Mega Drive Vibes

Today’s post analyses a composition by Tim Follin from the soundtrack of a 1994 Sega Mega Drive game, Time Trax. (I found it on this sweet playlist.) I wanted to find out how it succeeds in being so improbably funky.

Chiptune music has been rising in cultural prominence with the predictability of any nostalgic trend. A mate of mine recently put me on to the quite expensively produced Diggin’ in the Carts, series, for example. I guess what’s fun about the music, beyond just hearing things from your childhood, is the musical meaning conveyed within harsh technical limits. Somehow, cheaply synthesised noises that don’t sound at all like brass, bass guitar, a string section, or whatever, can cheekily evoke just those things. So I want to examine that dialogue across the chasm of failed simulation, where the ludicrousness of the attempt at orchestral grandeur or, in this case, funk jamming, is part of the aesthetic.

The tune (it repeats, the actual track is about 3:30 long).

You won’t remember this one from your childhood, because this game was never actually released and only a prototype of it emerged online in 2013. “The game is notable for its use of a relatively advanced sound driver designed by Dean Belfield for Follin,” segaretro.org tells us. I get the impression that this was a technical peak of sound design on the Megadrive.

Not to get too nerdy – let’s save that for later – but this style of synthesis is associated with, roughly, the 16-bit generation of consoles as opposed to earlier 8-bit. It is called frequency modulation synthesis and it tends towards a distinctive metallic, clanging, bell-like, brassy tone. (Which Tim Follin’s sound design actually disguises pretty effectively, at least until the heavy distorted riff sections.) You may also recognise the sound if you ever played MIDI files on a laptop with a cheap soundcard, like my Dell Latitude.

Let’s get to the music!

This oscilloscope view is cool. BTW, different ones on Youtube have six and five channels. I read somewhere that it was a technical achievement of Follin’s to stick to five channels so as not to have game sound effects interrupt his music. I don’t know what the sixth channel is doing here and I can’t hear any extra instrument that isn’t in the five-channel version. *shrug*

So, apart from the dinky sounds, we have a medium tempo funk-rock groove tune. The first thing I was curious about was the structure. As is typical for game soundtracks, this one is designed to loop interminably. However this isn’t really an issue either way as players were not likely to stay long on the ‘Mission Briefing’ screen where this track is played. (In this playthrough video the player spends 40 seconds.)

In any case, there’s a 90-bar structure lasting about 3 and a half minutes. The basic principle is one found in a lot of groove music – Wayne Shorter’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is my canonic example – which we could call “on or off”: you’re either in the groove or getting ready to get back in.

Yellow for ‘in the groove’

Follin uses key changes to shape his track. (He mentions his “fondness for random key changes” here.) As shown above, we get the excitement of going up a b3rd, then a gradual floating down to the home key – a good scheme for a track whose opening will be heard more than its ending.

The key change is smooth on a number of counts.

The end of the brass build (that line is seen at the top left) going into the first organ solo. The double bar line marks the 1:07 section change (and key change).

Okay, the lead line doesn’t voice lead, but in general its D major pentatonic melodic/modal colour is goes strongly to G minor (i.e it’s the elemental I major to IV minor alternation that has strong gravity in both directions). The (faint) bass voice ends on a D before a strong G bassline comes in, so that works. And the inner voices have a general upwards sliding of a semitone. Nice.

There are some other nice applications of harmonic colour, suiting this rock/funk context. In the intro we get some Cs, the b6 of the key, giving a suitably earnest diatonic natural minor mood of cop show epic – after that these are thrown out in favour of minor-7th/sus-chord funk colours. There’s some strong use of the 9th, F#, in a couple of places e.g. the brass pentatonic build.

(I recognise that my names for the instrumental sounds are arbitrary. I just don’t want to put quotations around “organ” and “elec. piano” for the whole blog post. Your interpretation of what the instruments are meant to be is just as valid.)

This ambiguity of instrumental sounds is crucial for what I consider the secret sauce to this track. I’m talking about the inner voices that comp all the various organ solos and can be most clearly heard in the breakdown at 3:00. Quietly, with a warm electric piano-like sound, they add some rhythmic action that interlocks nicely with the rest, and fills out the middle part of the sonic spectrum. At the end of bars 2 and 4, every time, they feature some bluesy parallelism of a type I discussed a long time ago on this blog. A bII I movement, and next time it’s bIII IV. How does the bII I fit so smoothly in a minor key? I think it’s really a bV IV – a classic blues side-slip – in the V key!

Here is where I’d normally show a little transcription (I did attempt one bar of it above – the dotted eighths in the second bar). However, these inner voices are incredibly hard to transcribe due to two peculiarities of the medium: overtones generated by FM synthesis; and the need to swap instrument sounds mid-flow to maximise channel use.

The first issue means that, although I think only two channels are used for these inner voices, we get a fleeting impression of triads in the passing chords – I believe I can hear the thirds. This is due to the way frequency modulation synthesis works] – it adds overtones called side-bands, in various proportions, to the original fundamental. As the 3rd and 5th (actually 3rd+2 octaves and 5th+1 octave) are part of the overtone series, frequency modulation can generate a kind of major chord. So, for instance, while the most audible line in the inner voices starts b7 b7 8, or D D E at 3:00, I think this is actually the 5th and that below there’s a b3 b3 4, G G A which is the fundamental.

