The art of sequence. So much artistic depth and power in a three syllable word ... A word that is perhaps representative of the essence of how we as humans think, learn and process the events around us? So, maybe another one of those cool built in, natural mechanisms ... ? Probably. In perhaps an overly simplistic idea, we sequence 3 letters through 3 colors. Example 1.
A B C A B C A B C A B C...
In an aural representation of this sequence, we can filter this A B C idea through three harmonic colors. Example 1a.
Dig the "teenager in love" changes? So often what happens in art is that a basic idea or motive, is sequenced, any number of a gillion ways. Thus in the above musical idea, we simply run the A B C idea through a diatonic harmonic filter and then repeat the larger idea one time. In a sense we have developed the idea. It is said there are no straight lines in nature, might it be also true that everything natural, physical, emotional and intellectual is part of a sequence? And that emulating, manipulating and creating variations of the things we sequence what we call art? Perhaps the art of ...? Your ideas on this line of thinking?
In the musical arts, the "art of sequence" comes in a number of varieties. We find melodic ideas or pitches sequenced, harmonic progressions, compositional forms are sequential and / or cyclical by design. The lyrics or poetry of a song often create or contain a sense of sequential pattern often with a sense of closure. And of course the rhythms of many of the American sounds are oftentimes repetitive, which in itself is a sequence or cycling of an idea. So is this sense of sequence and cycle some sort of nature / nurture thing? Could very well be. Any thoughts on this?
So why would we want to sequence a musical idea? And oftentimes does an idea just sequence itself, just by it's nature? That the way we think ( nature / nurture ) and desire form and closure often brings forth this technique of sequencing. When I compose my own songs, when a nice motif comes along and then sort of dead ends, I naturally seem to default to sequencing the idea through various filters etc., looking for a way to expand it. Compositional forms are also potential sequencers for expanding a musical idea. We often sequence an idea to create excitement / generate a climax in building our solos. So we sequence because we want to and also because we have to, in following our muse? Could very well be mon ami ... Cool with this?
Maybe we should define if we are writing the lines out or improvising them n'est pas? If writing out our sequential lines, our tasking is often reasonably straightforward. Part of the artistic trick here is to decide just how inside or homogenized they are going to be within the key of the music. How many times an idea will loop or cycle etc. Where they will be placed in the form of the music, thinking that there is a musical form to the piece. When we listen to various Baroque masters, especially those from Italy, their mostly diatonic sequences are oftentimes perfectly shaped for maximum inspiration, thus rather predictable ( hear the example below ). Future reference to this variety of sequence will deem them "traditional." More modern writers will often use more complex intervalic permutation devices to juxtapose their lines along the Picasso / cubist / abstract thing to free up their lines from the tedium of predictability.
When improvising, the first of the two sequence writing techniques mentioned above, traditional diatonic lines, becomes easily mastered. That is with diligent study, an understanding of the concepts and a ton of shedding, so that when a cool idea comes along while blowing, and ya want to sequence it, you can. Diatonic sequencing eventually becomes "rote" after a number of years on your chosen instrument if a player with gumption simply decides to do the shedding. An up and coming player might aspire to want to exhaust the diatonic resource available. Like anything from anywhere? Exactly. A part of this process would normally include the sequencing of ideas, the least of which could simply be the interval studies. Once this rudimentary level of the playing is exhausted, a possible path as created by many of our jazz heroes is to simply create more complex melodic "cells" or motifs that are filtered through non conventional harmonies or substitutions at faster tempos. It's usually somewhere along this path that players will find a "comfort zone" so to speak, that provides them with the level of resources to create their artistic dialogue.
Modern sequencing. This is the kind of spontaneous musical improvisation that the monsters we love to listen too make look so back pocket. Years ago, tenor saxophone colossus Frank Foster sat in with our jazz quintet at a steakhouse in upstate New York. We proudly called our group "Moments Notice" in honor of John Coltrane and that was the groups theme song. So, when Mr. Foster got on the stand and suggested we do "Moments Notice we were all pretty psyched. So, we play the intro, play the head, Sam White takes "Tranes" five choruses note for note off the record on tenor, our alto player Dave Grippo plays a gorgeous few, then Mr. Foster steps up to testify. After a suitable amount of time to recenter the energy, Mr. Foster embarked on what I would later discover was simply one long series of sequences. That his solo lasted for 25 minutes or so was also something we didn't realize till after, as his improvised dialogue was like a long lost tale that we all longed to hear yet again.
So, upon completion of Mr. Foster's solo, we played the head again and took it out, and perhaps needless to say, we poor blokes in the rhythm section were in need of what is often termed, "a pause for the cause." That we just might have got the 2nd place world record award for the number of consecutive choruses for "Moments Notice" would not have been surprising. What was a bit of a surprise was that upon discussing with Mr. Foster "what happened" during his solo, he basically replied that he simply played one new melodic motif per chorus, perhaps suggested by the melody, then simply sequenced and permutated this idea through the chorus or body of the tune. As the top came up again, a new idea was presented and similarly sequenced through the tune. This process was then itself sequenced which created the main body of Mr. Foster's solo. Upon signaling our horns to come back in and trade some fours, once completed, we played the head and took it out. So ... one idea per chorus sequenced through the form of the tune... starting to sound like a mantra huh?
