Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Listening to the Blues Part 2

Listening to the blues, part 2 (in which much of what I said in another post repeats)

The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, 'Is there a meaning to music?' My answer would be, 'Yes.' And 'Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?' My answer to that would be, 'No.' (Aaron Copland)

A musical education is necessary for musical judgment. What most people enjoy is hardly music; it is, rather, a drowsy reverie relieved by nervous thrills. (George Santayana)

Sheer self-expression requires no artistic form. A lynching party howling round the gallows tree, a woman wringing her hands over a sick child . . . is giving vent to intense feelings; but such scenes are not occasions for music, least of all for composing. Music is not self-expression, but formulation and representation of emotions, moods, mental tensions and resolutions - a 'logical picture' of sentient, responsive life, a source of insight, not a plea for sympathy (Suzanne Langer)

Music, if only listened to, and not scientifically cultivated, gives too much play to the feelings and fancy; the difficulties of the art draw forth the whole energies of the soul. (Jean Paul Richter)

If you're busy analyzing you can't listen. (Duke Ellington)

Improvisation was the blood and bone of jazz, and in the classic, New Orleans jazz it was collective improvisation in which each performer, seemingly going his own melodic way, played in harmony, dissonance, or counterpoint with the improvisations of his colleagues. Quite unlike ragtime, which was written down in many cases by its composers and could be repeated note for note (if not expression for expression) by others, jazz was a performer’s not a composer’s art. (Russell Lynes)

It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. (James Baldwin)

It is from the blues that all that may be called American music derives its most distinctive character. (James Weldon Johnson)

People respond or fail to respond to certain music by virtue not only of what the music is, but of what they are. (Ernest Newman)

The blues are a popular and engaging musical form. Many of us, particularly in Chicago, are well aware of the potent impact this music has on both audience and performer alikeI wish to take us a bit further in to the music, to become familiar with some of the formal properties of the blues, because these formal properties tend to carry meaning. When we know a piece by its formal qualities, we can usually get to follow it somewhat more closely than before, and even compare and contrast how something that happens over here—a chorus, a solo, a line—works against, or supports, or leads into another that happens over there. That is, it all has to do with listening for what the parts of the song are and how the parts relate to each other and to the whole. Iit is not too difficult after listening to a few of the particularly fine blues performances that have been recorded over the years to get a feeling for something deeply interesting that goes on in this music. To me, the blues is all about conversation—it is a kind of conversation, an d it is about conversation, if you follow me.

Later we will look in some more detail at the nature of the call and response in this music. Try to keep in mind throughout this unit that the blues has that essentially communicative nature—every part of a blues, practically, responds to some other part.

In addition to engaging a conversation, the blues takes us on a journey; this is typical for popular songs, and often the journey is acted out in dance. The song grabs our attention and starts telling a story, taking us up and out, into new territory where we may experience new dimensions of time - though if we are dancing we are usually most aware of a steady beat, syncopated for expressive effect.

As we consider form in the blues we may learn to engage a text politically—to think it through, to problematize (oops! Jargon!) issues, questions, concerns it raises, or seems to raise. The blues has a widely felt political message; for many it seems to embody the human spirit in the struggle against social oppression.

In addition to formal and political aspects of a text, we may learn to engage them philosophically. Sometimes our response to a text is another text—this happens frequently in the blues. There is a great deal of competition involved in these sorts of performances, as well as much honorable quotation, all of which makes the blues a large mix of texts that constantly restate and revisit the same sorts of places. When we respond to the blues, then, we are responding to an already fairly dense and often quite sophisticated network of ideas, questions, and problems. These ideas, questions, and problems, however, exist more in the music than in language.

In addition to responding to the formal and philosophical qualities of a text, we respond emotionally. Our emotional response, in general, is larger and more intrusive than the formal or philosophical ways we have of responding to a text. It comes from how much we like it and enjoy the feelings it brings out. These tend to be feelings and such we find in the text itself. Blues voices—vocal and instrumental—are highly individualized and expressive. We get to know these performers as we get to know these songs--or feel we do, at any rate—in particularly important and intimate ways. Blue notes—the flatted third and seventh notes in the scale—are used in the blues as a way of expressing emotions on a falling pitch. In general both vocal and instrumental voices will express a high degree of emotional involvement, which tends to engage listeners.

Blues form is the music from start to finish, or from first to last—from the way the recording begins to how it ends. Form is the shape of the music in time. Essentially, blues songs are sectional; they consist of one blues chorus after another. In a blues chorus you do something for four bars (measures), you do it again for another four—repeating it with variation—and then you do something else, the third group of four bars bringing what you started to a conclusion, sort of, by answering the first part.

