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A comparison of Impressionist piano music and modal jazz. This MLI scored 18/20. Good level of original analysis and very clearly laid out.
Musical Links Investigation
The cultures I will be comparing are Impressionism and Modal Jazz. They are prominent musical cultures originating in France and the United States of America respectively. The two most prominent links I found between the two are modality and texture.
What is Modality?
Modality refers to the use of modes. The word ‘mode’ originates from the Latin, modus, meaning ‘interval’. A mode is an arrangement of tones and semitones, splitting up the octave in a way that is different to major and minor scales. The intervals are often arranged with a definite fundamental pitch and other notes in a hierarchy of importance.1
What is Texture?
Texture is a term that refers to ‘the sound aspects of a musical structure’.2 Examples of different types of texture include homophony, polyphony, and heterophony. An analysis of texture is used to describe how individual parts are used or combined.
Culture 1: Impressionism
Impressionism was an art movement in the late 19th to early 20th century named after Monet’s painting Impression: Lever du soleil, which began with a group of young artists attempting to abandon the idea of realism. The culture includes music, literature and visual art, focusing on the representation of a landscape or natural phenomena3 in an attempt to portray a vivid atmosphere and evoke subtle emotions.
Illustration 1: Impression: Lever du soleil Monet
Impressionist music is a part of western classical music, of which some of its most influential composers include Debussy and Ravel. Their impressionist work was written as a reaction to the romantic era, with a departure from traditional harmonies, leading towards the more frequent use of chromaticism, dissonance and modes. As this style of music was composed often with an image, emotion, event or location in mind, there is also a more free sense of structure, rhythm and meter. Many impressionist pieces have been written for the piano, although there are also pieces composed for larger ensembles such as string quartets or orchestras such as Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major or Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.
Le vent dans la plaine, Préludes – Book 1: III, by Debussy is a solo piano piece from the first book of 12 preludes that was written between December 1909 and February 1910. These preludes are typically impressionist as each prelude is based on an image or quotation; Debussy uses each prelude to create an atmosphere representative of his titles, which, unconventionally, are found at the end of each piece to enable the performer to create an individual sound before being influenced by Debussy’s ideas.
This particular prelude is a good example of Debussy’s impressionist piano writing through his use of a layered texture, involving an accompaniment, melody and bass part, occasionally intertwining with each other. The piece is based on the use of interesting scalic and harmonic ideas, outside of the standard major and minor tonality. He effectively uses chromaticism, hexatonic and pentatonic subsets of keys, as well as exploring whole-tone scales. His clever use of pitch, rhythm and phrase shaping all contribute to the vivid depiction of the image – Le vent dans la plaine [the wind in the plain].
Culture 2: Modal Jazz
Modal jazz was a style of jazz that was popular during the 1950s and ‘60s. It uses modes as the basis for the harmonic and melodic ideas. Some of the characteristics of this style include a slow moving harmonic rhythm, the frequent use of pedal point ideas, the absence of standard chord progressions, polytonality and improvisation.
Furthermore, quartal harmony is often used in modal jazz – a type of harmony based on chords built up of intervals of a 4th. Quartal harmony originates from two-part organum, a style of music that originated in the Middle Ages, and is also frequently used in early 20th century works by composers such as Schoenberg, Bartók and Hindemith. The main reason for the use of quartal harmony is ‘to expand the traditional harmonic vocabulary and to enrich tonality itself.’4 Some of the key musicians of the modal jazz culture include John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Bill Evans.
Illustration 2: Organum in Fourths
So What is a piece of modal jazz by Miles Davis, from the 1959 album, Kind of Blue. It is based on the D Dorian and Eb Dorian modes. It follows a simple 32 bar structure, split into four 8 bar sub-sections using the chord progressions Dm7, Dm7, Ebm7, Dm7. This is evidence for an unconventional chord progression and a slow harmonic rhythm. There is also much use of improvisation and quartal harmony (present most famously in the “So What chord”) Furthermore, the instrumentation is particularly suited to modal jazz, as Davis writes for a sextet, with Drums, Bass and Piano making up the rhythm section and the Trumpet, Alto Saxophone and Tenor Saxophone as melodic instruments.
Illustration 3: So What Chord
The Debussy prelude utilizes modes throughout, exploring many different types of scale, found in much impressionist music. At the beginning of the piece, Debussy explores a hexatonic subset of Eb minor, shown in figure 1 below. He uses the notes Eb, F, Gb, Bb, Cb and Db to form both the melodic line and accompaniment.
At bar 9-12, as illustrated in Figure 2, Debussy shifts his use modality, now using what appears to be a pentatonic idea, shown in the left hand – using Eb as the fundamental pitch. We see an additional C natural appearing in the right hand chords. However, 6 different notes are still being used, highlighting the complex way in which Debussy deals with modality, by using different notes of the new cleverly chosen hexatonic subset (Eb, Gb, Ab, Bb, C, Db) which can be used as a standard pentatonic scale if the C was removed (as it is in the left hand part).
