March 25, 2006

Performance Alert

This coming week, Eastman is playing host to a Women in Music Festival. On Monday the 27th, I will be making a contribution in the form of my piano version of Joni Mitchell's "Blue Motel Room." Since it is among her songs that lean strongly in the direction of jazz, my version will be partially improvised. I'd rather not be in the business of staging museum-quality reproductions, anyway. CD players do such a much better job at that sort of thing.

Before signing off, the theory nerd in me wishes to share a few observations about the song. "Blue Motel Room" falls into an AABA form (played twice). One interpretation of the harmonies spells some of them as triads with extensions. This style aids readability, but it disguises some of the progression's inner logic. Another way of spelling the chords uses descending parallel triads with altered bass:


The chords make more sense as a linear descent than if you tried to attach Roman numerals to them. There is still some tonic-dominant polarity lurking about, though. The bass for the second-to-last chord jumps up to ^5 and has a clear dominant functions. The chord itself is a funny hybrid, a subdominant-as-dominant, but with ^5 in the bass.

Why is the linear descent broken up? What would happen if a d harmony was substituted for the F/G there? I have two thoughts on why she made this decision. First of all, it gives some contrast to the progression. If it was one long linear descent, you'd lose a sense of tonic after a while. The resolution to C at the end would feel like less of an achievement.

The other possibility is that the tonic always seems in danger of slipping to Bb. Bb and Eb appear in enough of the harmonies that it would be very easy to modulate there if you tried. When I was first working out the voice leading for the changes, I made some inadvertent modulations to Bb major. Sticking in the F/G chord makes it clear that, at least for the time being, the song is staying in C. The resolution to the tonic at that point feels like an act of restraint, well-suited to the insecure lyric there: "Will you still love me / When I call you up when I'm down."

The unstable tonic seems to explain why the B section opens with a BbM7 chord. With this move, the lyrics change from personal insecurities to demands and accusations directed at the unnamed lover. She's no longer holding back quite as much. The lyrics in all of the A sections stick to personal reflections on the emotional strain of being away from home and the man in question (a conflation of emotional and physical dislocations is a central theme of the album). The B sections get more specific about the relationship in question (but only slightly — still more restraint): "You and me, we're like America and Russia...", "You lay down your sneaking round the town, honey / And I'll lay down the highway."

One last thing. No fancy analysis, just my amazement at the range of expression you can get by altering the delivery of a line:

March 09, 2006

Looking for some sightreading?

I'm not anymore. Daniel Wolf posted at Renewable Music to say that Larry Polansky has a number of PDF scores available for free perusing and printing, including the massive "Lonesome Road." I wish more composers would make their music this readily available.

I've made it

Courtesy of Site Meter, I have a limited ability to see who passes through these pages and what might've led them here. For the most part, people wander in from other blogs. Searches also draw in a number of people. Because search terms are embedded in the referring URL, I can see what they were. Earlier today, a search for "blondie cartoon incest" led someone to this (what I thought) family-friendly blog. I'm assuming my earlier post on R. Crumb was responsible for this. Ignoring this visitor's sexual predilections for the moment, does it really only take one mention of R. Crumb to bring out the deviants?

Piano tuning fun has continued, albeit with a slight break for Midterm Mayhem!! Curiosity led me to getting out the library's copy of the greatest book ever (OCD sufferers are advised to stay away). Further curiosity led to some experimentation with the Thomas Young (well-) temperament of 1799. It didn't take long to realize how superior non-equal temperaments really are for playing tonal music. Keys really have distinct characters, intervals in general sound better, etc., etc., etc.

I'm wondering now about an issue in listening to tonal music: modulation. In all of my music history classes that covered tonal music, discussions of significant modulations always prompted someone to ask, "I can't hear this. Could people back in [whatever period] really pick up on it?" Each time, regardless of prof., the same answer: "Well, listeners then were much more attuned to these harmonic procedures."

Something about this answer always seemed...fishy. My current theory: it's hard to notice modulations within equal temperament because every key sounds the same. A temperament with distinct key characters makes it easy for listeners to notice modulations. When the quality of the tonic suddenly changes, you know you're in a different key. Do you even need relative pitch to figure that out? Consider the beginning of the Debussy prelude, "Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir":

Debussy - Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soirWhen the piece modulates to Ab major, this melody, with identical harmonization, comes back. While the modulation is handled with the utmost smoothness, modulating by semitone definitely falls outside the bounds of common practice tonality. In the context of equal temperament, though, any modulation made with enough common tones sounds acceptable. Is it significant that Debussy chose a new key that neighbored the tonic on the chromatic scale instead of the circle of fifths? If you think of modulations as large-scale dissonances, then you get keys that clash by semitones instead of fifths.

I'm guessing someone could pull out more links between equal temperament and Debussy's harmonic practices. Thinking more generally, what are other ways of "dealing" with working in equal temperament? You can...
  • ...reshape functional harmony to work more effectively within the constraints of equal temperament (à la Debussy).
  • a harmonic system around the understanding that all 12 tones are equal (à la Schoenberg).
  • ...downplay functional harmony, instead constructing music around rhythm/timbre/texture/etc. (take your pick).
Did I miss anything?

March 01, 2006

What makes a composer?

The latest "issue" of NewMusicBox is out, with Joan La Barbara getting the interview love this month. The article didn't have any big surprises*, but it did have an interesting quote:
So I was really intrigued by the idea of working with living composers, with people that I could have a conversation with, discuss ideas, use my brain in a very different way. Contemporary music fulfilled that for me. I could discuss [a piece] with a composer while the music was still being written and have an influence on what the piece was going to be. Actually my last vocal teacher, Marian Szekely-Freschl, said to me, "You must work with composers. You must help them because they don't know how to write for the voice." And so I really felt as if this was one of my responsibilities. And then as I was working more with composers I realized that I had ideas of my own that were not going to get heard unless I became a composer, so these things developed sort of simultaneously.
It's kind of an assumed notion that divine inspiration/in-born gifts are necessary to be a composer. It's nice when people give you that wide-eyed impressed look when you tell them you write music, but it's a shame that so many people see musical creation as an off-limits activity. Every now and then, you're lucky and hit on an idea that makes you feel like a capital C-Composer, but most of the time I see composition as something that one does either because music/sound is your native language, or because you're so opinionated about music that it was only a matter of time before you tried your hand at it.

* No big surprises, unless you didn't know that she was a composer as well as a singer. If this is news to you, make haste to UbuWeb and listen to 73 Poems.