When we talk about the features of a particular genre of pop music, the first aspect people tend to focus on is the sound – like the heavily distorted, scooped-mid guitars of metal, or the 808 kicks in hip-hop. They might then turn to groove, or the melodic hooks of notable songs, and then move on to visual aspects of the genre. But I think that this misses a trick – the emotional heft and over-all feel of almost all music is defined by the harmonic progressions it uses, and the tension and relationships they establish between themselves. To quote Frank Zappa: “One of the most exciting things that ever happened in the world of ‘white-person music’ was when the Beach Boys used the progression V-ii on “Little Deuce Coupe.”

In this post, I want to put forward a theory I’ve been mulling – what makes Grunge fundamentally different from most other rock music is its ambivalent attitude to tonality – that is, the establishment of a home chord, and the structuring of a song around departures and returns to this chord. Admittedly, you also find this lack of rootedness in extreme metal – but the effect there is one of deliberate disorientation in the name of heaviness, rather than ambivalence (that’s another blog post…).

Now, you might answer that any cerebral analysis of Grunge is pointless – the musicians involved weren’t noted for their counterpoint, and what we hear is the result of untutored plunking around. To that I say this: that plunking around, like the Beatles, produced some great songs, and I hope to show that there is some unity that defies pure chance.

Note – the note and chord names I give assume standard or drop-d turning – many Grunge bands tuned down between one and three semitones.

Foundations of Rock

So, why is this tonal ambivalence so important? Simply, because in conventional rock music, it’s all about the tonic, the home chord (hereafter I) – hammering it home, leaving it for a bit to build some tension, and then crashing back to it just in time for the lead singer to rock you/his baby/the world. Like the blues it grew out of, the first step away from the tonic is usually the fourth degree of the scale, the sub-dominant (IV). Some songs, like Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, never get further than that – which rather strikes me as the musical equivalent of leaving home, and then getting scared at the post-box at the end of your road and turning back, but hey – irony.

To go further, rock music uses this I-IV relationship to create a circle of fourths – as opposed to the circle of fifths that dominates Tin Pan Alley and pop songs. So, continuing on, we get I-IV-♭VII-♭III-♭VI – or, in the key of E (what else…), E-A-D-G-C. These chords by themselves will get you through a lot of songs – “Hey Joe” is simply a descending circle of fourths, “Communication Breakdown” is I-IV-♭VII-IV with a bluesy IV-V at the end of the chorus. Leaving out a few chords gives us the ♭VI-♭VII-I beloved of cheesy rock build-ups the world over – see The Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane”, which takes this one trick plus possibly the goofiest riff ever written a turns it in to entire song.

Simplifying ever further, we end up with the ♭VII-I movement, which is one of the strongest indications of tonality in rock; see The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”.

Even when these building blocks are handled with more dexterity, such as in the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR”, the result is the same – it’s all about having a solid tonic to jump off and crash back in to.

Eight Thousand Miles from Home

Turning now to Grunge, Exhibit A is “Rooster” by Alice in Chains. The verse is built around the alternating chords of F♯7add11 and A9 which is (as you might expect from my first example…) a textbook case of tonal ambiguity. The chords have no real hierarchy – they don’t share a scale that could define their relationship, and the alternation defeats and sense of antecedent and precedent or tension and release. Most interestingly, the drone notes that they share on the open top strings of the guitar, E and B, hint at a home key (E) that only ever features in passing – which is fitting, given that the song concerns a marine’s experience away from home in Vietnam. The melody line, admittedly, favours an F♯ tonality, often landing on that note at the end of a phrase over the A chord – but it’s far from emphatic, meandering over multiple suspensions (often using both A♯ and A♮ in close conjunction).

When we get to the chorus (“Here they come to snuff the rooster…”), two new chords are introduced, B5 and D5, and we finally get the sense that we’re heading somewhere, and the F♯5 takes on the feeling of a pedal that’s about to be part of the modulation as well. However, after all this building, we crash back to the ambiguity of the verse. And at the end of the song, the melody and harmony land on a consonant A – but we know this isn’t home.

Lost in Space

Soundgardens’s “Black Hole Sun” play’s a similar game; apart from a very brief ♭VII-I that comes out of nowhere at the end of the guitar solo and the outro, we never quite know where we are. Rather than complete ambivalence, we’re given perpetually moving goalposts (with an extended chord sequence that defeats our expectation of a 4-bar repeating sequence) – the play of the melody against the chords gives plenty of inertia, but every time we turn a corner, perspective shifts and we find ourselves no closer to home.

We could admit that the home key is G – this gives us the ♭VII-I previously mentioned, and the resonant E♭sus4-D7(no 3rd) that opens the chorus feels like that’s where it’ll propel us – but then we only have a G as a passing chord on our way to B♭ – more twists and turns!

