And now we continue with our Composition Vivisection of "Zeno," from Infernal Machines.
You should probably start with Part 1 if you haven't already read it.
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NERD ALERT -- you have been warned. Click below to continue.
Okay, last time we talked about the 10-bar intro, where each rhythm section instrument introduces a different (implied) time signature, all superimposed against the "big 3" -- the 3/2 gird that governs the notation, conducting pattern, and rate of harmonic change.
This time, we will talk about the main melody (or "theme," whatever) of "Zeno." It's played by three instruments: alto flute, bass clarinet, and trumpet (in cup mute), all in dead unison I liked the combination of Erica's vonKleist's low alto flute sound and Josh Sinton's high-register bass clarinet sound. Ingrid Jensen's cup-muted trumpet is the emulsifying agent here.
Here's the melody:
As you can see, it's 20 measures long (not including the half-measure pickup). Well, okay, it's really more like 16 measures of actual melody (four 4-bar phrases), with the final note stretched out a bit longer and a couple of measures of rest before the next section begins. Conveniently, though, those 20 bars add up to two complete cycles of the 10-bar guitar pattern we talked about in Part 1, which continues underneath the melody. (Or rather, it would have made for two complete cycles of the guitar pattern if I hadn't changed it up in the last five measures of [A] -- but we'll deal with that a bit later.)
Rhythmically, this is one of these melodies that sounds easy but is actually murder to play. This "harder than it sounds" quality happens a lot in my music, but I think it comes out most in my melodic writing. Most likely this is a product of my obsessive listening to Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra -- phrases that sound like they fall on the beat are actually anticipated or delayed, rhythms that might give the impression of free-floating rubato turn out to be in strict tempo, only displaced all over the map, etc. I try to inject some of that vocal approach to phrasing into my notated music -- examples would include the delayed B in measure 15, or the rhythmic variation in measure 18. Of course, it is one thing for Billie or Frank to take liberties with the phrasing when they are singing, and it is quite another to get several instrumentalists to play those kinds of displacements accurately and in unison -- especially when what's needed is a relaxed, flowing feeling. Too often these kinds of rhythms end up sounding like hard work, which kills the effect.
The notes of the melody are mostly drawn from the B aeolian mode, which works over both of the chords in our progression: alternating bars of B-7(b6) and C#5(add #11). [Technically, C# phrygian might be a slightly "better" fit for the second chord but that's not what I was hearing.] In measures 21 and 22, the melody strays outside the aeolian mode, landing on the b9 (C nat.), then the #11 (F nat.). Again, my hope is that these notes just sort of slip under everyone's radar -- a bit of sidestepping that does not draw too much attention to itself. The fourth melodic phrase (beginning with the pickup to measure 23) is a diatonic transposition of the first phrase, beginning on the the third note of the mode instead of the fifth. But then the last note of the melody goes to Eb instead of D -- that's an (enharmonic) major third against a prevailing B minor sonority.
That melodic Eb triggers the piano and guitar to break away from the their initially established patterns for the first time -- they imply C#9(#11) in measure 26, a "jazzier" variation on the expected C#5(#11). (Their rhythms, however, stay the same -- only the pitches change.) After that, the bass breaks away, going down to C (instead of B) in the pickup to m.27, with the piano and guitar implying alternating C-7(b6) and C-13 chords above.
The melody is supported by short punches in the top three (bucket-muted) trombones. It was a challenge to figure out where to place these punches, given the prevailing rhythmic complexity. Remember, we already have each rhythm section instrument implying a different time signature, plus a rhythmically elusive melody. Having the trombones double the guitar felt too busy/thick, and having them introduce a completely different rhythmic element felt too dense/distracting. What ended up working was having the trombones punch only the short notes -- i.e., every other note -- of the guitar's 5/4 figure. (This made for a kind of pseudo-Red Garland effect.)
I also inverted many of the trombone voicings, to create a down-up motion that's not present in the guitar:
In the pickup to measure 27 (at the same time as the bass hits that C natural), I bring in the three clarinets (Winds 2, 3, 4). At first they double the trombones, which helps mask their entrance. Then, in measures 29 and 30, they start to alternate with the trombones. What's happening here is that the guitar figure is being handed off to clarinets + trombones, giving the guitar player (Sebastian Noelle) a brief respite before the next section hits. This also keeps the rhythmic momentum going as Jon Wikan switches from pandeiro to drum set -- studio magic makes this sound seamless on the record, but live Jon needs to stop playing, put down the pandeiro, then pick up a pair of drum sticks.
Next time... counterpoint! (Sort of.)