Another solution to last week’s half-step modulation question, courtesy Bobbie Gentry: just do it more than once, so they know you mean business.
I heard that Bill Orcutt plays a guitar with four strings. “Makes sense,” I thought. But I practically spit out my coffee when he said the two he removed were the A and the D. How simply awful. If it were me, it could only have been the B and the high E. Premise, personality, principle.
Lately when I play Beethoven’s music the word that comes to mind is “schematic.” It’s like in all these early works he was drawing up a pile of careful plans, only to occasionally rip them up and improvise on the construction site. A piece like his first piano sonata, op. 2 no. 1, is fascinating to me. It’s like a beautiful house with no one living in it. By the second sonata he’s picked out the furniture, and is feeling at home enough during the Scherzo, which is in A Major, to go ahead and modulate to G# Minor for a while. By the third sonata the force of his imagination has clearly arrived.
This music makes its premises plain, and any tomfoolery is always within the lines. It is easier to understand these premises now, having studied Haydn and Mozart more closely. The premises are many: things like Sonata form, Alberti bass, harmonic relationship, thematic and cadential syntax. The music introduces itself, gives its name, announces its clans. It has a certain accent we might recognize. By opus 90 or so, the premises widen, and the tomfoolery becomes something more like introspective lightning storms or prayer. But the premises are still important to the exploration, like maps and roads and train lines to journeys, and I think for any music, no matter how original, the premises have to lie along some axis that is shared with other music.
When I was in my late twenties, I told a friend in his mid-thirties that I had a busy autumn of wedding attendance ahead of me. He quipped that he’d passed through the time in his life when he was attending his friends’ weddings, and had begun to attend their divorces.
I recalled this story a month or two ago, after two music-professor friends, who had both recently hosted me for concerts at their universities, quit their jobs.
Given how much information is shoveled at us these days, it’s really something that three years on I still think about this story from This American Life every couple of weeks. It just comes back to me, sipping afternoon coffee, or out on a run. There are really big questions in this story, just beneath the surface. What is honor? Is that real? Is this thing worth risking your life for? If not, what is? Since risk is just mathematics, don’t we risk our lives every time we get out of bed? In that case, doesn’t the question apply to everything we ever do? In that case, how do we choose?
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues