Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What's it all about — Claude?

Zero zero zero zero zero one zero one zero zero one one one zero zero one zero one one one zero one one one.

Seven plus or minus two.

This was a little game Milton Babbitt played with us in graduate seminars. First time around, and without looking back, how much of the first paragraph can you recite back to me perfectly?

I took four graduate seminars with Milton and he played the game in every one of them. Unrelatedly, he also harmonized the opening of The Rite of Spring as cocktail piano more than once. And said but I don't have to tell you that more than a hundred times.

Milton used the "game" to make a point about grouping and memory. If there is no perceived pattern to a bunch of things (or events, or musical events, we'll eventually call them), then on average a human (I'm squarely inside the Venn diagram here, and proud of it — I'm working on making it a resumé line) can remember between five and nine things. Everything else in the series ... since we won't remember it, it is so much chaff.

And of squeegee zits Belgian tropical for intuition incisors pantonal Copland isn't remarks fun the insufficient camera head crayons.

Now look away and recite that nineteen-word sentence back. How far did you get?

We took the subway to one hundred third street and bought lemons at the market after we got off.

That sentence also has nineteen words. You can probably recite all of that one without much problem. To coin a double negative, it's because the second sentence isn't nonsense. It utilizes common groupings and grammatical structures associated with common language; and it has my personal favorites, signifiers and signifieds. The nonsense sentence has few logical groupings — unless, perhaps, you happen to have a case of acne caused by cleaning your car windshield in Antwerp.

Now the more abstract list of things. What factoids are immediately evident about the first paragraph of this post?

  • The series has twenty-four members.
  • Each member is either zero or one.
  • The series begins with five consecutive zeroes and ends with three consecutive ones.
  • There is a series of three consecutive ones in the middle.
  • Twice in the middle you will find a series of two consecutive zeroes.
What is the series about? None of the factoids tells you that. It just lists some things that are true about it.

  • Claude Debussy's Trois Nocturnes was composed in 1899 and premiered in 1900 to tepid reviews.
  • The nocturnes were inspired by a set of paintings by Whistler, also called Nocturnes.
  • The first movement is called Nuages, which means clouds in French. Earlier, Liszt wrote a piece called Nuages Gris, meaning Gray Clouds.
  • Debussy suggested that the music metaphorically portrayed fog on the Thames river and a distant foghorn.
  • Like much of Debussy's other music, it has parallel chords and unusual scales. It also uses at least one unusual color — that of flute doubled by harp harmonics.
  • The key signature is B minor. Near the end there is a passage in D-sharp minor, after which there is a return to B minor.
  • Nuages is very pretty, and hardly ever gets very loud.
  • Trumpets and trombones play in the other two nocturnes but are tacet in this one.
  • It ends slow and soft, and in the low register.
  • Fog and clouds have been frequently been used metaphorically by musicians, writers, and visual artists to characterize things that are vague or ambiguous, such as in Liszt's piece.
  • I myself have looked at clouds from both sides now.
  • It would be silly, though funny, to call it Billow Talk.
  • It's extended tonal.
Once you know what that first series is about, you don't have to memorize it; you can use a pattern to replicate it on demand. Take the series and group it into chunks of three and it is easy to see the pattern:

000 001 010 011 100 101 110 111

The series is about counting from zero to seven in three-digit binary. I mean, duh.

Viewed a little more cosmically, once we know what the series is about, we can not only recite it back perfectly — we can also relate every constituent member to its function within the complete series ("the seventeenth member, zero, is the middle digit of the sixth three-digit grouping of the series, which stands for the number five, and we know that is one four, no twos and one one"). Not exactly earth-shattering, but you can tell I'm making an upbeat here.

And when thou dost remember music, thou dost employ grouping as well. Take this example from the Schumann post of several days back. What of the E-sharp in the left hand of the piano in the second bar? It's an incomplete chromatic lower neighbor to the chord tone F-sharp inside a temporarily tonicized B minor, the ii of the local key and the iv of the home key. It resolves properly by step to F-sharp; it behaves like and recalls an A-sharp in the piano in the piece's first bar, also an incomplete chromatic lower neighbor; it creates a tingly cross-relation with the E just sung, which resolved in the opposite direction. Or the B-flat on the downbeat of the next bar: it's the borrowed sixth degree from the parallel minor of D major, initiating a tonicization of D major that rhymes with the tonicization in the previous two bars, a third higher; B-flat is an unusual chromatic tone in an F-sharp minor piece and is supposed to resolve to A, which it does; in its own way the note also rhymes with the D-natural of the bass at the piece's outset.

