Posts tagged ‘music’

The language of chess

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

There are many things that appeal to me about chess, and perhaps in some future post I’ll list them all, but one of the most important is the way that it creates a whole new sophisticated language, with inflection and shades of meaning, that doesn’t map to English (or whatever human language you care to choose) at all.

Music is the most obvious other abstract system like this. Music has a whole theory of meaning and communication, of what the composer is “saying” to the listener over the course of a piece, whether that is setting up expectations and fulfilling or dashing them, or getting a reaction out of a unexpectedly piquant chord or melodic leap or rhythmic displacement or what have you. There are a few obvious correlations to “actual” semantic meaning (major is happy! minor is sad! fast is exciting!) but largely music remains an abstract closed system. It mostly doesn’t refer to anything outside of itself (tone poems aside), and although it can be analyzed and frequently is, it has to be analyzed on its own terms, and not by “translating” it; it has some sort of “meaning” in the same way that English sentences have meaning, but there’s no mapping between the two spheres. (If you’re interested in this sort of thing, I highly recommend Leonard Meyer’s Emotion and Meaning in Music.)

Anyway, this post is supposedly about chess, not music. My point is that chess games and positions also carry some sort of untranslatable-to-language abstract semantic content, and that the richness of this content and the fact that it has no linguistic analog is one of the things that makes chess so aesthetically appealing to its devotees.

It’s so abstract it’s hard for me to put into words, but a chess enthusiast gets a certain feeling when he or she glances at a board and sees an open position as opposed to a closed or semi-closed one; or looks at possible pawn breaks; or notices that one player has sacked material for the initiative; or sees a fianchettoed bishop, or the possibility of a standard Bxh7+ sac, or a “bone-in-the-throat” pawn on e6, or Alekhine’s gun lined up, or a good vs bad bishop, or… I could name dozens of these, but the point is that they are supremely meaningful to me (in that they literally have meaning) and probably mean nothing to you. Not everything about chess always appeals to me — the competitive aspects, the need to calculate extremely accurately and to memorize openings and endgame techniques — but I will never tire of this aesthetic aspect of it.

(As I was writing this, I found an interesting attempt to make connections between two of these “languages”: Haskell Small’s “A Game of Go”, a musical accompaniment to a classic game of Go (about which I could say many of the same things). It’s a really cool idea, although it doesn’t get much past some basic correspondences (ko fights are tense! things wind down in the endgame!). I suppose that if it had been easier to make one-to-one correspondences between Go and music, my whole point that they are interesting and unique complex systems would have been undermined.)

Levitate Me

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

In which I take all the magic out of one of my favorite songs by analyzing it to death.

“Levitate Me” is from the Pixies’ first record, the EP Come On Pilgrim, recorded and released in 1987. If you want to follow along I recommend this live performance.

It’s by Black Francis so who knows what the lyrics are really about, but to me they’re about transcendence through sex, being lifted up by someone to a higher plane.

I’ll start at the beginning. Musically, the verses are mostly about a continued attempt to leave the tonic chord, E. The chord sequence is E (for a long time,) G#, A, four times in a row. When Francis sings “Levitate me” the first two syllables are supremely dissonant against the underlying harmony; the guitar’s playing a G# chord, which includes a B# as its third, while he’s singing a B natural, creating the mother of all dissonances, the minor second. We’ll see a different minor second dissonance against a B# (or C natural) shortly.

The third line speeds up the meta-rhythm; it’s 12 beats long instead of 16, because we move to the G# after just 8 beats, not 12. At the same time it feels slowed down, as the lyrics are stripped back to “Higher place… levitate me”, and the yodel-like leap on “place” leaves him suspended on a high G# (as high as he gets in the whole song) for a whole bar, until the band finally switches to the G# chord underneath him so we can return to making progress.

In the fourth line we return to a normal 16-beat period, but the temperature is raised both because he’s singing straight eighth notes instead of the former sparse phrases and from the cross-rhythm: “Elevator lady” is 6 half-beats long against the 4-or-8 period underneath it, forcing him to throw in an extra “lady” near the end in order to end up in the right place. What is easier to notice on this line is that everyone starts really rocking out, but the structure is supporting that feeling as much as the volume.

Finally we move up to the dominant harmony, B, for the “If all in all is true” section. (The structure of a piece of classical music is, at its most general, a long move from the tonic (I) harmony to the dominant (V) harmony and back. Rock music is of course a lot less academic than that but this song happens to follow that pattern.) Here we’re in groups of 6 beats (a Pixies trademark) except for the fourth line, which now lengthens the period out to 8 beats to increase the anticipation of the resolution of the dominant to the tonic just that much longer.

The arrangement also opens up a lot at this point – everyone drops out except for the rhythm guitar. Combined with the increased tension of the move to the dominant, the effect is to keep us suspended in the air, waiting for the rest of the band to join back in for the return to the tonic.

On the second line of this section, Joey Santiago on lead guitar throws in a repeated C# that’s dissonant against the B harmony. The rest of the band gradually rejoins the party, and we return to the tonic in a classic F# (V of V) – B (V) – E (I) progression, with a C chord thrown in between the F# and the B, giving it a little minor flavor. Joey’s sustained C# finally makes sense than before when the band moves to the F# chord underneath him, then immediately makes even less sense when they proceed to a C chord (same pitch as that B# earlier), making a grinding dissonance against his note.

The same dissonance keeps occurring in the refrain; the harmonies are repeating C – B – E, continuing to emphasize the C natural, while Joey’s riff goes E-D#-C#-B against it, continuing the C against C# friction.

So that’s halfway through, and it’s time for another trip through the basic structure. This time it’s even more stop-start than before; the instruments stay in suspended animation while Francis’s utterances become ever more gnomic before proceeding to each G# – A – E conclusion. Meanwhile, Joey spends the whole verse sitting on the low E (the lowest note on a guitar) in a menacing tremolo.

The high point of the whole song for me (just beating the awesome Sprechstimme of “Come on pilgrim, you know he loves you” – listen to the Live at the BBC version if you really want to feel your heart stop) is in the second “elevator lady” section. Without warning, in the very middle of it, two extra beats are inserted. All the pitched instruments drop out as the drums throw in an out-of-nowhere ka-POW!, and then everyone picks up right where they left off. Meanwhile Francis has continued to barrel through with his repeated mantra, and because of the extra two beats, ends up in exactly the right place without having to insert an extra “lady” this time. The total effect is like motoring at top velocity through a speed bump, experiencing a second of zero-g while flying through the air, then landing with authority and speeding on with no one the worse for wear. I will never tire of it.

After that amazing moment it’s basically just a long slow return to earth, repeating the moves of the first refrain. There are a few extra cycles of the C – B – E pattern, performing a harmonic deceleration to accompany the tempo deceleration as we arrive at our destination. But boy, that was a pretty good two-minute trip to get there. Wanna hear it again?

Songbook: Bucket

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

I thought it would be fun to write about some of the songs I’ve written. (I should point out for those coming to this cold that I’m the principal songwriter for Honest Bob and the Factory-to-Dealer Incentives). I’m going to start with songs from our latest record, Third Time’s the Charm. If you don’t have it, you can at least listen to a chunk of each song at our CD Baby page .

“Bucket” started because I felt that we had a dearth of songs in 3/4 and I wanted to remedy the deficiency. And what do you think of when you think of songs in three? Sea chanties, of course! The one-note-to-a-bar chorus is meant to be bellowed with your arms around your fellow men as you sway back and forth. It comes in groups of 9 bars, which doesn’t subdivide easily – the idea was kind of to just keep you swaying, bar by bar, without having that overall structural feeling of “okay, now we’re halfway through”.

The verses are mostly in groups of six bars, keeping the ternary idea going. Originally the guitars followed the bass as it went C – C – F – Bb – C – C, but it turned out to work out better to offset them slightly and ratchet up the tension a little – they pretty much go C – C – F – F – F – C over that bassline, which makes it feel like the bass is pulling them reluctantly along through the chord changes. We don’t prog out much in general but I totally gave into those tendencies with the unison break at the end of each verse. We drop one beat during it for extra proggy cred.

The lyrics are pretty silly. “Tomatillo” was a just a space-filling word I was using for the chorus, and it stuck. It took me a long time to come up with bridge words I was happy with – for a long time the bridge ended with “I’m a telegram” instead of “if you telegram”. If they mean anything at all it’s a general sense of leaving the quotidian trivialities of everyday life behind and achieving transcendence, which, hey, rock music never hurts in the pursuit of. “Hale-Bopp” from the first record had a similar basis.

The form is Verse, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Bridge, Chorus. Originally there was another chorus before the bridge but it made the whole thing too long; by the last chorus you were just waiting for the thing to end instead of being swept away in a final flourish. It’s a little unusual to head into a bridge after hearing just one chorus, but the end of the verse is enough of an event that I don’t think you feel like you haven’t had enough resolution points yet.

We started out with everyone just coming into together, then we decided to give our drummer Bill a couple bars of intro, then one rehearsal he played a full eight and it was awesome. Which made it a clear album-opener as well.

There’s some Hammond organ starting in the bridge that I really like; it adds to the balls-out atmosphere I was looking for. I wrote the part in less time than it took to perform it. One take and it’s good to go!

Springsteen

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

I just finished watching Bruce Springsteen perform at the Super Bowl halftime show (and I’m not a big Springsteen fan, but that was a pretty great halftime show). Anyway, it got me thinking: Bruce Springsteen has sold millions and millions of records, and he has a ton of cred as an Important Artist and all, but I can’t think of any major bands that follow in his footsteps. It seems very weird for someone so big both commercially and artistically to not have a slew of imitators.

Am I wrong? Is it more common than I think for an artist of his stature to stand so alone?  Or am I missing a big group of Young Springsteens?

Vance : books :: Pollard : music

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

I discovered Robert Pollard (the guy behind Guided By Voices) around 1996. His music seemed boring at first, but after a few tries I recognized his genius and since then have acquired most of his recorded output (I own 67 CDs of his by a quick count).

I discovered SF author Jack Vance a few years ago. His books seemed boring at first, but after a few tries I recognized his genius and since then have acquired most of his books that are in print in the US (a little over 20).

I realized recently that they have more in common than the fact that I love both of them.

  • incredibly prolific
  • awesome at their best
  • but with a nonexistent quality filter
  • largely intuitive in approach, as far as I can tell
  • even the best works are big messes (in a great way) rather than tightly constructed jewels
  • apparently wide-ranging in genre
  • but with enough tics that their work is instantly recognizable

I can’t think of anyone else (in any field) who is analogous. If there is, I want to find them, since I bet I would love them too.

Shudder To Think, Get Your Goat

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

In a comment to my last post Matthew Amster-Burton asked me what I thought of Shudder To Think. The only album I have of theirs is Get Your Goat from 1992 (Matthew has since informed me that he doesn’t think that’s their best, but it’s what I have), so I gave that a listen for the first time in ages.

I didn’t like it that much, which is pretty interesting. (I always think it’s interesting when I turn out to not like something that I should like based on my general tastes. Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale is a good example.)

I guess there are two questions here, why I don’t think it fits into this category and why I don’t like it much. In answer to the first, I think they’re too conscious of their artiness to qualify for the “naive” part. I’d put them in the same broad category as Deerhoof (who I do love) in this respect. Another thing making them seem like they’re explicitly trying to be artsy is that the singer seems to think he’s a real Singer rather than just some guy singing.

Secondly, why I don’t dig it? The dramatic singing bugs me some – that’s just personal taste (well, everything in this paragraph is personal taste). Also, the harmonic vocabulary rubs me the wrong way in a way that’s hard to verbalize. There are definitely stretches of music (and some whole songs) that I like, but overall it’s not my thing.

Naively complex music

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

My recent chronological voyage through the XTC back catalog, and excitement at hearing many early songs I hadn’t listened to in ages, got me thinking about some aspects that much of my favorite rock music has in common. I like to think of myself as having pretty varied tastes, but it’s true that a certain class of music is just about guaranteed to tickle my fancy.

I was going to call this Idiot Savant music, but that name is both not all that accurate and I guess kind of derogatory.

Here is my basic set of criteria for a band to belong to this category:

  1. A high level of musical inventiveness that appeals to me in a music-theory-nerd sort of way, such that I could explain to another theory-literate person what is interesting about it.
  2. A corresponding lack of ability of the artists to explain their methods theoretically.
  3. A high level of ROCK.

Point 2 is what prevents pretty much any prog rock from falling into this category (although some of my favorite rock music still scores high in points 1 and 3, like Led Zeppelin and Red-era King Crimson). But point 1 is important too, and is what prevents me from getting similarly excited by artists like Daniel Johnston or Jad Fair.

Artists who I love and who I’d more or less place in this group include:

  • Early XTC (you will see the word ‘early’ a lot)
  • Early Pixies
  • Early Throwing Muses
  • A lot of Guided By Voices / Robert Pollard
  • Captain Beefheart
  • The Minutemen, perhaps, but I feel like they understood what they were doing more

Generally the bands eventually start figuring out what they’re doing and slide out of this category.

The Fiery Furnaces are sort of on the line. I have the feeling that Matthew Friedberger is pretty aware of the techniques he is using, but he deploys a lot of them so charmingly ham-handedly that it has the same sort of effect.

When I read about these bands, often one of the members is quoted as saying something like “We thought we were making poppy dance music and would shoot up the charts!” Which is pretty much the point.