Lines Intertwining….

(spoken in your best movie trailer voice:) In a world….full of hackneyed cultural references and tunes in D minor…, a composer seeks to break free. Free from the confines of the oppressive overlord…tonality…reality…How does a sailor lost at the sea find his way back? How can a lone composer write without utilizing chords? This film asks the question: “why and how…harmony…melody…how can I find my way home?” Follow Nigel as his lines intertwine in a linear fashion…straight and line-like…like lines intertwining…and not just in the saddest of all keys, but in any key…and in no key.

I have mixed thoughts about using my own music to illustrate my ideas, but since I have the scores, and since there are no copyright issues I’m going to give it a go.

Ornette freed us from chords with “harmalodics,” which I notice someone on Wikipedia calls “avant garde.” Listen to “Something Else” and tell me that’s avant garde, c’mon. The roots are straight-up bebop, and pretty tame compared the real “out” guys, especially in the classical world. But it’s awesome.

Other composers, like Gil Evans and Sun Ra used linear writing to extend traditional harmony, usually upwards, using what some call strata writing, where independent layers are related to chords but are also free and full of identity and purpose. In “modern” concert music (ie 90+years) ago composers such as Schoenberg and Hindemith fully freed us from chords, following in the footsteps of Ravel, Debussy, Mahler and Brahms.  Have you listened to “Verklärte Nacht” recently? This is nothing new.

This evolving freedom some call “linear” composition.  It’s not a regimen like traditional harmony, it’s a concept and a tool. It’s a way of working from the top down, but also a way of freeing up your ideas to do things that you can’t explain with chord symbols. It sounds really cool too.

Linear writing (and improvising for that matter) works great in jazz, because our ears are really used to hearing dissonant tones moving, used to hearing implied harmony. When we listen we naturally compare a melody to what’s below it, and we judge and experience consonance, dissonance,  tension and resolution.

In the linear world, even without the chord progression we’re used to, we can still hear momentary tonality, draw parallels, and our listening is suddenly freer. Somehow, without a chord progression we don’t have our usual expectation for where any note is going to go. Our ears can now accept dissonance when it makes sense, even when it doesn’t “resolve” Strong linear motion and counterpoint can drive notes on a collision course and it’s not a problem. Thus, is would seem that the only rule to linear writing is like Duke says: “if it sounds good, then it is good.”

After that big introduction and buildup I’m noticing that my tune has a ton of D minor, the saddest of all keys, or maybe just lots of Dmi chord symbols (if you haven’t picked up on the Spinal Tap reference yet I feel for you.) “Take it Inside” doesn’t sound like D minor though. It starts with a simple white note melody which has some shape and movement, played over a descending bass line. Everything that follows relates back to the original melody, even as the musical gestures become more complicated and the form becomes obscured. The three soloists work as a team, the rest of the ensemble answers them and moves them along, ideas are bounced back and forth. The piece moves into some traditionally tonal areas, but look at the piano chord in m.1: Dmi/C is not really a chord, and it’s hardly a tonal “center,” really just an indication of a sound, an idea, a point of departure and the beginning of movement down in the bass.

Letter C on page 6, about 1:46 is where the counterpoint starts to take off. Without chordal accompaniment the texture is suddenly cool and open. You have heard the pickup and the descending bass line a few times, so anything happening above it seems more acceptable. After the first 8 bar trumpet solo the next ensemble entrance is more chromatic, that’s m. 96. I put the descending bass idea in the bari and the 2nd bone in unison, but up a 4th–what do you hear, F major? C major? I don’t hear anything but the melody and the movement. That’s the idea.

Measure 96–The counterpoint becomes more involved.

The next ensemble entrance at m. 106 is suddenly even more “dissonant.” I like the way this little phrase completes the idea of the one that goes before it, and notice the lower part in the bari and trombone are moving up instead of down. The contrary motion against the bass line provides tension, and makes the vibe suddenly richer. If you try to analyze a bar with chords, say measure 109, you’d find the 9th of the Dmi chord “resolving” down to an Eb, which grinds against the D bass, and then the G/Eb in the piano. In jazz harmony 9ths resolve chromatically all the time, but not when the chord is moving down the white notes. Traditional resolutions happen with root motion in 5ths and the contrary movement of the 7th going down and the leading tone going up. Tension becomes a sound and a musical idea just like any other; resolution is not required.

Letter E, Measure 106–more active lines and motion

Check out letter I on page 11, about 4:30. It’s getting “out there,” but still melodic. In m. 152 the time starts to stretch a little. I’ve already been writing phrase lengths that don’t line up with the bass line at all, and now even the quarter note pulse is being challenged a bit. It’s up to the rhythm section to hold it together, or maybe react to the lines and float for a minute.

Letter I–more dissonance, the time starts to stretch, the phrases become uneven.

The only rule is there are no rules. Writing linear, horizontal music frees you up to develop melodic ideas without regard to the harmony they imply. Any counterpoint is justified on its own merits, just use your inner ear and your sense of phrases and pacing to make it happen.

The score (which is transposed) is attached, as well as a live performance. Copyright 2010, all rights reserved.

click here for the score:
Take It Inside

About Scott Healy

LA composer and performer.
This entry was posted in Gil Evans, Harmony, Jazz Arranging, Jazz Composition and Analysis, Jazz piano, Linear Harmony, Theory and Harmony, Top--Down Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Lines Intertwining….

  1. heylomusic says:

    Hi Scott,

    Great article!


  2. Jake Beamish says:

    stumbled across this two years two late, it looks. Anyway, I’d like to say what an interesting article, and what a beautiful tune!

    • Scott Healy says:

      Thanks Jake, and it’s never too late! More articles on the way….

    • Scott Healy says:

      And BTW @Jake, I’m going to get back into this tune, but I don’t have a great recording of it, so it’s frustrating not being able to hear all the voices clearly. It has been two years, and I meant to follow up cause this is a good example of writing totally without chords–not the easiest thing to listen to perhaps, but worth the extra work as a writer and a listener.

  3. Jake Beamish says:

    well, I think the ambiguity really makes the piece quite interesting – it sounds very different listening to it now, after work, to when I first listened to it yesterday. I’ve followed your blog and will keep an eye on your posts – I really like your style of analysis.

    • Scott Healy says:

      Thanks, listening from the top down for me is the key, and I hear things differently too. This kind of linear counterpoint/harmony is very subjective, and since there are no “wrong” notes one can get lost or overwhelmed. Keep reading!

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