In either case, it's a big burden for one note to carry.

But with the grouping (some call it bunching) we do as seasoned listeners, we can conceptualize those relationships easily enough. Moreso if we have an idea what this piece is about — unresolved musical tensions that mirror the unrequited love of the text — we can then work up or down the musical branching to relate everything properly.

Or we could make a list of factoids about the piece.

Here I pause for a second to let the cosmic out. In. Out. In. Out. Out. Out.


Nuages is a challenge to teach in undergraduate theory — or in graduate analysis, for that matter. Undergraduates will normally have experience identifying phrases, cadences and keys (oh my!), modulations and tonicizations in shorter tonal pieces, along with some simple metaphorical ways of relating all that stuff to a perceived affect in the music. In my theory classes, they will also have experience writing about it, often by barfbacking what I said in class.

Then comes the so-called extended tonality of Nuages, and the analytical apparatus has to be reconfigured a bit. Indeed, some of it has to be chucked entirely. For while the piece is clearly tonal, and unquestionably centered on "B", much of the usual tonic-confirming stuff that the apparatus is designed to reveal is just not in this piece. Which leads to new, more cosmic questions about how we know it's in "B".

And the "treasure hunt" aspect of music analysis here involves not just looking at a new and unfamiliar piece; it also involves figuring out new ways to to describe local and larger scale musical function — which, more often than not, is by analogy with existing analytical constructs ("does this 'act like' a dominant here?" "the 'resolution' is in the wrong direction, but it sure sounds like a resolution, doesn't it?" Hey, it's like "gonna have a resolution" on the White Album).

Since this is my blog and I am beholden to no one, I can interrupt whenever I want to say things like: I'm not actually hungry right now.

I can also reflect on the awkwardness of the construct to be beholden to. And how funny it actually sounds when you repeat it between 200 and 300 times. Are you beholden, Caulfield?

I invite the reader to download his or her or its own score of Nuages from the imslp library, since the examples here will be a bit small. And mostly taken from Ravel's arrangement for two pianos.

First, go back and review the list of factoids about this piece from higher up in this post. Even though by themselves, they don't say much about the music, it's possible they can and will be referenced to bolster other arguments as we come to them. And I like to argue. Even more than I like to bolster.

Bolster is a funny word, isn't it? And it rhymes with pollster.

After one has listened to the piece at least three times — at least once without score and at least once with score — how about starting the treasure hunt by asking what the meaning is of the key signature, and by extension what the meaning is of the rampant chromaticism in the beginning? Of course the answer is that the key signature denotes B minor, and though the usual ways taught to establish B minor are largely absent, there is no question when listening that B is the tonic. To get there, we go back up the chain to mere description.

The opening is two-part first species type of counterpoint (note-against note) with both voices moving at the same speed. Yet the "wave" kind of feel (this is the Thames we're on, people) to the top voice suggests 3/2 rather than 6/4 — suggesting two second species lines in quarters decorating a main line in half notes. The "wave" feel is going to be confirmed big time in subsequent music. Thus, on the strong quarters (1st, 3rd, 5th) the top line very clearly moves down the notes of the B minor scale to a strong arrival on B, decorated on the "weak" quarters toward the cadence with the sixth and seventh degrees of the (rising) melodic minor scale.

The harmonization of that line, though (the lower voice) tells a different story. The strong quarters outline a whole-tone scale (B-A-G-F-E-sharp) lingering around F/E-sharp at the upper line's cadence — settling on G at the agogic accent. Referencing the programmatic level (this piece is called clouds), any sense of leading tone or strong tonal function is blurred by the rampant chromaticism in this voice.

