Saturday, February 22, 2014

watching a frozen form develop

Do you use the Ngram viewer much? It does word searches for every word in every book in its database, which is by now most books between 1800 and today. It's only books, so it doesn't give you the roiling world of newspapers and magazines, but it's still addictively enlightening, and I find it a great way to put hard numbers to my questions. Last night I came up with a very interesting couple of results.

Someone mentioned a profession that had "a stigma attached to it," which always jars me — how do scars attach? It's the classic sign of a frozen form to use a word that way. That is, a word goes out of use except for being frozen into a certain phrase, and you're not really in control of the metaphor because you just think of it as a phrase. ("One fell swoop": what exactly does "fell" mean? Swift? Angry? Destructive? Amazing? Wicked? If you had to bet would you win? Actually, it means something like "ferociously evil and deadly.")

I looked it up in Ngram, and discovered that you can see it happen in front of your eyes: as we lose the meaning of the word "stigma," our use of it as a metaphor changes. The decline of the term "stigma on" very neatly precedes the rise of "stigma attached."

It's especially interesting to note that it actually gets to a low before the frozen form rises. As long as the mental image of a scar is ... attached ... to the word "stigma," it acts as an antibody, a protection against weird uses of the word. When the antibodies die out, only then does the virus have room to grow.

I tried to think of other frozen forms in which there's a stock phrase that actually gets the meaning of the word wrong like this. Hmmmm — I finally hit on "shambles." You often hear people say something is "in shambles," instead of "a shambles."

In fact, "a shambles" acts as a stepping-stone. Look at how our use of the term "a shambles" ("this place is a shambles") rises just as the phrase "the shambles" ("go down to the shambles to get some meat") is falling. Then, once the literal meaning has died, its uneducated cousin "in shambles" has room to rise.

Not as dramatic a dip as with "stigma," but it's definitely there. This way, using the stepping-stone, we never stop using the word "shambles," and it retains its usefulness smoothly as its meat-market meaning fades. (The combined number stays near 0.0000300% for nearly a century before World War II apparently gives us more reason to reach for this word.)

Friday, February 14, 2014

meditation on love

We're reading an article on the book "From Shame To Sin," which traces attitudes toward sex in the late Roman Empire as it Christianized. It mentions 6th-century prostitution conversion narratives, and that got us to talking about Massenet's opera Thaïs, whose conversion scene is the wordless "Meditation" that is Massenet's most popular work to this day.

I mention that it's one of the most beautiful melodies I can think of, to which Catherine responds, "You should write it."

Ahhhh, my woman understands composers too well!! As Valentine's Day enters, I think of the great Paul Buchanan line that is one of the most romantic of any love song: "I will understand you."

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

new lingo creates new meanings

The sentence "Cray was the blues guitarist" can now either be read as a straightforward identifier or as a blend of a very old and a very new way of saying things.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

practicing my scales

In the past few days I've been shedding a little bit on some octatonic scales. I've been very conversant with the octatonic scale since college, and found myself easily able to improvise on it — something that enabled me to spin off beautiful modern-classical pieces on a whim.

But my fingers only got conversant with one octatonic scale. The other two I understand and can do, but never fooled around with enough. What! — that's like a driver never learning how to drive in reverse. Crazy!

You've put it together by now that "octatonic" refers to an eight-note scale. When Maria von Trapp sings "do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do!!!," that's definitely an eight-note phrase, but notice that the first and last are the same.


Yes. Thank you.

We humans, who have a duple heartbeat and two walkin' legs, love for things to be in 4/4 time, and on top of that we just can't leave that leading tone (ti) hanging without resolving to the home-base of do. That means our usual scales are seven-note scales. The usual pattern for those seven-note scales we call "diatonic." All the typical scales and modes are diatonic: they could be transposed to play on only white keys. (I've gone into that — fascinatingly!! — here and here.) To make an eight-note scale, you have to go outside the bounds of diatonic harmony.