The blues chorus (again) is a unique and recognizable musical form which, in vocals, combines three lines of verse (AAB)—usually intensely personal and experiential, with vocals often twisting into moans or howls—with the second line repeating the first and the third line answering the first two. The lines are performed within a 12-bar sequence broken into three units of 4 bars each. The musical phrase in the second four bars (5-8) is a variant of the first; the third line (bars 9-12) contrasts and responds to the musical phrase of the first two lines.

Each blues chorus takes us through one blues progression. A blues progression starts us someplace, establishing that home key for the first four bars. At the second line, at the fifth bar, we move from the I chord (home key or tonic) to the IV (subdominant) chord and stay there for two bars or so, and then return to conclude the second line with two chords on the I chord again. It feels right to return to the home key. The third and final line—which contrasts significantly with the first two—opens at the V chord—the dominant—and gets back to the I chord often by way of the IV chord again. The desire to get back to the home key is felt especially at the dominant key. At the end of the song the third or final line will conclude with two I chords, back home at the tonic. Most choruses, of course, do not end the song but are followed by another chorus, in which case the end of the third line executes what is known as a turnback or a turnaround getting us from the I chord in the middle of the third line through the IV chord at the end of the chorus and back to the I chord, where the next chorus begins. Thus we get from one blues chorus to another.

In this way, we can see how the blues form organizes the music in time. One way to think of a blues as a sequence of choruses, however, is to make the analogy with a skyscraper—a spatial comparison. Each floor of the high rise is a chorus: it has the same overall shape, some of the elements—the elevators and the plumbing, or example—are in the same places on every story - these correspond to the chord changes in the blues progression - but within the essential frame some variation from floor to floor—chorus to chorus—may be arranged internally.

The nature of the blues form has built in powerful devices to sustain a musical conversation between and among voices. This happens at several levels:

  • the level of the line, (call and response between vocal and fill)
  • the blues chorus (the third line responds to and contrasts with the first two),
  • from chorus to chorus (as one chorus takes over from another)
  • over the complete song (choruses change character in a variety of ways).

Each of those voices may have different character and dimension from chorus to chorus; that is, as we learn to listen for voice in the blues we find voices introducing themselves and then, possibly, undergoing some dramatic transformation by the end of the song. In this way we may come to experience the song as a kind of story.

The four bars of each line are generally presented in call and response fashion, often with the vocal in the first two bars and a musical accompaniment response (called a fill) in the next two bars. This means that a call and response device is at work both within each of the three lines in the chorus—the vocal in the first two bars and the fill in the last two--and over the entire chorus—the third line responding to the first two. You can get a good feeling for a song if you see how the various voices get along and interact, what sort of musical conversation they seem to be having; another voice might sustain and reinforce the first one, or contrast with it in some meaningful way.

Most blues, like all conversations, are improvised, meaning that the performance is always more significant than the music itself (this is the reverse of concert music). Improvisation obtains enormous authority when the performer gives significant character to the voice created in music. Blues improvisation often depends for effect on responding effectively and engagingly with other voices as well as to melodic and harmonic material. In blues clubs, of course, the audience joins in the communication.

As we have seen, the blues form is based on a system of communicating elements—the line and the fill, the first and the second lines, the first two lines and the third line. Each of these pairs sets up a kind of call and response. In addition to these formal elements of communication, other elements of a blues song communicate—the voice, tone color, rhythm, syncopation and such. These elements communicate both with the audience and with the other elements of the song.

In any listening guide to the blues, then, first thing we would learn to listen for—before blue notes or the blues form—would be the voices. Blues songs tend to emphasize both the physicality and the individuality of voice, creating voices from the various instruments—vocal, musical, percussive, including hands and feet—and how those voices are created. In particular, we listen for tone color—the particular sound of a voice or instrument—which in a blues can create both feeling and character in every instrument. We also learn to listen for how particular voices interact with other voices in the call-and-response pattern.

Some of the elements of this conversation are associated with rhythm—the arrangement of beats in a counted on/off pattern. There are likely to be two or even more rhythms beating out at once, in percussive, harmonic, and melodic ways. These polyrhythms and cross-rhythms can make the music exciting, interesting, and also - as we might expect - somewhat complicated. They tend to be irregular, setting the rhythm of the groundbeat in opposition to the rhythm of the melody, often making for an intense musical experience. Syncopation of the rhythm means that we feel the beats come just a little off where we expect them to be. Syncopation is essential to much American popular music and jazz.

Furthermore, and significantly, a blues song interacts with other blues songs, and with something like the entire—virtual—glossary of blues phrases, lyrics, and licks that exists “out there” in the land of both recorded music and the music that continues to get played every night all around the world. This is what accounts for the frequent commonplaces in the blues, such as “I woke up this morning,” or “pack my bags and go.”