Then, as G and the cadential tone B are sustained, the English horn (the "distant foghorn") echoes the downward stepwise line, but substituting F natural for F-sharp (thus confirming where the lower voice landed), decorated by an upbeat figure. And there is a detail that seems unimportant now that will be important later: the English horn is written in Common Time (4/4), thus having to count 4 beats per bar to the orchestra's 6. Here you can access the piece's program to explain that, but it's not a complete answer: since the English horn represents a distant foghorn, unaware of what is going on in our foreground, it is in its own independent time. The English horn doubly confirms B as a cadential tone, the orchestra and timpani confirm that B, and ... the English horn stops. But the opening phrase isn't over! G and B have not moved during all of this, and how does the phrase end? G and B continue to sustain, then there is a whole bar of G-sharp and B, and then a whole bar of nothing but B.

Pretty subtle cadence, dude. B, you are officially triply confirmed. We hardly miss the leading tone at all. Fin-de-siècle, where is thy sting?

A few things might now be noted about the tonal materials just encountered: we've seen a segment of a whole tone scale on B in the music; and we've seen that there are notes in the B melodic minor scale decorating the first cadential B. Now when we add the notes of the English horn line to the melodic minor mix, we can see that we've been grooving on an incomplete octatonic scale (B-C#-D-E-F-G-G#-B -- leave off the leading tone, A#,  for savings and ambiguity). Awesome, dude. Both the whole-tone and octatonic scales are extremely redundant, and thus they spawn the kind of tonal ambiguity that would make any nuage proud. Plus, both of them have tons of tritones — the crown prince of ambiguity.

Then our work is done. We identified two of Debussy's unusual scales, and they are both ambiguous, just like clouds. Might as well act the part of a typical audience member now, and fall asleep to the rest of the piece. And not wake up until Nocturne #2, Fêtes, begins, loudly.

Or you can turn the page.

Flash! We said the piece is in B minor, given the clue of the key signature. Where's the B minor triad that confirms that?

Oh, crap. There isn't one.

Where is there any triad?

Oh, crap. There isn't one.

Then how is this piece tonal? And incidentally, please hurry up and tell me what it's about.

It's "about" clouds. Duh.

Duh yourself. Clouds don't have their own theme music. Nor are there leading clouds that tonicize other clouds. Though you often get cumulus just before you get cumulonimbus. Coincidence? Je pense que non.

I repeat. I am not hungry right now. Though a beer would be nice.

Oh, crap. There isn't one.

Debussy's first nocturne, Nuages, responds: I'm standing right here.

So one strategy of music analysis is to look for evidence that the beginning of a piece contains the DNA for the whole piece. Of course, that's not likely what they called it before Crick and Watson. But it's fair to put this ball in the air: is the whole piece latent in the opening of the piece? Is this the time to start looking? Is this funny chromatic/diatonic opening with multiple redundant scales what the piece is about?


But first, returning to an earlier question. There aren't any triads in the beginning music. It's going to turn out there are hardly any in the music notated in the key of B minor — brief B-flat minor triads in what is clearly a transitional phrase, and (right) a sweep of parallel diatonic triads landing squarely on a fat honkin' C major triad. The passage to the left is where the only two B minor triads of the whole piece can be found. Otherwise, the harmony is rife with dominant seventh and half-diminished seventh chords. I'm presenting this as a factoid for the moment, and will return to this point.

After the beginning music, we get longer passages of alternating motion and stasis. Static music accompanies the English horn, never playing anything but those same five notes, always cadencing on B, always in Common Time, under a pedal point. The moving music features parallel chords (dominant ninths, half-diminished sevenths, and, as above, triads) and a kind of antsy instability. The music between the opening and the key change is framed by variations of the opening bars. The whole trajectory is

  • Abbreviated opening music landing on B-flat and then G dominant ninths
  • Static music, English horn solo, G pedal
  • Rising music ending on A-flat pedal
  • Static music, English horn solo, B pedal broken by descending whole tone scale
  • Opening music.
I put the bass pedals of this section in red so you can see that in sequence they compose out the sustained G, G#, B of the end of the opening music. DNA! Not only that, but the last static music dissolves with the English horn emphasizing B and the bass moving down the whole-tone scale from B to F, just as in the opening bars. More DNA!