What both this and “Rooster” have in common is that, in terms of arrangement and dynamics, they use fairly standard rock tension-and-release mechanisms – but these mechanisms are used to take us, tonally, anywhere but where we expect to go.

Smells Like Ambivalence

Conversely, there are plenty of Grunge songs with a strong sense of a home key – but the contrast with traditional rock here is how the song treats this home. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, almost genre-defining on its own, is a case in point – the I-V drone over the verse leaves us in no doubt that we’re in F. Furthermore, vast majority of the song repeats the sequence F5-B♭5-A♭5-D♭5 – wholly conventional circle-of-fourths territory.

But what’s critical is the sense of ambivalence – there’s no tension and release, except in the dynamics between verse and chorus. We do get something a bit more pungent – the F5-G♭5 after the chorus. This suggests some movement – maybe a ♭VI-♭VII-I movement up to a new tonic B♭ – but what we get is a mocking “Yay” from Kurt, and a fall back to the well-established four chord sequence.

We’re not going out to rock the world – we’re stuck in crappy small town we grew up in and nothing feels like home any more.

Faking It

In the wake of the Seattle grunge boom, record company rosters sank low in the water with a deluge of grunge-ish bands. Whilst this provided an opening for many entirely decent guitar bands, many of the most highly-promoted offerings where rightly criticised as bandwagon-jumping sound-alikes. Heck, even Metallica cut their hair and produced “Load”, which had more than a whiff of lumberjack shirt about it! But how do you spot a phony? These pretenders looked and sounded like the real thing.

Here, I think, is the counter-example that quite neatly demonstrates harmonic ambivalence’s importance to grunge: Sponge were amongst the most visible of the bands subjected to this backlash, and their radio-friendly “Plowed” is Exhibit Z.

The charge sheet is a long one – the verse chords are a circle-of-fourths in E, but the song’s really in G major, so we read them as a circle-of-fifths, with only the added C9 (IV9) providing the faintest whiff of rock-ness. And much of the song’s inertia just end up deflated by the C9-G relaxation at the end of each verse phrase. The D-C movement in the pre-chorus might provide a bit of rock energy, but again we already know we’re in G, so we read it as a V-IV – pure pop!

To give the lads some credit, in the chorus we do then take a detour through E and C before returning to G, and then pass through it to give our much-beloved C9 (the raisins in the blandest curry ever) the status of the “end of chorus home”. However, one small shift in tonality does not a summer make – it does provide interest, and the chorus’ hammering it home is consonant with the non-specific ennui of the lyrics, but it’s not enough. We already know we’re in a standard tension-and-release pop song.

Now, I rather like “Rotting Piñata” (the album from which the song is taken), and many of the other songs on the album are rather less white-bread. But I think everyone who heard “Plowed” knew they weren’t getting the real thing – and that wasn’t down to production, instrumentation, lyrics, or the band’s haircuts – it was the harmonic structure. All of the right chords, not necessarily in the right order.

ss_bump

I’ve been fiddling with something I’m calling “Bump” for some time now, and I thought it was time to share it with a limited portion of the world for comment.

So, what is it? Well, it’s theatrical sound playback software, but it’s quite limited (8 players, 4 outputs), as it’s designed as a proof-of-concept, rather than a fully featured system. It has, however, given me the opportunity to implement certain things that I’ve really wanted in the past:

  • RAM-buffered ASIO playback; very, very responsive and sample accurate
  • 32-bit mix engine with per-sample volume interpolation – fades as smooth as a fader
  • DAW-like cue layout, with drag-and-drop and multi-stage envelopes
  • Variable HPF/LPF for each sound file – get those effects to sit right!
  • MIDI or audio events can be BPM locked within a cue, and “Go”s can be delayed to the next beat/bar

So, it’s not quite ready for alpha release (not MIDI or looping at the mo, and crashes it bit!), but I’ll be looking for testers soon (and a manual writer. please.) to break it in new and interesting ways…

Since the announcement of the elimination of both Sound Design Tonys broke, many eloquent voices have put forward the (pretty bomb-proof, IMHO) case for their re-instatement. I’m not going to try and re-make those arguments, but there’s one facet of the whole affair that no-one’s touched on yet – hence this blog post. Let’s look at the reasons two anonymous Tony wonks gave for the change, quoted in the NYT:

Many Tony voters do not know what sound design is or how to assess it; a large number of Tony voters choose not to cast ballots in sound design categories because of this lack of expertise; and some administration committee members believe that sound design is more of a technical craft, rather than a theatrical art form that the Tonys are intended to honor.