At bar 22-24, shown in figure 3, Debussy begins a completely new modal exploration in this atonal section, signified by the lack of key signature. A whole tone scale is used here – using the notes F, G, A, B, Db, Eb – which appear to be completely unrelated to the previous section, only hinted at by the use of altered and extended chords in the preceding bars.
Figure 4, bar 25-26 of the piece, is the final point in the prelude before Debussy returns to modes used in the opening sections. The bars shown above come immediately after figure 3, portraying the sudden change of exploring the first whole tone scale, to now exploring the second (of two) whole tone scales.
Below (see figure 5) is a transcription of Miles Davis’ trumpet solo from So What. Similarly to the Debussy, the piece is harmonically and melodically based upon modes. The brackets below are used to clearly present the chord progression –corresponding to each of the 8 bar sections mentioned above in the introduction to the piece; the blue brackets represent Dm7, and the red brackets represent Ebm7.
The solo written out below shows the use of modes, as in the blue sections, the D Dorian mode (D, E, F, G, A, B, C) is used, and in the red sections, the Eb Dorian mode (Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C, Db) is used. Davis rarely moves away from these notes. In the Debussy, we also see that most of the notes used can be found within the modes explored. The Debussy is different, however, in the respect that it explores many different modes, whereas So What uses a minimal number of modes repeated throughout. Davis only uses notes foreign to the D and Eb Dorian modes on 3 occasions: the C# in bar 14, the Ab in bar 42 and the G# in bar 65. These notes are not used in a manner to significantly migrate from the basic modes, they are either used as passing notes or ghost notes to add interesting effects to make the solo more elaborate.
The second link between Impressionism and Modal Jazz is the use of texture. Texture is an important musical element used in both cultures as a way of varying the music to make it more interesting for the listener, and to some extent also for the players.
In Le Vent Dans La Plaine, Debussy often uses a layered texture, such as in bar 15-16, as displayed by figure 6. The accompaniment is found in the lower line (articulated pedal point), as well as the ostinato in top line. The middle layer (notes with stems pointing upwards) is the melody.
Bar 13-14, presented in Figure 7, is an example of a sparse texture, in which just the accompanying motif is played, along with an articulated dominant pedal point (Bb in left hand).
In Figure 8, at bar 28-31, another new texture is introduced as we see a clear melody plus a semiquaver based accompaniment, identifying a homophonic texture with the shifting block chords in the second bar of the figure below.
Bar 42-45 (Figure 9) is another example of a layered texture. In contrast to figure 6, the melody is in the lowest part of the texture, with an inner pedal and a similar ostinato accompaniment. Unlike in figure 6 and 7, the inner pedal is articulated less and is sustained longer, creating a denser texture.
The following figures are graphic scores of two short sections of So What. The vertical lines represent each beat. The yellow line is the trumpet, pink for alto and tenor saxophones (alto only in figure 11), light blue for each note played by the piano, light green for bass, dark green for ride cymbal and the blue cross for the snare drum. The length of the horizontal lines represents the individual note lengths.
Figure 10 is a 3 bar section taken from the head. Similarly to the Debussy, a layered texture is used. The trumpet, saxophones and piano form one layer, the bass forms another, and the drum kit another. The two melodic layers appear to play at separate times, with the drum kit providing a sense of rhythm and tempo throughout. Furthermore, the use of pedal points is very different to how Debussy uses them. The pedal points in So What are not even articulated, they are purely implied and constantly referred to so that the modal center is obvious for the listener.
Figure 11 is taken from the opening 3 bars of the alto saxophone solo, as played by Cannonball Adderley in the recording from the album Kind of Blue. The layered texture is clear from the score, again, with three distinct layers, but only one instrument per layer. This solo section differs from the head texturally, in that all the layers play simultaneously – creating a solo plus accompaniment texture. The simple nature of the accompanying layers creates an extremely sparse texture, most likely with the intentions to both provide variety from the head, as well as to allow the listener to focus intensely on the virtuosic solo.
In conclusion, from the evidence of Le Vent Dans La Plaine and So What, it is clear that there are strong links between impressionism and modal jazz. The most notable links present under modality are that the harmonic and melodic foundations are heavily based on types of mode, and the majority of notes used within the pieces are related to these modes. The common link in texture is the use of layering, clearly separating the melody from the accompaniment, either for the purpose of variation, or to encourage the listener to focus on specific musical lines. The ensemble, ‘Acoustic Triangle’ are particularly interesting to explore this link further, as in their work, they use jazz instrumentation and adopt styles of impressionism and jazz, utilizing the layered texture and modes.
Word Count: 2000
1 Hiley, D. ‘Mode’, The Oxford Companion to Music, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007
2 ‘Texture’, Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007
3 Smith, R. ‘Impressionism’, The Oxford Companion to Music, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007
4 Whittall , A. ‘Quartal harmony’, The Oxford Companion to Music , Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007
2 Tjako van Schie, Music History in Examples
http://petrucci.mus.auth.gr/imglnks/usimg/c/c0/IMSLP00509-Debussy_-_Preludes__Book_1.pdf 07/05/15 07/02/15
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylXk1LBvIqU&spfreload=10 07/02/15l note lengths.