What makes it trickier is the fact that Follin may not be keeping the sound (or “patch” in synthesiser terminology) consistent from note to note. In the intro, we note a changing modulation on the synth stabs. And if you look at the visualisation, you’ll see that a channel may switch from brass to bass instantly (e.g. when the groove kicks in at 1:05), or whatever. (Follins mentions this as a “basic trick” here.)

So, even though with a bit of hunting around on old-school, nerdy websites I got some tools to extract MIDI data from the game files, I still can’t, after a decent effort, unambiguously notate it, because these lines might be transposed or changing timbre any time, and in any case they’re definitely using timbres with at least a strong 5th above the root.

Here are the two inner lines in MIDI in REAPER – but I still amn’t confident of what the sounded notes are!

What does all this mean musically? Just that it’s a full-sounding comping pattern with some sonic depth and mystery, and which, especially during those passing chords, is subtly but unmistakeably bluesy! Because blues uses that ambiguity between harmony and timbre all the time (so does electronic dance music, funk, jazz…), particularly for cliched parallel chord movements.

Let’s talk about the other sounds! Some commenters on Youtube have gotten into the nitty gritty of Follin’s techniques – in particular, his use of clipping/overdriving the signal to get otherwise impossible waveforms. I don’t know enough to comment there but I’ll just praise the sounds from a musical perspective and from what I can see in the visualisations.

Firstly, the very effective drum sounds are a single instrument/patch sounding at a high note for snare and a low note for kick, and a really high note for the hats. (Listen in the breakdown sections and you’ll hear the hat sound is kind of like a snare.) This is clear in the intro fill which sounds like it’s on the toms – but later those same notes function as a kick and snare in the main beat. While initially they sound more like toms than a kick or snare, in the mix they’re convincing. The beefy snare takes up some bass register quite effectively.

The distorted sounds later on, and the brass in the intro, are even less “realistic” but still sound good. I really like the bleep on beats 2 and 4 in the intro – here Follin uses a classic technique of “fake delay,” repeating the tone more quietly 3 16th notes later to give the impression of a classic tempo-synced delay effect. Then the bells/glockenspiel in the middle are a really nice timbral contrast. In fact timbral contrast is one of Follin’s main tools.

There are some cool sequencing tricks. The time feel changes from straight 16ths when it’s only hats, to swung 16ths when the groove kicks in. Also, there are some nice dynamic changes in instrumental sounds: the volume swell for the 2nd pads chord in the section starting 0:05, and the changing timbre of the synth stabs in the following section (accomplished by dialling in the degree of modulation of the carrier wave).

Of course, the centrepiece is the organ melodies. Although not very memorable as themes, they’re definitely funky, using tricks like staccato pedal tones, 32nd-note blues scale ornamentation, and (not idiomatic for organ, as I mentioned) pitchbends. As Follin says, “I also liked the playing styles used by folk musicians, all the twiddles and little arpeggios, which were again relatively easy to reproduce.” In general, these organ lines are built using rhythmic groups of 3 and either I minor pentatonic or V minor pentatonic shapes.

There’s one characteristic of the programming which is more to do with expediency – there’s a lot of reused material. The underlying drum pattern has no variations until it switches to a disco beat; the last minute is mostly just one riff in various orchestrations; and all of the organ bits use the same “answer” phrase in bars 3-4 and 7-8. As Follins recounts, these tracks were made by typing in notes in a text editor. I’d say this is why he copied and pasted a lot. It’s not a major problem functionally: the up-and-down the arc of dynamics keeps a meaningful directionality even though much of the groove stays unchanged for multiple sections. However, once you know about them, some of the 4-bar exact repeats (i.e. in the middle of the organ solo bits) become a little jarring.

This track was evidently made quickly, within the strictures of commercial production. Nonetheless it’s remarkably crafted, especially the sounds, which are not only skilfully programmed but gel together in a very fat “band sound.” And this was done without any mixing in the normal sense of applying EQ, compression, reverb. My personal yardstick is that I repeatedly found myself tapping my foot as I analysed it. No surprise that Follins states, “My own preference in my early teens (squashed by peer pressure) was for Quincy Jones.”

The actual game Time Trax, BTW, “is a straightforward platformer that sticks to the 16-bit platforming formula rather than innovate.” It’s clearly Follin’s composing work – which he says was something too nerdy and embarrassing to mention to friends and acquaintances at the time – that has kept it in the limelight. It’s nice to see that he’s only getting more recognition with the years.

I hope you enjoyed this jaunt into some different territory for the blog! If you have any insights into VGM or synthesis, feel free to comment!

Blues To Reggae

Today I’ll chat about Dawn Penn’s 1967 rocksteady hit “You Don’t Love Me No No No”. It was dusted off in the 90s for a career-reviving dancehall remake and more recently nabbed by Beyoncé and Rihanna. You’ve probably heard it.

I love bluesiness and that’s why I’m drawn to this track – from the opening Hendrix chords on. The bluesy sound is a clue to reggae’s hybrid emergence from networks of cultural transmission between Africa, the US, the UK and the Caribbean… and in particular its debt to US r’n’b.

Dawn Penn’s performance in this tune is supremely confident for a teenager, and her blues bends are poisonously gorgeous. The groove is pretty futuristic! Pumping bass and sparse rimclick backbeat, at around 73bpm. The spaciousness and emphasis on rhythm section is harking towards dub reggae (which hadn’t quite been invented yet).

