Tuesday, February 07, 2012

A Playground In Which To Grow Strong

That is one way of playing the first four bars, the first musical phrase, from Bobby Darin’s great song, “Dream Lover.”

I love little phrases like this. A lot of times I like little musical phrases more than I like the whole song that contains the phrase. In this case it’s a great song, too, but I especially like some of the little phrases like this that make up the song.

Even though this is only four bars long, there is movement and resolution and you can hear (and see, in the notation) the little interplay between eighth notes and longer notes, the way little rhythms repeat and get changed around.

There’s a word in the music world, “ostinato.” It refers to using short musical phrases repeatedly as a compositional device. Some people use it more than others. Some people enjoy it more than others.

Many people, for instance, only know Ravel from his “Bolero,” which was just a few bars long, but orchestrated beautifully. Ravel himself wrote, “Before its first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece lasting seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of ‘orchestral tissue without music’.”

I think there is a lot of music there. The music’s in the arrangement.

One of the most famous composers forever linked to ostinato as a technique is Bernard Herrmann (Pedals, Patches And A Composer).

Wikipedia has an interesting page on ostinato, and the introduction is:

In music, an ostinato (derived from Italian: "stubborn", compare English: obstinate) is a motif or phrase, which is persistently repeated in the same musical voice. An ostinato is always a succession of equal sounds, wherein each note always has the same weight or stress. The repeating idea may be a rhythmic pattern, part of a tune, or a complete melody in itself. Both "ostinatos" and "ostinati" are accepted English plural forms, the latter reflecting the word's Italian etymology. Strictly speaking, ostinati should have exact repetition, but in common usage, the term covers repetition with variation and development, such as the alteration of an ostinato line to fit changing harmonies or keys.

If the cadence may be regarded as the cradle of tonality, the ostinato patterns can be considered the playground in which it grew strong and self-confident. —Edward E. Lewinsky

I suppose a person can be derisive of “short melodies.” It’s easy, of course, to make a case that the modern world is so fragmented, so chaotic, that our very ability to recognize or conceive of extended coherent passages in entertainment or art has been eroded.

Although that’s true, I don’t believe it is really relevant to the issue of ostinato if the phrases are well-conceived and well-arranged.

For instance, a Shakespeare sonnet is shorter than a Shakespeare play, but the shorter form is not inherently less—in any way—than the longer form. The emotional and intellectual impact and enjoyment of a sonnet can be as great as a play.

And there is a danger, too, in thinking that length in and of itself creates some kind of value. Stephen King, for instance, has written some novels that are as long or almost as long as, say, “Atlas Shrugged.” Are any of those long Stephen King works comparable in any way to the long “Atlas Shrugged” in terms of content, quality and impact? An extended work—just because it is extended—is not necessarily of any value.

Of course, a short piece is not of value just because it is short. It is almost trivially easy, for instance, to count out seventeen syllables and write a haiku. But the trick of writing a haiku isn’t counting the syllables, but rather conceiving of and embodying some kind of single coherent thought that creates a unified sense of impact.

I would say that ostinato as a technique is especially valuable in times of fragmentation and chaos.

Listening to and recognizing well-conceived and well-arranged short themes and short phrases gives us a chance to exercise our esthetic resources playfully, to enjoy a process in an easy context, so that we may later feel more confident and relaxed in a more difficult context.

As a would-be musician, “simple” four bar phrases can be much more useful in a practical way than an entire song. For instance, playing scales in all keys can be very boring, and harmonizing an entire song can take a lot of time. But taking a well-conceived little musical phrase and transposing it from, say, C to F then Bb then Eb then Ab then Db then Gb, or from C to G then D then A then E then B, can be actually fun. It is making real music, thoughtfully, rather than just firing the muscles in the fingers and making sounds.

At some point in the future I’m going to write more about this business of little things versus bigger things. But it seems fitting to keep this post about short things short.

Here is one of Bernard Herrmann’s most famous pieces of music. This is the credit sequence from “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.” It is just a couple of minutes long, and unlike “Bolero” there is almost no development in the arrangement at all. It is just one musical phrase set against a second musical phrase, and the contrast is repeated.

Some people heard this music as kids when they were too young even to consciously separate the score of a movie from the other elements. But this music is so cool that they remembered it their whole life.

And maybe when something stands alone so passionately—the way this music does—it is such a vehement unity that it is a way of actually striking back against the chaos and fragmentation of the modern world. I think it is.

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Dream Birds Untangle Dream Knots

Dream Lover Fantasy Update

An Orchestra That Goes In And Out

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