Pause to reflect. We're still in the factoid-collecting portion of our program.

The return to the opening music gets destabilized by low whole-tone music on parallel augmented triads, before, almost miraculously, we get to go up the food chain back to the piece's program: the sun comes out!

Okay, the sun comes out. Metaphorically speaking. Debussy uses multiple means to make this a moment where everything changes.

First, the key change to six sharps. Why six sharps? Because Debussy is a pianist, and even when writing for orchestra, he did pianocentric stuff. To wit: that fascinating color of flute doubled by harp fits on the black keys of the piano. The flute has had no role in the piece up to this point (the two flutes played in a sustained chord near the beginning, but nothing else), so it's a drastically new melodic color. And here's another unusual scale: the pentatonic scale.

Second, the quarter-note waves have stopped.

And thirdly, very importantly, the harmony is a sustained D-sharp minor triad. And a very widely spaced one at that. And note that on the flute's first pause, on F-sharp, the triad decorating D-sharp minor is G-sharp major. With a B-sharp! Dude, this passage isn't exactly minor — it's Dorian.

This being Nuages, when some strings play the flute's tune back at it, it gets all chromatic and half-diminishy again, only to be "corrected" by the flute under pure triads. Pure triads! And nothing can make the flute play anything except black notes.

Except the English horn, of course. (To the left, part of the full score: the clarinets are written in B-flat, thus their notes are G and F, and the English horn (COR ANG.) is in F, thus the note on the downbeat at Iº tempo is its familiar F-natural).

Well, looky there. The English horn has been in its own independent meter all along, never having to be together with any other instrument. Until now, at this very important juncture. The top F of the familiar English horn melody meets the flute exactly on this downbeat, and on the only note the flute plays that isn't a "black key".

How important is this moment? Well, now a long, long dissolution begins, the color gets darker and the music gets lower. There's one last gasp for the flute, also ending on F.

I need two more factoids and then I think I'm ready to give my idea of what this piece is about. So, a pause to consider what an inherently funny word "eschew" is.

The horns (from the continent (French) and not the island (English)) have been having their way with the tritone every time the horn (from the island) is foghorning. That's them in the arrangement, in bass clef in the second piano. After the English horn line spans the tritone from F to B, the horns echo what they feel are the important notes, with the detail stripped out: just B and F. And the harmony together with the pedal in the bass is a G dominant seventh chord.

Skip ahead to the very ending. There's no question we've ended in B. But not B minor. And this is where it starts to get heavy.

Check out the (pizzicato string) chords in the second piano part.

Dude, G dominant seventh. Together with that transposed flute lick, and the horn tritone and a pedal B (timpani) in the bass. And even the flute line, now on the white notes only, arpeggiates G7.

This piece isn't in B minor. It's in G7/B!

Huh? Eschew!

Which means that as soon as the fifth bar of the piece, we were squarely on a tonic chord, even though at the time we didn't know it.

And besides providing the DNA for some bass lines composed out later, the opening introduces what I think the piece is about. It's about a conflict between F-sharp and F-natural as the stable harmonizer of B. F-natural wins.

Thus!
  • The seeming stability of the opening sonority of B and F-sharp is usurped by the chromaticism, clearly cadencing on B in the company of F, and F-sharp has been pushed out.
  • In all of the English horn passages, F and B are prominent and F-sharp is nowhere to be found.
  • In the D-sharp minor music, F-sharp is the incipit and the terminus of the flute melody, F-natural is nowhere to be found, and since the triads are Dorian, neither is B. Thus F-sharp gets relegated to a secondary role and is only stable when the music is not in B.
  • The parallel augmented triads just before the D-sharp minor music serve to include F-sharp and push out B. And they push out all of the whole-tone scale on B.
  • Thus the English horn dragging the flute off of the black keys at the final key change represents the beginning of the victory of F-natural. As does the final repeat of the flute melody, entirely on the white keys, finishing on F-natural.

And even if the listener has slept through Nuages, only to wake up to the second nocturne — the victory of F-natural is clearly evident in and transferred to the open fifths on F that begin Fêtes.

Game, set, match. Insert voluminous cloud metaphors to taste. Stir.