I love the detail of Jackie Mittoo’s piano marking out bars with increasingly higher-register inversions of the tonic minor, e.g. 0:44-0:56. They fix our attention on the second half of the bar where the vocals re-enter. Speaking of which, did you notice the odd amount of bars being marked? It even trips up the bassist at 0:53. What’s up with this song structure?

Penn, in interviews, seems to dispute the songwriting credit she was forced to give to Willie Cobb and Bo Diddley due to similarities with their songs “You Don’t Love Me” (1961) and “She’s Fine, She’s Mine” (1955).

“The Bo Diddley scenario is that they had an issue with Cher with a song named [“She’s Fine, She’s Mine”]. That has nothing to do with “You Don’t Love Me, No, No, No”, you understand? …. That’s what I’m telling you, the music was new, there was no music like that before that music.” – Dawn Penn, interviewed for UnitedReggae.com

“This was the first I’d heard these records, but the royalties were split three ways and some of my payments are still held up today.” – Dawn Penn, interviewed for The Guardian

I suspect the ways blues, reggae, jazz and hip hop build new creations from endlessly reused fragments and themes, are not fairly accomadated by copyright law. It’s also entirely credible that people ripped off Penn, a female artist with little legal or management assistance. And, as I think Ethan Iverson pointed out recently, obscurity about the origin of ideas was a necessary defensive reaction against the music business for black musicians in the US, at least.

All that said, there’s clearly a musical link between Penn’s song, Diddley’s, Cobb’s and also Sonny and Cher’s 1965 rock cover. The intermediate versions between Diddley and Penn’s each added something new: Willie Cobbs came up with the use of the IV7 at the top of the form (it’s obscured in my chart, but the first 4 bars are D7), and also the juxtaposition of Diddley’s wordless wails and lyrics (which Diddley does in separate verses) to create the hook, “Aw aw aw you don’t love me”. Sonny and Cher streamlined the hook’s melody (probably to make their two-part vocal work), providing the crucial b5 to 4 slide.

Here is the bar structure of the first verse of each song/version:
Bo Diddley: (3 + 5), (4 + 5), (4 + 5)
Willie Cobbs: (4 + 5), (4 + 5), (4 + 5)
Sonny and Cher: (4 + 5), (4 + 5), (4 + 5) (I think this is the version Dawn Penn worked off… there were other similar ones in 1965 but by much more obscure bands)
Dawn Penn: (3 + 3), (3 + 4), (4 + 4)

By the way, verse 2 of Bo Diddley’s track also mixes (3 + 5) and (4 + 5), but in different order, so he wasn’t consistent. I think the (3 + 5) sounds good while his (4 + 5) sounds like an awkward hesitation, particularly with lyrics.

Why the odd numbers of bars? Bo Diddley’s blues-based song runs a 2-bar guitar riff twice (which would be expected) and then lets it resolve (not expected) before he goes to the next chord, requiring an extra bar for the resolution. 2 + 2 + 1 = a 5-bar section between all the vocal phrases. Most later versions kept this 5-bar section.

These riffs are very downhome and almost pre-harmonic – they work mostly as rhythmic shapes cycling around to the tonic note. Different notes from their basic pentatonic mode could be easily substituted without losing the driving effect, as indeed is heard in the harmonica in Diddley’s track (which plays E instead of the guitar’s G). Other classic examples of this kind of guitar riff would be “Smokestack Lightning” and “Wang Dang Doodle”.

What I think is the secret behind Penn’s song is that this guitar riff has disappeared, but is still present as an unusual negative shape, i.e. the odd 3 bars of Am before the second “No no no”. Yes, that’s now 3 rather than 5 bars, but it still gives the sensation of letting the groove go round twice and resolve before coming in with the pick-up. (The radically lower rocksteady tempo means a single bar of groove functions as a unit comparable to the 2-bar guitar riff in the other tracks). The switch to 4 bars next time increases the pleasant frustration of being stuck waiting for the pick-up, and also aligns with the 4-bar sections of the upcoming blues-type release section (bars 14-29).

Oh, I almost forgot, there’s another crucial contribution by Jackie Mittoo and that’s the unusual juxtaposition of a dominant IV chord with a minor I chord, in a blues context. I don’t know any other track that does this, but it undeniably works. The minor I chord is idiomatically appropriate for a dark reggae vibe, but the IV7 works best with the blues slide of the hook. (A contemporaneous reggae cover uses IVm if you want to compare.)

“You Don’t Love Me No No No” distills the earlier structures into a mysterious but effective form, both innovative and soaked in tradition. Penn’s lyrical edits – i.e. the substitution of “no no no” for “aw aw aw”, which she says was inspired by church music’s “yes yes yes” refrains – and her combination of the raw bluesy timbrality of the earlier r’n’b vocals with the streamlined melody of Sonny and Cher’s pop version, make for a pop classic. While also being an astounding example of what how “African-American forms were borrowed and set to work in new locations and deliberately reconstructed in novel patterns that did not respect their originators’ proprietary claims” (Paul Gilroy).

I hope to follow up ASAP with a post on imitating the transformation of ideas between versions of this song, as a composing exercise. But I won’t say anything more now to avoid what happened last time, where I wrote two articles on composing and never posted any actual work.

Hope you enjoyed the post!

