Friday, September 17, 2010

Holding Fourth


Recontextual eyes.

One has something to do with music. The other belongs in a list of World's Worst Pickup Lines. Actually, both will fit in a worst pickup line.

Baby, you have such recontextual eyes. Let's go to my place and recontextualize.

If the response is Huh huh, yer a poet and don't know it, then while the pickup line is still World's Worst, at least you've located its niche audience. Smaller still is its knish audience. I've stretched this joke a little further than it was designed to go.

It's the same, only different. That's how you say recontextualize with five words instead of one. Indeed, I use the word a lot when I teach first year theory — I especially like to noun it. Verbing stuff (as in, say, Let's partay!) is so 2006.

So in the case of this little musical example — a typical example of the hanging-note direct modulation — first comes the functional description. The section ends with a perfect authentic cadence in A major, with a repeated A left hanging. The A is then suddenly, immediately, irrevocably (due to the nature of time) recontextualized as the third of the brand spanking new key, F major. The cadential motive is also recontextualized within the new key, still decorating A with a double neighbor.

Then comes the multisyllabapalooza. This is a recontextualization of A within a parallel phrase. Eight syllables! I count the syllables on my fingers, invariably involving both hands. If I could do it on one hand, there's no way I'd still be teaching music theory. I'd be that star pianist who can play sixteen-note chords without rolling them. Rach 3? Kid stuff. Plus, imagine all the thumb wrestling with my pet spiders ...

When that A is suddenly recontextualized in the new key, there's a distinct musical affect. The note, which just nanoseconds ago was a comfortable tonic, is now the third in the tonic chord, and functionally less stable. And there was no warning! It could be both jarring and beautiful at the same time. Note "could be". Musical affects are as hard to pin down and describe as serendipity and accessibility and impermanence. Is that moment expressive? If so, what kind of expressivity? Happy, sad, indifferent, bemused, dirty? Sorry to report that it can be all of them, some of them, or none of them. MWA ha ha ha!

What can be said is that A acquires a new function there, thus it acquires a new meaning. And what does meaning mean, anyway?

A pause to let the cosmic out. Out, out, out. In, out.

Teaching of theory — and of composition, for that matter — involves a lot of reverse engineering of moments in existing music like that one. The goal, at the end of the day, is to give the theory student or composer another compositional tool. And this is where it gets weird. Because when all the elements come together, it's unavoidable to say the composer uses all the tools at his/her disposal to create emotion in music. That recontextualized A is but one of gazillions of them.

The ultimate reverse engineering job is the teaching of species counterpoint. Some dead guy named Fux looked at a bunch of polyphonic vocal music that people seemed to like, took a statistical survey of its tendencies, and wrote a book where the tendencies were turned into incontrovertible rules — incidentally thumbing his nose at Rameau, who had also looked at a bunch of music that people seemed to like, took a statistical survey of its tendencies, and wrote a book. Rameau gave us the chord of nature and the undertone series to kick around. Fux gave us dissonance treatment. Plus lots of other stuff.

Thus was another chapter born in the age-old Clash of the Titans: Harmony vs. Counterpoint. This time it's personal! And when these titans clash, who wins?

Counterpoint. Always counterpoint. Because (take the half-dozen logical leaps here) music unfolds in time. Need proof? Look over to the right at the excerpt from the first Brandenburg Concerto of Bach. This famously gut-wrenching dissonant passage features, in the middle of the second beat of the first two bars, an A-natural in the violins against A-flat in the bass. They are both right, even though they create a simultaneous cross-relation. The oboes are moving up, thus the A-natural; the bass is moving down (and inflecting toward C minor), hence the A-flat. As John Cougar Mellencamp almost sang, I say counterpoint, counterpoint always wins.

When Beethoven wanted to study with Haydn, what did he bring along as his credentials to prove his worthiness for study? Yes, a notebook of species counterpoint. With coffee stains.

The first three species of counterpoint involve 1-to-1, 2-to-1, and 4-to-1 plodding melodies against a cantus firmus. The fourth involves suspensions, accented dissonances, and unaccented resolutions — this is the species of recontextualization, dude.

For you see, the rule in fourth species is to do something consonant mid-measure, hold onto it, and wait to see where the cantus firmus goes. If the held note is consonant, you can go anywhere; if it's dissonant, you gotta, you just gotta, move by step to a consonant note (even worse, it's gotta be an imperfect consonance). So over there to the right, when the sustained A meets the new F in the CF, it's consonant — now it's like the blank tile in Scrabble. Go anywhere! However, when that new D meets the E of the CF, whoa. That dissonance has to resolve by step to the C. Has to, has to, has to. Must, must, must. Composer guy (hey, that's me!) has no choice. And guess what? The E of the CF recontextualizes the D from a consonant note into a dissonant one.

When I initially explain the kind of affects that come about musically from fourth species-like stuff that happens in actual music, I talk about mixers. Parties. God is a DJ, Life is a Dance Floor, You are the Melody. You're hanging out at a party with some friends. You all sit down and have a rousing good time. One friend excuses herself to get some chips; another goes to the dance floor; another goes to the bathroom. Three people you don't know take their chairs. Now, you are contextualized in a group where you don't belong, and can't have a conversation. So you must get out of your chair and seek out people you know. Then you start or join another conversation. Some people excuse themselves. Repeat until you stop.

It's a heavy analogy, fraught with fraughtiness, but it gets the job done.

In the mind of the composer, hoping to create an expressive, magic, musical moment, a similar analogy may be at play. Here's a single note in the ... oboe, shall we say ... perfectly beautiful within the harmony. The note sustains while the harmony changes; now the oboe doesn't belong; thus a melody involving that note's resolution. Thus, tension and release.

I've always been partial to tension and release. But tense about partial release.