Now, the first two reasons (and the wilful disinterest they imply) have been covered and rebutted well, but on the third point, the response has been more defensive. And, fatally, the responses have often implicitly accepted the premise of the statement: that the technical and the creative are opposing principles. Well, to that I say balls. And I think that in pushing for an open, egalitarian, and above all honest theatre, we should all say balls. Let me tell you for why…

Working in and around theatre, I often feel a tension between two opposing visions and sets of assumptions about what our work actually is. The first, let’s call it “The X Factor Model”, sees creatives and actors as innately gifted beings, reaching down to touch the lives of the mortals in the audience. It is consonant with this view that there should be an above stairs/below stairs division between the creative people, and the black t-shirts who scurry about realizing their vision. Now, I’m aware that a certain amount of what Roland Barthes calls “the mystification which transforms petit bourgeois culture into a universal nature” is required to sell tickets, but those of us working in theatre (including the Tony committee) should beware of internalizing this claptrap.

In contrast, what I believe that we should aspire to as theatre-makers is to share our craft with each other, and with the audience, as equals. And I don’t think this idealistic – in my experience it represents the reality of good theatre-making. In this context, I think asking if Sound Design is technical is meaningless – it involves technique, but then so does everything else in making a show. The fact that it often involves black boxes with knobs and dials is massively irrelevant – we’re there for what we can give to the show.

Seen like this, the decision of the Tony committee looks like an attempt to preserve an illusory status quo, damaging the status of Sound Design in the process. We won’t win the argument by saying “we’re creative really – please let us in to the club!” – we need to reject the creative/technical dichotomy. We should trust our craft to make the technical aspects of our work irrelevant – if we accept the dichotomy and seek to hide anything “technical”, we’ve already accepted second-class status. We’ve already accepted that people have a right to look down on part of what we do. And, I would argue, we’ve accepted an elitist, disingenuous view of what theatre is.

One final thought – I don’t think that there’s such a thing as a “creative person” either – it’s as divisive and unhelpful as labelling someone “technical”. When you see someone being creative, you know two things about them – first, that they’ve put in the hours to develop their craft to the point that it’s almost invisible, and secondly, that they’ve overcome the self-censorship that we seem to beat in to kids to the point that they can be generous and open with their work. This should be celebrated in every single person that works in theatre.

Having uploaded them to Bandcamp, I’m just reviewing the tracks from “We Were There”, and getting ready to write blurbs for various things. At the same time, I’m just ripping the last few CDs from my collection, and packing them into cardboard boxes to make space in the nursery.

The two activities seem pleasantly assonant. Going over memorabilia, and packing it away ready for the next bit of your life – that’s what albums are for, I think. Well, this one is, anyway…

FWIW, I think I’ll end up with about 1350 albums/13000 songs. Can any of our readers beat that?

So, what can I say about it? When it’s done, which should be in the next week, it’ll be 12 tracks long, and is going to come in at just over 40 minutes. Musically, it’s a mix… of everything I felt like plagarising: Ambient, Glitch, Dub Techno, Dubstep, Hauntology. It’s a chin-stroking rather than rug-cutting album, but you might not your head occasionally

Cover art seems to be necessary, so I dun this:

wwt3

…which also will give you an idea of the title – what could it mean?! Well… stuff, mostly. It’s a collection of stuff from this part of my life, which I wanted to get done before I move on to the next part of my life – the fast approaching one with babies in it. Innit? The tracklist looks a bit like:

  1. Filament
  2. Zombi
  3. No Sleep ‘Til Godalming
  4. You Will Always Be
  5. Ultrawhite
  6. Drone (Elektra)
  7. Arcaibh 1
  8. Arcaibh 2
  9. Daughter of the Sabbath
  10. Lakehouse
  11. m.b.
  12. Drone (Psalm)

It’ll be available on 3/3/12 to stream from Soundcloud, and for free download from Bandcamp.

So, I’m in the process of getting some tracks together for something that might be a bit like an album. A bit like an album, except I don’t expect many people to hear it, and I don’t really expect anyone to pay for it.

Anyhoo… the fact is, everything I’ve do so far has come out EP-sized. That’s my attention span, it seems!

So, the idea this time is to try and break through that barrier – hence, heading for the album format. It’s been illuminating – I think that, unless you’re some sort of genius, you can’t “write an album” – an album is, as it’s name suggests, a collection of work over a period of time. Try and poot it out all at once and you’ll end up with filler for days (The Difficult Second Album, anyone?).

And speaking of filler, that leads me on to the challenge of structuring electronic/noise music – and why it tends to come out as sub-minimalist pap.

Now, first of all there’s obviously the studio process – layering and layering, copy and paste, 8 bar segments… but I do think there’s a second factor – I think you can challenge people timbrally, or structurally/harmonically – do both, and you risk producing something totally opaque.

Or maybe I am (as S suggests), just obsessed with putting in wrong notes in order to look clever…