A Composing Checklist

In my last post about my project to write a sketch a day, I talked about trying to compose purposely unfinished music, to stimulate players into completing it in performance using their improvisational spark and their knowledge of traditions such as jazz (or reggae, funk etc.). No sooner had I posted it than I figured out an obvious further thought:

That idea of provoking improvised reactions could be part of my composing practice. I could use my own music (or write new music, or use a piece from the repertoire) to stimulate further composing.

Absolutely nothing new in that idea as it stands – it’s called “development” or “contrafact”, or “sampling”. However, I realised that, in my practice, this process should take place using the exact dynamics I’ve been studying all along in this blog: the African and African Diaspora mode of improvised call and response within a groove. That is, the seed idea should groove and my spontaneous reactions should groove along with it. And there should be no limitation to the techniques or technology used – as long as there is this mutual grooving.

For example, I could:

  •  sample an old bass solo, loop the sample and improvise a bassline underneath
  • sequence a drum pattern and improvise chords on top
  • improvise a motivic solo over a standard, then take the best chorus as a melody and re-harmonise it
  • mash up a few cliched blues forms/song skeletons into a new form, then sing blues shapes over my form while playing it on bass to come up with a melody
  • dance to a dubstep mix and then subconsciously copy one of the drumlines (this wasn’t on purpose but it happened!)

The grooving stipulation directly combats my tendency to waste time idly fiddling with variations of a passage. Because now I’m forced to keep strict time as much as possible and also forced to make decisions in time (this is the essence of the jazz concept of “spontaneous composition”, I think).

By the way, such techniques as “jamming along to a recording of yourself” might seem trivial or even indulgent, but actually they bring new and worthwhile challenges. E.g. making a grooving and appealing-sounding recording of yourself!

There’s a subtle but very important function performed by all the examples above. I want to discuss it using a point of reference…. Seeing as my strategies are about finding inciting/provocative seed ideas and then reacting to them, the point of reference will be inciting/provocative gestures in groove music. Seeing as my seed ideas are meant to be beginnings for my creative process, I’ll look at beginning gestures.

Reggae drum intros are a great example of filling in to the top of the form; which is one of two basic options for kicking off a groove – the other being to just play a couple of rounds of the groove without the lead or without the full band. (More on that technique of layering here.) Fills are exciting, I feel, because they give a sense of an impending groove without revealing what it will consist of. Often, I’ve noticed they feature great timbre to convey an instant vibe – a notable feature of those reggae fills, but also found in blues, say:

I believe these gestures are comparable to hip hop snare drops, rap introduction cliches, and myriad rock’n’roll gimmicks. What do all of these do? They inject energy for sure, but also the set up the tempo, the feel (subdivision and microtiming), a vibe, the position of beat one and often a tonal centre!

My intuition is that seed ideas should contain all this info. To go even further, for my purposes (and in accordance with all of the traditions I’ve been talking about), the form is something that should be established in the seed idea – or at least, a clear tonal centre and length of cycle. The reason is that the type of interactive improvising – the “response” of call-and-response – that I’ve been discussing, happens when players can feel the underlying ground or form that they’re navigating.

Anyway, here’s a checklist for composing that I came up with two days ago:

  • Have a relaxed and open mind
  • Start with some technical practice on your instrument
  • All recordings must groove so use a metronome or just play with the fattest of feels
  • Try find a grooving coexistence of old (ground) and new (improv), e.g. improvise on a standard, sing over a bassline you wrote, interlock played improvisation with a tapped bell pattern, etc.
  • Look out for cool physical configurations i.e. unusual hand movements, combinations or instrumental approaches (for me this tends to emerge from technical practice which simultaneously warms up my hands, bores my brain and sharpens my awareness until I impatiently come up with something new)
  • Look out for cool timbre
  • Keep the harmony absolutely simple enough to navigate i.e. so you can visualise how melodic paths fit in the harmony in real time while devoting enough attention to treating them lyrically
  • Try ASAP to find the rhythmic cycle, top of form, feel and tonal centre
  • Feel how the harmony should move, and go with it if it turns out to be something familiar (I wrote an eight-bar section the other day without fully realising that it was “Donna Lee” chords)
  • Keep a notepad and recording tools immediately ready

It’s worked so far, although with the proviso that what comes out mightn’t be as hip as I’d wish for!!

I guess I’ll sign off here. I have more things to say but it’s best I write a few more tunes first. Thanks for reading! And please comment with your strategies for writing music.

Knuckles

This week’s post returns to the theme of music as “the sound of body movement”. I had a few different thoughts about this during the week, and then when I jammed with my band Mescalito, I noticed them influencing my playing.

Years ago I used to be guilty about not practising technique enough. But I’ve managed to change my perspective from hyper-competitiveness, into something more to do with creativity and awareness: i.e. creating improved body motions and becoming aware of details I used to miss.

So I was working on a Mescalito riff at home. I like this kind of practical work, inspired by a workshop from free jazz luminary Frank Gratkowski who said he only practised when he needed to prepare something specific for performance.

I was videoing myself and I noticed a problem in my left hand’s fretting position: the first knuckle of the index straining in towards the neck.

Knuckle
Left side bad, right side good

As you can see, this breaks the smooth curve from elbow to fingertips. After some work I was able to fix this at low tempos.

This is still well below the actual tempo but I’m happy that I’ve got this far – keeping that ideal shape is hard.

The properly curved hand has a much stronger grip. I got an insight from that fact that I hope I can explain to you now.

I wrote already about blues soloing being gestural and kinetic – its expressivity coming from the touch and movement style of the player. My new insight was that this aesthetic of body motion actually explains most characteristics of blues playing; and that these characteristics come from prioritising hand/grip movement over finger/digital movement. That’s why my curved grip is preferable for me – it restricts finger motion somewhat but gives strength to hand movements.

Now, guitarists in the audience are surely protesting that blues, like any other style, always uses both finger and hand movements. But let me give some examples.

pentageneral

  • Most blues lead uses the pentatonic scale, usually in these kind of “box pattern” fingerings (above) that have two notes per string. These melodies therefore only need two fingers, probably index and ring. That’s why Hendrix plays lead with his little finger tucked away under the fingerboard (see him switch to this technique in this video). The two fingers used are then just either ends of an overall hand shape and the overall movements tend to be a rocking of the hand as pressure is alternately applied to each end.
  • Blues vibrato and bends are performed by rocking the hand, either in the air (kind of bouncing the neck up and down) or around the point where the index finger touches the bottom of the neck.
  • Open string figures are a huge part of traditional styles like John Lee Hooker’s. Typically he trills between a fretted note (say E) and an open note (say D), as in this lovely track. The simple gesture of repeatedly tapping the E and releasing it creates the whole melody. This shaking gesture goes through multiple fingers because it’s using grip strength, even though only one finger touches the string. A similar lumping together of the fingers into a gripping unit also happens in bending and vibrato. (This doesn’t mean that there is pointless excess movement, by the way. See how economical JLH is in this live performance.)
  • And one of the deepest parts of the blues guitar tradition is of course slide guitar, in which almost all melodic movement is a perfect analogue of the hand‘s motion along the strings.

These are all common-place observations, but together they form a clear picture for me that explains a lot of what’s special about blues.

This insight inspired me to chase down interesting hand-movements when jamming with Mescalito.

I’m not claiming either of these ideas is great – but I definitely enjoyed the freedom to explore them, knowing that they’re not a cheap trick but have a valid aesthetic of their own.

A funny thing happened in the jam which I believe came partly out of my independence practice.

After twenty minutes of free improv, we started to talk over the music. (Not that we say anything very clever!) The voices sound to me like we’re in an emotionally open state, with more warmth than in a normal conversation. The way I let the bass play on without monitoring it, is from independence practice.

I’m not playing any strict rhythm, it’s true, but the point is I’m letting my hands deal with the bass while my verbal mind is elsewhere. To be precise, I remember keeping a background awareness of the “gentle ascending minor” vibe and letting my hands place it on the beat, as I thought about what I was saying.

As I finish talking (0:19)you can hear my voice get tense, probably because I’m realising that I can’t actually talk and play very well, and Murphy’s answer is tense too. Maybe we’re hearing that the music wants to go somewhere. Out of this tense moment a lovely 7/4 groove suddenly manifests, answering our worries. (Actually I play it over 9 beats first while still talking, then find the 7.)

Similarly, after we laugh about funny guitar noise at 0:28 you can first of all hear a slight deepening of emotional connection in the timbre of the instruments at 0:43, and then a 6/4 kick drum pattern manifests to interact with the 7/4 bassline. Similar to the bass, it actually starts in 8 and then goes to 6. That kind of adjustment by feel is interesting because normally the state of mind that corrects errors is too paranoid to coexist with creativity. Here we’re so relaxed we don’t get hung up on it. By the way, we would never sit down and consciously write a 6 against 7 pattern!

Well that’s a trivial example, but those transitions into creativity remind me of rapper Big L’s switch from talking to rapping, discussed in this article – and also of free jazz where group subconscious decisions transform the music without any planning, miraculously.

I hope I can get deeper into this stuff…. Allowing creativity to emerge from the subconscious while holding onto the groove.

Two related thoughts for another post:

  • those transitions often involve a threatened break in the flow – smoothly navigating breaks is a very deep tradition in jazz and hip hop
  • this kind of “spontaneous composition” is very similar to saying the right/witty/elevating thing in a group conversation where a joke won’t land unless it’s delivered in tune with the group vibe and with perfect timing

Anyway, that’s it for this week. Sorry for the late post. Hope it wasn’t too indulgent! See you soon.

And to finish, here’s Charlie Hunter demonstrating stunning levels of independence in a hard groove context.

Monk’s Powerful Melodies, Part 1

I gigged some Thelonious Monk tunes last week and remembered how much I love his music. And I’m not alone… one of my bass teachers was playing an all-Monk set in Italy recently – and in the school I was in last year they run a yearly Monk-themed competition.

Today I’ve less transcription than in my last Monk article, but hopefully some nice ideas. I want to explore how Monk balances bright energy emanating from the powerful tonic triad with much darker tones, within a bluesy context.

This immediately reminds me of the binary: “rootedness-displacement” which I heard Vijay Iyer quote from Paul Gilroy. The concept is that a tension between these two properties powers much African-American culture. Some musical examples would be:

  • Time feel – a metronomic pulse is emphasised (rootedness) yet skilled players play ahead of or behind the beat (displacement)
  • Phrasing – a driving beat is made as powerful as possible, yet accents are typically off the beat. In music with underlying rhythms such as clave, many parts play against the rhythm.
  • Blues melody – there is a powerful gravity towards the tonic triad and the root, yet all the expressivity is in deviations – bends and melisma – from the tonic notes.
  • Standard jazz form – 12-bar and 32-bar cycles are an unchanging ground, which yet is constantly challenged via anticipation/delay/substitution of chord changes.

As far as I can make out (here in my white suburb in Ireland…) what’s distinctively African-American is the simultaneous multiple meanings. (The ground-surface dichotomy is from African drumming, I’ve read.) The different possibilities are present, or threaten to be present, at the same time: I7 and IV7 harmonic sounds in blues; ahead and behind the beat in a swing feel; “where beat 1 is” in a polyrhythmic techno piece. Something similar may apply in Signifyin’.

Enough of my usual vague ponderings on black culture! It’s analysis time.

I’ve played this tune since I was a teenager. You can hear why a youngster would like it – it’s extremely catchy and cool-sounding.

Well A
The A section of “Well You Needn’t”

There’s a lot going on here, including a lovely low-register chromatic comping voice (more about that in a bit) and a strong 2-bar syncopation driving the phrase structure. Note the groups of 3 in the concluding phrase.

The bridge shows Monk’s mastery of 32-bar AABA form. It repeats the groups-of-3 idea up a semitone – a seamless connection. The phrase structure (one bar riff followed by one bar rest) and harmonic idea (sequencing up a semitone) are familiar from the A section – although the harmonic rhythm is slower.

Well Bridge
Bridge from “Well You Needn’t”

The B section’s second half is brilliant. The harmonic rhythm suddenly is twice as fast as the A rather than twice as slow (symmetry), and the F to Gb up-a-semitone idea is allowed to continue its movement. This makes an exhilarating sequence of 7 chromatically connected flourishes, which (together with the first two chords of the bridge) sketch out the exact movement of the A section’s low-register counter melody… and then continue past it to land on a Cb, a tritone away from the home key.

All these connective devices create a powerful flow – and perhaps the most important single device is the well-crafted pattern of syncopated accents tying everything together. For instance, the “and of 2” note that ends the bridge melody is the only such accent in the whole piece, forming a peak before the return to A. As I wrote before, Monk is really good at balancing the forces in the final bar before returning to familiar material – the top of a 12-bar blues, or the last A of today’s 32-bar examples.

Charlie Rouse, long-time associate of Monk, also used darkness at peak moments: check the b9 at 2:30 in “Well You Needn’t” on the last bar of the bridge. (I’d love to know the history of this bluesy phrygian sound… Paul Gonsalvez features it in his famous Newport solo.)

The way Monk uses chromaticism in the “Well You Needn’t” bridge is revealing. It is a voice movement away and then towards the 5th (C) of the key. The accelerating harmonic rhythm gives a sensation of exhilarating unleashed energy. At the end there is the gesture of the descending line overshooting its C start point to reach B, a note outside the key. We’ll see this exact concept elsewhere: the momentum of a movement carrying it outside the key at the end of a section. Rouse’ b9 is an example too.

Just to connect this to some past themes and buzzwords… Monk is virtuosically “navigating the form”, he’s using the “hidden energy” trope of black cool, and his music works in metaphors of movement (accelerating, momentum), so that it has “directionality”.

Let’s have a quick look at “Monk’s Dream”, title track of the 1962 album. Now, alas, I’m far from qualified to deal with the beautiful chords that comp the melody. As Vijay Iyer puts it:

“These chord-jewels of his were palpable, physical objects. By this I mean that they took advantage of the physics of sound; they were resonant.”

I’d struggle to get even a doubtful transcription of the chords in “Monk’s Dream”, so I’ll just talk melody.

Dream A
The A Section of “Monk’s Dream”, pathetically lacking in the chords I can’t transcribe

There’s an obvious resemblance to “Well You Needn’t”: the opening tonic arpeggio and the first phrase repeated every two bars with variations.

(I love how Monk’s voicing absorbs the major 7th on beat 1 of the tune into a gorgeous timbral object, so much so that it fits seamlessly in a bluesy tonality.)

The first bars run up and down a distinctive cell that I think of as III minor pentatonic over I (E minor pentatonic over C bass). After reading Origins of the Popular Style by Peter van der Merwe, I’m on the look out for the tendency to emphasise the 3rd and 6th so much that the melody outlines a VI minor or III minor modality against the I major key. “Just Friends” is a great example – the melody is mostly in the relative minor mode (including melodic minor 7 and 6).

The end of the A section involves a chromatic run taking us outside of the key – sound familiar? Like “Well You Needn’t”, the chromaticism seems to fit in between notes of the tonic triad frame. It finishes with a salient b2.

The B section is audacious. It uses the crude directionality of a melody climbing from root to octave – all over a I chord! And, apart from a #4 (part of the idiomatic blues run 3 4 #4 5), only C mixolydian notes are used. So, the only drive comes from the ascending contour and the syncopation.

Dream Bridge
Bridge melody of “Monk’s Dream”

Nothing more is required because of Monk’s adeptness with timbre and call-and-response. Drummer Frankie Dunlop neatly fills the gaps, while gorgeous chords followed by a lovely change from sustain-pedal tremolo to choked staccato tell a story in textures. Notice John Ore’s bassline reverting from 4 notes to 2 notes to the bar in the bridge’s final measure – somehow compensating a bit for the lack of cadential emphasis returning to the A section.

