversely, weak pieces of art might contain moments of no great offense in themselves, but taken as part of the whole are not enough to counter a negative judgement.

In other words: art works are rarely fully integrated. Or, at the level of form, they are taken to be transcendentally integrated, but are experienced a moment behind or ahead of that movement of unification as a series of disparate events of varying quality. Art works are full of asignifying elements which could be substituted into works of a much lesser or greater character without much qualitative discrepancy being noticed. I’m not even sure that the greatest of art works are those in which poorer moments are minimised: inconsistency or inelegance can be more than made up for by vivid moments or unexpected juxtapositions. These things should be judged on a case by case basis.

The point remains that art works are constituted by a constellation of figures and grounds, and that the efficacy of those works depends on the judicious arrangement and organisation of that constellation according to whatever problem or set of needs is set out in and by that work.

Encounters in the Republic of Heaven

May 18, 2011

Trevor Wishart’s Encounters in the Republic of Heaven ~~All the colours of speech~~ — heard this past Monday at King’s Place as part of their wonderful Out Hear series — is Herzogian in its spotlighting of strange stories and richly felt anecdotes, but purely of its composer in its inventive and colourful exploration of the valences of the human voice as speech, musical texture, singing glossolalia, granular sonic entity, and much more besides.

Encounters consists primarily of transformations of the human voice into musical texture and of speech into song (for which the composer developed his own sound processing software), whilst featuring also as a prime ingredient the plain speech (albeit often chopped up and built upon) of the many people, from children to farmers to sailors, that Wishart recorded in the North East of England during the piece’s long 2006 – 2011 gestation period.

This substantial and serious, but also very funny, 80 minute composition in four acts has plenty of antecedents: the radio plays of Ewan MacColl come to mind frequently, particularly for the kind of narratives featured within (though here the purpose is much more carnivalesque), whilst in more musical terms we could draw a correspondence between Encounters and Berio’s Omaggio a Joyce and Visage, and perhaps also with Rob Mackay’s music, though the avant garde sturdiness of these works is moderated in the Wishart by the wild spirit of recent sound art by Florian Hecker, and recent experimental pop by an artist such as Bjork.

The Hecker comparison is most obvious in the use of eight channel audio here, a feature exploited to great ends by Wishart. The great dynamism that results from the swirling of sound around the centre-placed audience more than makes up in this case for the lack of any live element in the performance. Moreover, Wishart uses the set up well as a simple device of intensity: often passages are doubled or quadrupled or moments are given tutti for greater impact.

Encounters remains steadily captivating throughout its duration, though in some of the more exaggerated, speedy passages, such as at the beginning of act two, where vocal hockets blister by to no great purpose, I felt attention wane somewhat.

However, this was to no great detriment: Wishart wisely chooses hilarious narrative situations, such as the large bearded man dressed as a belly dancer at a beer festival, or the bizarre names sometimes given to children (‘Heathcliffe!!’), and makes them all the more hilarious by spotlighting certain quotes and stretching them into musical hooks that return again and again within the act. Witness the first act’s ‘bloooke’. In this way Wishart not only draws out and develops the inherent musicality of speech (music and language really are close in origin: try saying a phrase of four or five words to yourself fifteen times, then stop, and say it again a minute later, and you’ll see what I mean), but also makes a coherent musical design of his creation. And humour is not the only affect in play: the fisherman’s story and the old lady’s reminiscences in the two outer acts are as moving as the rest is funny.

The effects derived by Wishart from the voices are often startlingly distant from what we might expect, as for example with the ‘voicewind’ that open and closes the piece, but it is less for this reason that Encounters impresses: audio synthesis and sculpting is an advanced art at this point and it is little surprising to experience the extent of the unleashed hidden grainy potential and variety of sound (and we have heard these before in other ways, anyway). It is rather in its many musically startling moments that the piece shines. The sudden alignment of the windy brass band and voice in the second act, for instance, or the abstracted Pink Floyd trance surfaces (voice becoming pure texture) of the closing section, where snatched speech recalls and huge organ-like chords confirm us in our reverie, are just some examples of the many points at which the documentary and the compositional impulses that are each at play in this work come into intense and sharp focus. Highly, highly, enjoyable.