Seems like I’ve been in rehearsal, for one thing or another, for roughly four months now. (This busy period will end with three free performances, June 5 & 6). At times, one’s mind wanders, particularly during the countless reiterations that are part of practicing choreography. So, what am I thinking about?
This will sound self-congratulatory, but when I played my song Breaking the Rules, I often thought about how well I weirded up the harmonies. You may ask: “Weirding up? What’s that?” I’ll try to put this in terms that everybody (not just musicians) can understand. Just as there are clichés in prose, there are clichés in composition. Among these are a set of chords so common one could play them over and over as accompaniment and sing songs as disparate as Heart and Soul, At Last, Perfidia and Try To Remember without sounding wrong.
Everybody familiar with the most performed American musical, Grease, knows the secret: Early in the show, it’s explicitly stated that just about all 1950’s rock boils down to four chords: C, A-minor, F, G7. When I’m playing for first-time vocal improvisers, I’ll often choose this set of chords because it throws them no curves. They’re what one naturally expects to hear, for the simple reason that we’ve all already heard a zillion songs that use this template.
Some years ago, I got a call from a clarinetist, someone I’ve known all my life. In fact, my earliest memory of live instrumental music was when he’d come over and play classical duets with my father on piano. Now he wanted us to play popular music: old standards. For the enjoyment (or maybe there was a gig, I don’t remember), we put together a trio with an upright bassist who was far more experienced at this sort of thing than either of us. We distributed piles of sheet music but, to my surprise, the bassist said he didn’t need any. He told me that the bass part of old standards was so predictable to him, he could play the most obvious notes and always be right.
That off-hand statement had quite an influence on my composition. From that day forward I didn’t want to write anything so obvious, a bass player wouldn’t need to read it. But, just as Sondheim can’t imagine a dance to a constantly surprising refrain, those ever-unpredictable bass-lines can go too far, can be too challenging to the ear. In writing a musical, creating the harmonic sequence no one’s ever heard before is going to be the least important of goals. There’s too much else a song should be doing.
In a way, my goal of avoiding cliché is at war with my desire for tunes to seem natural coming out of the mouths of characters, or to color, dramatically, the emotions being expressed, or to be embraced by a delighted audience on first hearing, or…(the list goes on and on). So, here’s something I do: When I recognize that I’ve written a commonly overused sequence of chords, I look for ways of making the music a bit stranger. I might use alternative chords, or unusual chord voicings, or an unexpected rhythm. This is what I mean by weirding up my music.
Breaking the Rules is a quodlibet in which a bi-curious woman tries to seduce a lesbian friend who has a rule about sleeping with bi-curious women or friends. In a quodlibet, you hear one tune, followed by another that seems to be completely different, and then the two tunes are repeated simultaneously. That last bit, the counterpoint, is going to sound very complicated, so I found it desirable to start composing with those ever-popular changes. As we rehearsed the song in April, I often noticed the various ways I’d weirded it up. The first chord (in C) isn’t just a C, it’s a C with an added major seventh and ninth; next comes that A-minor but it also has a ninth and, eventually, a seventh. The D from the first chord reappears in the second one. The third chord isn’t an F but a D-minor (which has a lot in common) but with a ninth added, and eventually a sixth. The fourth chord has that G that bassist would have expected, but on top is an F Major Seventh; on the last beat of its measure, the third and the seventh get flatted.
I’m sorry if that last paragraph put you to sleep, but at least it included “to seduce a lesbian.” What I’m saying is, the harmonies ended up rather unusual once my weirding up process was through. By the sixth and seventh measures, I went to places the bassist wouldn’t have predicted. Have a listen to the song and tell me if A) the tune kept going to predictable places, or B) the places it went to were so outré, you couldn’t wrap your ears about it. Seems to me I may have found a happy medium.