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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Steel Cage Match

Let's get all geeky!  Soho the Dog, slated to be added to my blog kennel the next time I update my Blogger template (tentatively scheduled for December, 2025) riffs at length on the influence of R&B, soul, and gospel on white pop music.  Soho's specific illustration of this influence is a single chord progression.

My mouth is watering.  Did someone just mention chord progressions?

Read the whole thing.  I'm interested in a somewhat tangential point made near the end.  He's talking about the plagal cadence, also called the "amen cadence" or IV-I or subdominant-tonic cadence, particularly when it acts as a foundation for an entire harmonic language.  In other words, when the plagal determines what chords and chord progressions get emphasized and form the defining harmonic boundaries that help give a piece of music its distinctive feel (as opposed to the plagal's main competitor, the authentic cadence, AKA V-I or dominant-tonic):
You know who else used to stack his harmonies heavily towards the plagal, the flat side of the circle of fifths? Edward Elgar. And for precisely the same reason that Brian Wilson does—to give the music a sense of melancholy grandeur, a sense that bright, sturdy perfect [sic; more precisely, he means "authentic"] cadences would flood with too much sonic light. Now I know that Brian Wilson wasn't consciously trying to imitate Sir Edward. But they both heard the bittersweet longing within the plagal cadence, and chose their vocabularies accordingly. Tracing influences is fascinating, but for me, just as fulfilling is the realization that even total musical strangers are sometimes, in the same way, chasing the same star.
This relates to an opinion I've been forming for a long time:  whole eras of western musical progress can be characterized by either plagal or authentic cadences.  In fact, I'll suggest this hypothesis:  the plagal is the default sensibility, since it was operative throughout music up to the end of the renaissance, and vied with the authentic cadence in the Baroque, and became truly operative only during the period of Viennese classicism.  It's inherent instability (artistically speaking; harmonically it's too stable) caused it to be abandoned gradually throughout the romantic period, after which the natural order of plagal supremacy was restored.

As you can infer, I'm biased toward the plagal.  Indeed, I blame Haydn for following the authentic cadence to its illogical conclusion, and it is this belief that makes me hate his music far beyond any other.  But here's the problem that lurks within the plagal:  the flat side of the circle of fifths may produce melancholy and warmth, but it is also a region of safety.  There, harmonies blend more easily.  It is the rightful place of cowards, among whom I would name Elgar (and Ives and many others).

The worst examples of this cowardice is found in the (very) mediocre choral music I sometimes receive in the mail for free from publishers.  They are composed for unsophisticated performers, and tend to be harmonically tame in the extreme.  The one flamboyance allowed is an occasional lowered seventh in the melody in phrases where it ascends to the tonic.  This eliminates the dominant chord as a possibility, and give the piece a faux-modal vibe.  I see this compositional tic in these pieces over and over and over and over.  Or more honestly, I don't see it anymore, because I stopped wasting my time on the junk publishers send me for free.

I hate the cloying candy of Haydn-influenced music, but I despise cowardly composing.  One of my compositional aims has been to find ways to bring the brightness of sharp accidentals to plagal-based music.  It's not easy; many combinations of these two traits are unnatural.  One very successful example comes from the late romantic period:  Wagner (who, in the context of this discussion, must be regarded as a hero) worked a IV chord with a suspended sharp 4th resolving downward to the 3rd over and over in Tristan.  This suspension deserves all the attention that has been wasted on the so-called Tristan chord down through the years.  When, as a teenager, I discovered this suspension, I used it like a lab monkey hitting the pellet release in a cocaine-addiction study.

Dang, this post is long.

What's sad is that this idea of mine is still only half-baked, and geeky ne plus ultraissimo.  Yet I spend a fair amount of my life thinking about it, and stuff like it.  The great steel cage match between the plagal and the authentic is important to me. Blogging is supposed to be the great enabler of esoteric discussion, but I'm not kidding myself:  at this point in this post, I have about one reader left.  Hi, mom.



Blogger A.C. Douglas said... this point in this post, I have about one reader left. Hi, mom.

Well, two -- at least (your mom is charming, BTW.)


3:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another reader here. Got here via a Google of "Haydn Chord Progression Third", improbably enough, and found a very entertaining, well-crafted blog. Serendipity. Anyway, what's your problem with Haydn, fella?! Mozart may be the sine qua non of musical geniouses, but Haydn is a fascinating composer in that he remained flexible and open to new ideas throught his compositional career spanning the years c. 1749 to c. 1803. He started off using plagal cadences in his early liturgical music, and, as I recently discovered to my great delight, he adumbrated Beethoven in using modulation via a major third. Dismayingly, I have no formal music theory trainingly, but if you listen to Haydn's late works, most notably the Symphony 102 and the Nelson and Harmonie Masses, you'll frequently hear him moving from something like the dominant of G minor to B-flat major by first playing an unharmonised D and then turning it into the the major third of B-flat by adding a B-flat bass. Apologies for such an juvenile attempt at explicating something in which I have no formal training, but the effect of the modulation never fails to bring to mind Beethoven's famous use of it in his Ninth Symphony in the fourth movement immediately before the introduction of the march theme.
Had he been able to compose for a few more years, Haydn doubtless would've found more ways to escape the tyranny of the tonic-dominant polarity, a tyranny that Handel had so mockingly described already in the 1740s (the introduction of the horn to the pre-classical orchestra helped accelerate the coming of the tyranny).

10:47 AM  

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