Well it’s nearly time to sign off (and leave some tunes to analyse another time). What did I learn?

Vijay Iyer’s article helped me sum it all up. Monk’s music feels really good pretty much all the time. He deals in groove, flow and sound. His compositions let those things happen. There’s an urgent creativity there, but it never impedes those qualities.

In my last couple of articles I’ve reflected on applying new concepts to my own music. I’ll do that again now.

First lesson: moments of the simplest, strongest possible melody – if the rhythms are hip – can and should be the opposite of corny. More subtly, they can work in an “extended blues” aesthetic that coherently incorporates major-minor ambiguity (i.e. modal interchange), symmetry, and the crunchiest dissonances. And finally, this style of melody should be used as an aid in constructing powerful large-scale shapes (again, with slick rhythm).

More generally, I had a glimpse of an idea, building on my initial investigations into independence, laying back, and gestural playing: what if every musical decision I made was by feel, by awareness of body sensations/embodied knowledge?

That’s a wide-ranging thought, and it reminds me of Vijay Iyer saying that the heritage of great jazz contains “codes for transformation: of yourself, your community, and your surroundings”.

Thanks for reading! Have a good week.

What I Learned from Hollering Blues for an Hour

Last week I mentioned my growing interest in the kind of melodies I might naturally sing. So I decided to sit down (in a soundproofed area) and record myself singing freely.

I soon realised there were no original “natural” melodies inside me waiting to be mystically released. Everything I sang was familiar. I ended up using one basic pentatonic melodic skeleton:

Blues Singing Skeleton 1

Which tended to grow into something like this:

Blues Singing Skeleton 2

What “I felt like singing” turned out to be often unnotateable: blues material relying on fast, gliding ornaments, flexible pitch areas and emphasis on overtones.

What’s more, these effects were all highly reliant on the physicality of my voice, i.e. they combined:

  • switching between head, throat and chest voice
  • use of vocal fry (growling)
  • yodelling-type leaps
  • nasal tone
  • humming
  • breathiness

I’m no singer of course, but if you’re curious what I was sounding like here’s a fragment:

My conclusion – and this is a familiar theme here – it’s just as meaningful to understand these blues phrases as body movements (i.e. in your throat, lungs and mouth) than as melodies.

That’s all very well to say, but the nice thing about doing this exercise just once is that I can feel a new awareness of this physical basis. When I was singing I imitated some familiar sounds: John Lee Hooker’s “hey hey”s and Andy Bey’s hiccup-y pentatonic noodlings. Now I know how those sounds feel to perform.

Also, since doing the exercise, melodic fragments have been coming spontaneously to my mind together with an impression of how they feel to sing. Seeing as melody has been a weak point for me in the past, it’s cool to have little ideas springing to mind fully formed (heard and felt) like that.

It was also nice to grapple a bit with the different registers of the voice. That’s a singer’s bread and butter, but it was novel for me to feel different parts of the blues scale as inhabiting different registers of my voice, e.g. everything above the octave was in my head voice when singing in B, and I could use this to create breaks and yodels.

I noticed one really interesting thing trying to sing these blues phrases. A lot of the mannerisms I’m imitating clearly signify emotion: wails, groans, fall-offs. However, to make them work, they have to be practised till they’re in muscle memory. So they’re practised patterns and not spontaneous outbreaks.

This invalidates the (completely patronising) myth that blues was a direct, naive expression of the pain of the black folk. Emotions in blues are only as sincerely felt as an actor’s performance. Although the performer may completely inhabit the persona, he/she can snap out of it at will.

This explains how ostensibly depressive blues has always been party music. The performer makes a game of its seemingly dark emotions – ambiguously either lampooning them them through exaggeration and stylisation, or seriously inhabiting them. Weariness, sickness, defeat are turned into stylisms subject to slick manipulation. Thus, the bluesman or woman can both conquer them and yield to them. (Albert Murray makes a similar point in Stomping The Blues.) That keeping-in-tension of alternate mindstates recalls Dubois’ “Double Consciousness”. (African Americans’ survival ability to simultaneously navigate white and black cultural values.)

The use of dark emotions has sometimes confused outsider fans of black music. For example, in the awesome slide-guitar blues I discussed a few weeks ago, by white rockers Canned Heat, we can hear singer (and blues collector) Bob Hite call for a “real quiet and ghostly” vibe from the band. This phrase comes from a white record collector tradition of interpreting deep blues as “eerie”, “ghostly” or “weird”. But performers like Skip James, Tommy Johnson or Robert Johnson – who did indeed use wailing, plangent sounds and sing about death and the devil – did not think of their songs in these terms, as far as I know. To them it was probably mostly about sex: “sinful music” was its well-documented reputation.

I think certain rappers in more recent decades generated a similar confusion. For example, Big L’s lyrics seem depraved and appalling on their own terms. However, in context, I believe they were mostly a stylistic innovation to keep Big L ahead of the competition.

Well, this week’s post was mostly just re-emphasising some ideas. But this kind of thing helps me form my artistic direction. For example, if I was to start a new art music project now (say along the lines of my old band Nature) I would immediately ask myself – should the vocal lines be notateable as written music? Or is there another way to create them that would suit me and the singer better, and afford more expressivity in the areas I like? Or, for instance, why not base the melody around the singer’s range, using the breaks between registers as part of the music? And why feel the need to deviate from one mode/scale? What if I wrote write in my key, and then transposed so that the same effects happen in the singer’s preferred key?

Interesting stuff. Pretty basic too, of course, but trying to sing for myself hammered it all home nicely!

Encountering Some Trad

For the first time in my life I’ve been checking out some Irish traditional music. It’s something I know sweet nothing about. (Meaning you get a mercifully brief post today.)

So far I’ve really enjoyed it. I thought I’d give my jazz/bluesman’s thoughts on a couple of pieces I’ve worked on.

This all ties in with the awesome book I reviewed recently, van der Merwe’s Origins Of The Popular Style. After reading it I’m primed to find unexpected resemblances between Irish and African-American music. Van der Merwe opened my mind to how constant and complex interchanges between African, British and Irish cultures were the backdrop for the development of blues in the US. That book also put me in the mood for simple, modal melodies.

The first thing I liked about trad was that it’s dance music played with “metronomic” pulse, i.e. without the expressive tempo alterations of Western classical music. So, it grooves.

As well as that, I heard time feels that were triplet-based and exploited the flexibility of triplets. In jazz, a “swing 8ths” jazz feel can encompass placements of the off-beat varying from almost in the middle of the beat to right at the end. In a similarly physical way (by physical I mean deriving from the movements of playing the instrument), the different phrases of this piece lean differently against the steady beat, depending on how complex a figure is being fit into each beat (2 or 3 notes, or much more when trills and ornaments are used):

At this slow tempo, the piece has a ceremonial and martial feel befitting the title. The fanfare-like phrase at 0:20-0:25, and the overall use of a mixolydian mode, evokes “natural horn” instruments that can only play overtones of a single note.

(The King of Laois referred to, by the way, is the Irish nobleman Rory O’Moore who, after the violent destruction of his clan, led a rebellion against the English Crown in 1641.)

The mixolydian mode, distinguished from a major scale by its use of a flattened seventh note, is common in Irish trad. That flattened seventh, and in particular its use as a plaintive high note is common to blues, English folk song and Irish trad. You can hear it a 0:58 in this pretty tune by famous 70s Irish folk band Planxty.

Notice how the accompanying chord is an F, bVII in the key of G major. The chord after is a C, the IV of the key, with an A melody note. The chord progression F C gives a more “modal” feeling than the other possibility, G7 C, which would be strongly “functional”.

I’m honestly completely ignorant as to the history of chordal accompaniment in this tradition. Nowadays it’s part of the standard trad session format. But it’s clear that the melodies are by far more important, and they’re what has come down the centuries. Not all of them are modal, though. This awesome little piece is clearly harmonically oriented.

Tying back to what I said earlier, again there are varieties of triplet feel: compare the percussive start of the phrase at 0:33 with the smoother triplet at 0:35. The former has the first two notes shortened and the third lengthened, while the latter is more rhythmically even. I won’t start pontificating about a style I’m ignorant of, but these kinds of subtleties clearly add to the lilt and groove of the tune. Nicely played, anonymous Youtube whistle guy.

But I was talking about harmony. The second strain at 0:22, for instance, sketches a clear I V I V harmony. Interestingly the cell outlining the first V chord starts with B, the 6th of the key and the 9th of the implied A7 (or A9) chord. Another interesting implication is the II- we hear from the low E at 0:07. Very simple stuff, of course. But clearly the writer understood basic chord progressions and upper structures. I can’t find info on Google but I’ve heard this tune is 200 years old.

It sounds silly to say, but in a way this music reminds me of bebop! Not in its mood or texture, but in its construction from blocks (typically either arpeggios or diatonic cells like 3 4 3 1 or 6 5 6 8), use of interspersed triplets and sixteenths (often generated by turns/trills) and outlining of syncopations by accenting notes (for example a high note) within a steady stream of swung notes.

Also, the “fractal” aspect that Steve Coleman finds in Charlie Parker’s music, whereby strongly melodic movements are found at different levels of scale, is present here: the first note of each bar could be isolated into a completely coherent melody of its own.

I enjoyed discovering these tunes. These days, I feel I’m homing in on my preferred melodic style after many, many years of believing that I would discover it in some advanced harmonic concept. Actually, it’s been under my nose all this time: I like modal melodies and melodies with simple, strong harmonic implications. This kind of thing, say:

Somehow, the idea that I should try write or work with the sort of melodies I enjoy or naturally sing has taken a long time to filter into my head! I think it’s almost impossible to go through jazz education without acquiring a prejudice in favour of complex or systematic melodies (i.e. derived from symmetry, synthetic scales, bitonality, or what-have-you). But at the end of the day, only your inner melodic ear – the part that responds natively to melody – can tell you what sounds good.

I’m not writing jazz at the moment, but I think when I return to it I’ll have a much stronger idea of what materials to work with than ever before.

Anyway! Hope you enjoyed my naive dip into Irish trad. Here I am trying to play “Pat Ward’s Jig”. I was pleased to find that all the hours I’ve spent in my life noodling blues lines meant that I was able to approximate some of the beautiful ornaments that characterise this style. (Of course, this is trifling compared to the art of a trad musician who has studied an entire system and aesthetic of ornamentation.)

And here’s the proper version I based mine on.

See you next time! Please comment if you’ve any thoughts, whether about Irish music or about developing and discovering your own melodic style.