But — here's the kicker — not too far. You could think of an octatonic scale as a way of wandering through a diminished seventh chord. That's the kind of chord that, played by itself, sounds like the villain in a silent movie:  LISTEN 

"You'll never defeat me! Can you not hear that fully-diminished chord?" 
"Maybe it's compensating for your fully-diminished sword."

So, if you just arpeggiate up the chord, then go stepwise between, you've got yourself a scale:  LISTEN  What you wind up with is a scale whose intervals are very systematic: whole-step, half-step, whole-step, half-step, and so on. This is why the ancient Persians called it the "string of pearls" scale, by analogy to the way they used to string pearls of alternating size.

Technically speaking, there are lots of octatonic scales, because you can pick any eight notes within an octave. Most of the time, though, people are referring to these intriguing, oddly symmetrical scales — and, if you do a little number-crunching, you'll see that there can only be three different ones. Think about it this way: those four notes that outline a diminished-seventh are filled in by four other notes, which, therefore, also outline a different diminished-seventh.

There's two villains in this here scale!

In other words, really, this scale is made up of two interlocking dim7 chords. That leaves only four of the twelve tones left, and they form a third, unused, dim7.

So, really, there are only three dim7 chords in the world, and we just stack them in different inversions and call them different names. While other pairs of chords (like C-major and A-minor) have notes in common, those dim7s have all their notes in common. Classical composers from Vivaldi to Wagner utilized this symmetry to create a kind of harmonic Wood-Between-the-Worlds. (More on that later.) For instance, a C dim7 is spelled C-Eb-Gb-Bbb. That's the music-grammar-nerd spelling, though. Most folks have an easier time conceptualizing the same notes as C-Eb-F#-A.

What's the matter, double-flat-user? Can't take it?

Meanwhile, an E-flat dim7 is spelled Eb-F#-A-C, an F-sharp dim7 is spelled F#-A-C-Eb, and an A dim7 is spelled A-C-Eb-F#.

And there's more: a lot more. All those conjunctions and overlaps and symmetries make these scales really useful for classical and jazz musicians. It's a great way to sound exotic and fresh without sounding alienating. Each octatonic scale contains no less than 8 standard-sounding chords you can use.

So, the scale is filled with major and minor chords that sound quite stable, but the way they're put together sounds just a little off from the way you're used to hearing them. The effect can seem richly enchanting.

In this video, you can hear and see Franz Liszt using it to quite good effect, sprinkling little magical-sounding downward-spiraling figures starting in measure 7 (I love videos that show you the music!):

Now skip ahead a couple of generations and listen to this eerie landscape by Ravel, in his Rapsodie Espagnole, the first couple of minutes of which are fully and gorgeously octatonic.

Cool, right? Sounds classical, and yet Mozart has definitely left the building. You can hear how the Persians dug that scale before we did. It's got a fantastical incense to it — beguiling to a late-19th-century crowd. Rimsky-Korsakov used it all over, and so did Stravinsky in a very 20th-century way. And, as I mentioned, jazzers use these scales all the time in scaffolding their improvisations.

If you're John Williams, and you're writing the music for the Indiana Jones movies, the main theme is a cinch: bright major key, march tempo, upwardly projecting brass figure. But now you come to the part where Indy is in some cave and a secret door opens, revealing some ancient wonder. What music to write? Spangly jewels often call for a high-register piano figure. But a major chord is way too square:  LISTEN  A minor chord is no good either, is it?  LISTEN  Even if you do a more complex diatonic chord, it still doesn't quite fit the bill:  LISTEN  Working from a whole-tone scale sounds sort of magical, but too dreamy:  LISTEN 

By now, though, you know the answer. Gotta be octatonic, baby!  LISTEN  Perfect. Sounds very John Williamsy and very Indiana Jonesy. Of course, part of that is because that's the way Williams did write for those movies. But part of it is that he wrote it that way because that sound was exactly what he needed.

Maybe, but if you gimme one more double-flat I'm pulling out my gun.

All of which is to say that I've been shedding some on my octatonic scales, getting them all down the way I have a few down, so I can plug them in much more easily when needed. And now you know a bit more about an important tool in the musician's toolbox.