by Madeline Hildebrand ¦ September 14 2017
When asked to write an article for the Omnivorous Listeners blog, my excitement turned to obsession over my choices and reasons behind my daily listening activity. What a fantastic opportunity to define what it is I love about my favourite compositions and recordings, but what pressure! As a classical pianist, I felt I should write about all the incredible, challenging music that has consumed me over the past year. I should talk about Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, the Philip Glass Etudes, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto 5, and even though every one of these massively profound works is worthy of pages of my thoughts… it’s not what I listen to when my day is done, or if I happen to be driving to the beach for the day. So, here you will read my thoughts on the tunes I listen to in that context, and just a little about my professional life. It’s been fun to reminisce on the friends, mentors, and family that introduced me to this repertoire and sounds, and to analyze what it is in the music that I find so satisfying and how these concepts can connect genres. I tried to focus on four categories, which you will find below: The altered chord, the back beat, belt it, and layers.
The altered chord:
Is it possible to be obsessed with the quality of a chord? Many composers have written compositions with an affinity towards a certain quality of chord. For example, Scriabin’s mystic chord (C, F#, B♭,E, A, D) is a harmonic or melodic basis for some of his later compositions, Messiaen has a handful of chords made from his modes of limited transposition (my favourite: a C7 chord below a B minor 6th chord), then of course there’s the Tristan chord that Wagner uses as Tristan’s leitmotif in his opera Tristan und Isolde (F, B, D#, G#). But, my favourite chord of all time is an altered chord. I first learned about this unique sound when I was studying Jazz at the University of Manitoba, but then I started finding it all over the ‘classical‘ compositions I was working on. So, go to your instrument and play: C, E, G, B♭, E♭. For a little extra spice add an F# too. For me, the beauty of this chord lies in the major and minor crunch, the E against the E♭.
Find this sound in Denis Gougeon’s Piano Soleil, played by the brilliant Canadian pianist Todd Yaniw. The left hand outlines V7 chords while the right hand tickles in tremolo style a single repeated-note line melody. Listen carefully at 2:40 then again at 4:50 in the video for it.
A more romantic approach to the chord can be found in recapitulation of the first movement of the Rebecca Clarke Sonata for Viola and Piano. Take a listen to the gorgeous work played here by Antoine Tamestit and Ying-Chien Lin. It’s rather obvious when the piano octaves blare Gs in the key of E major, then E flats over C7 chords. Listen closely at 5:10 for the incredible rub of the major over the minor.
This chord, common in jazz and sometimes simply notated as a #9 chord, can be found in many tunes. One of them is Benny Golson’s Stablemates:
The back side of the beat:
I find being on the back of the beat to be a terrifying place to be. How do I know I won’t drag the entire ensemble back, or sound like I’m just off? In theory, you should not change the meter, just be consistently slightly behind the strong beats. My first foray with this concept was in junior high jazz band as a bass player. I’m still playing bass, but in a bluegrass band, and come hell or high water, you have to keep THAT moving. When staying on the back end of the beat is done well, it can feel…so good. In jazz being behind the beat is common practice. Listen to Red Garland’s solo in the tune Something I Dreamed Last Night from the album Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet. Find his solo at 3:34 and listen to how he treats the quarter note triplets and perfectly lazy syncopations.
Another incredible example of staying on the back end of the beat vocally is throughout RnB superstar D’Angelo’s latest album, Black Messiah. Listen to Till It’s Done and focus on the drums staying right in the center of the beat, and the lyrics on the very, very ,very tail end of the beat. This concept, which when you think of the theory behind it should make the listener feel unsettled, funnily does the exact opposite. It makes me feel grounded.
When my pal Zohreh Gervais asked me to be in a bluegrass band with her I said I know nothing about bluegrass music. She thought that wasn’t too much of a problem. It’s not that I felt the genre in its simplicity (it’s mostly built around I-IV-V chords) and vocal approach was totally foreign, after all I grew up in a Mennonite church at the time when children out of the womb would sing in 4-part harmony, and my mom and her sisters sang a lot of country gospel. I’ve now been playing in Hay Fever for three years and have learned so much about bluegrass traditions and I know a handful of standard tunes that I could take to any bluegrass jam. My favourite part of the style is singing in tight 3-part harmonies and depending on your vocal range, there are endless harmonies to choose from. Two of the most vocally satisfying covers we’ve been playing are Willie Nelson’s Stay all Night, and the traditional bluegrass tune Mountain Girls. In both tunes listen to how the harmonies start on the 1, 3, or 5 of the chord, depending on where the melody starts.
The layered effect:
And finally, to end on a light note, and for me a personally quirky ode to summer, I’d like to mention Juan Esquivel. My partner introduced me to the bizarre 1960 album See it in Sound and he deemed it our “Vacation Album.” I find it absolutely ridiculous, but at the same time what I love about it are the layers of rhythm, melody, and then sound effects. The title refers to the fact that there are layers of real-life sounds in the album, with the music sort of serving as a sound track. With most of the album as the listener you feel that you are either the life of the party, or just in the right place at the right time. It envelops you. Listen to a person entering a party and getting served a drink, and then back to the street to walk home in the piece Brazil.
And next time you happen to find yourself at a pool party with a plastic martini glass in your hand please ask to hear honky tonky cha cha.