Taking a very simple beginning that everyone knows whether they know they know it or not — the Theme from Platoon by Uncle Sam — the outer voices of that famous beginning show proper fourth species counterpoint at work. The sustained beginning tone is first contextualized in a (relatively) consonant harmony, then made dissonant when the bass moves. The tune has no choice but to resolve and start moving. Here, it's a 4-3 suspension, or so say the experts. The dissonant 4th with the bass resolves down by step to the consonant 3rd. And the moment where the first note becomes dissonant — devastating, when played right, and the listener is doing his or her job.

Getting back to the Mozart slow movement of this post, there's that gorgeous second theme for the orchestra only that is full of sadness and longing. It's also an excellent example of academic counterpoint. Lots of it fourth species. For you see, the tune itself is presented in canon with itself at the second. On the top staff, the first violins and flute. The top voice of the second staff is the bassoon playing the same tune a bar later and a step higher (minus two octaves). At the bottom, the bass line, doing a nice conservative stepwise ascent from scale degree 1 to scale degree 5.

Wait — academic counterpoint? Do tell. Well, first there's the canon. Then there's the sadness and longing stuff on the downbeats caused by the fourth-species type moments. So when the bassoon follows the main tune and sustains its B over the barline, it's dissonant with the C# of the tune; hence it must move down by step in resolution. Good thing Mozart already designed the tune to do that right there. Because the violins are going to sustain a C# over the downbeat in the next bar, to clash with the D that the bassoon is obliged to play there. Thus, the tune must move down by step again. And then the moment that cuts with a knife. A metaphorical knife, that is. Realizing that we're talking about sound waves, after all. It's the downbeat with the E# in the violins and the fourth species suspended D in the bassoon, all of it against the bass reaching its local goal of C#. That sonority there is (metaphorically) crunchier than any (nonmetaphorical) bran cereal ever made. And the augmented second (plus an octave) formed with the bassoon and violins is properly resolved in the bassoon, as it was designed to do.

But wait, there's more, and the affect is even more (metaphorically) devastating. The violins start the tune again, on A. The first time the A sustained, it did so in a consonant context as the harmony stayed on the tonic. This time, the stakes are raised: as the A sustains, it is contextualized under a B# — a diminished seventh!, within an applied diminshed seventh chord — and this time the move to G# is really necessary. Obligatory, you might say. As the listening brain would say here, Ouch.

Wow. Academic and devastating at the same time. Insert joke of your choice here.

Then things get pretty interesting when you start to look at the counterpoint inherent in compound lines (melodies that carry the tonal information for more than one voice) — perhaps the simplest of which is the sort of twaddle littered all over Vivaldi — such as this bunch o' sixteenth notes that represent two voices moving in sixths but out of sync in that fourth species way. Hence the D and C# together are resolved by D and B together, etcetera. Yes, fourth species is a very convenient note-spinning device, and this particular manifestation thereof gets called the 7-6 suspension chain. Because that's what we call it. When we call it anything at all.

Now returning to the Mozart and the opening piano melody; it's already been noted that the opening melody is a compound line, moving in sixths at first, and remaining incomplete at the half cadence.

To find the fourth species kind of counterpoint, it's necessary first to make a reduction showing the important notes, or more precisely, the structural notes.

Then, perhaps, show how the notes in the music itself actually unfold in a pretty herky-jerky rhythm. Noting, of course, that the top two lines unfold in the context of a single melody.

Which then provides us with a way of looking under the hood of the really peculiar, leapy melody in the second bar.

Where, using the ultimate power of fourth species, we can see no fewer than four prepared dissonances and their proper resolutions. Of course, just because all the dissonance treatment is correct, it doesn't make the melody itself any less peculiar. But in detail — 1) the A of the tune, repeated on the downbeat, is suspended, thus creating a dissonance of a seventh with the B of the next voice down. Which we hear next. The G# in the tune is the resolution of the dissonant 7th. 2) the bass also suspends over the bar, and when the top voice resolves to G#, its resolution itself creates a dissonance with the bass, which must move to E# in resolution. 3) the resolution to E# creates a tritone with the B of the second voice, which is rearticulated, and resolves properly, down by step, in the next bar. 4) the D of the tenor voice forms a diminished seventh with the bass when the bass moves, so it too must move down by step, as it does properly. Wow, almost a domino effect of resolutions necessitating other resolutions, etc.

Dry, academic. And peculiar. And moving, all at the same time. Huh. And always with recontextual eyes.

Wait, Davy. Can a Modernist like you use any of this stuff?

Çoitanly! How about Berg? Now there's a modernist. In the last Altenberg Lieder at the climax, there is a certifiably gorgeous and devastating moment. After a climax has been built to an A major triad, it is suddenly soft while the singer arpeggiates down the triad from A to E. Already the harmony has moved to an F# half-diminished seventh chord, and by the downbeat of the next bar, when the E is sung again ("hier sind keine menschen") it's recontextualized in a G diminished seventh chord with A-flat added (for those of us playing along at home, that's a verticalization of the piece's opening five-note motive). But the feeling at that moment is certainly, at least to me, one of desperation, longing, surprise. As that same E has its bottom drop right out of it.

Yes, Davy. But Berg is dead. Can you use this stuff at all? Can you? Can you? Huh?

Well, okay. Just one example. Since you asked. How did I try to make Beautiful beautiful? It's this melody setting the word Beautiful, the first line of a Louise Bogan poem. There's the incipit A, decorated with an F, then a leap down a major seventh, presumably to a lower voice. The major seventh "resolves" to G when the voice continues the word. It's like a 7-6 suspension, but isn't one. Yes, we've moved from metaphors to similes.

But since music is all about making magic out of same only different — well, when I'm choosing my notes, I like to do stuff on occasion that seems to work the same as fourth species. Only different.