So, pretty wide range of application for this three syllable word eh? Probably everything from the written out main melodies of a songs, orchestral interludes and development sections, to the building to climax in improvisational music. From simple diatonic motion to the advanced permutation possibilities, where intervals are often wider and filtered through more complex often non diatonic scenarios, all can be created, enhanced and brought about by the sequencing of an idea? Yep. Need I say more ...? Nope? Good. Thus, the following ideas create sequences from the various melodic and harmonic colors available to the creative artist.
The source five pitches / intervals. This first idea comes from the ancient five note, pentatonic color. Using the pitch C as the root, here are the pitches and intervals used to create this essential melodic color. Example 1.
|pent. major scale||C||D||E||G||A||C|
In this first traditionally styled melodic sequence, we simply create a 4 note group of eighth notes and sequence them downward by step. Example 1a.
A more modern approach to sequencing the major pentatonic color. Example 1b.
A bit on the tricky side you say? Yes indeed it is. Generally speaking, the wider the interval the more shedding involved. Although the octaves are a good wider interval to start with. Like the stasis harmonic ideas? Almost as if it's a pedal tone. The major pentatonic colors are so gorgeous, often joyous and immistakeable once our ear has their sound locked in.
So, which of the American styles use the pentatonic sound? Well, they all do really, especially in the improvisational sections. For creating melodies, we hear the major pentatonic color in children's and folk songs mainly, for it is easy to sing and always sounds joyous.
Moving into the minor tonality. In this next sequential idea, each cell is first repeated before evolving onward. We hear this all the time in most of the styles, especially if it's a neat idea. Know a top 40 term for a musical motif of repeated? Example 2.
|pent. minor scale||C||Eb||F||G||Bb||C|
Here is the sound of the above pitches in a classically shaped sequential idea. Example 2a.
Interesting perhaps to note is that in this last idea, even a elementary, gradually ascending sequence builds real tension and direction. Salient points for the emerging improviser.
Adding one note. In this next group of pitches, we simply add one pitch to the five pentatonic ones and create our beloved blues scale, so indigenous to the American sound. But which pitch? Here is a chart of the pitches and intervals. Example 3.
Uh oh, mixing sharps and flats ...? Yep, in this spelling out of the pitches. Would Gb work also ...? Yep. So why F#? Well, mainly in that the interval from the root of our group C to F# is perhaps more clearly the # Four / tritone interval? Doesn't this sharp Four tritone interval also split the octave perfectly in half? So, the one pitch we add to the minor pentatonic color to create the blues scale is the tritone? Absolutely. Cool?
Do we often sequence Blues lines? We do I think, but not in the usual fashion. With the blues form being predominantly 3 / 4 bar phrases, we often sequence the entire phrase or line to create the song. Thus in the literature, we often find the same blues riff repeated three times to create the 12 bar form / song. "Little Red Rooster" by Willie Dixon is an example of this compositional form. Here is a cliché blues idea that is also a sequence of sorts. Example 3a.
So, where is the sequence in the line? Is the sequential part of the last idea in that each of the pitches of the blues scale are approached from it's lower neighbor? Pretty much. A bit different and less obvious to what we might expect a sequence to be, but a sequence non the less. Is there a bit of the disguise here perhaps?
Adding two notes. What results from creating a two pitch tritone interval and inserting this "tension cell" into the major pentatonic scale? Here are the pitches. Example 4.
The major scale? Isn't this also one of the church modes? Yep. Ionian mode? That's right. Hip to how the modes evolved into equal temper? A bit of where we come from sometimes helps illuminate the direction we wish to go.
So, the interval between the pitch F and B is a tritone, and when inserted into the major pentatonic color creates the major scale? Exactly. So now we have a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th scale degree? Absolutely. The 8th is of course the octave and do we ever do anything with the pitches in between these degrees?
Let's sequence the major scale. Example 4a.
Sound familiar? It should, this last idea is pretty generic. This major scale grouping of pitches has by far and away created most of the popular melodies of the last couple of hundred years.
Sequencing the harmony. Can we build chords with these pitches of the major scale and sequence them in any way? Can we also term these sequences chord progressions? Yes, in a manner of speaking, although I think we take chord progressions for granted, i.e., common practice, while a harmonic sequence is usually pretty aurally recognizable. Here is a chart spelling out the pitches of the 7 diatonic chords. Example 5.
|Roman numerals||I||ii||iii||IV||V||vi||vii Ø||VIII|
|diatonic chords||I||ii||iii||IV||V||vi||vii Ø||VIII|
|root / color||C major||D minor||E minor||F major||G major||A minor||B minor||C major|
|triad is spelt||
This next idea simply sequences the triads of the major scale by motion of fourths.
C / F / B / E / A / D / G / C. We leave the melody out for this pass so as to focus in on the changes. Example 5a.
Wow, now that's academic eh? Adding back in the sequential melody from the example above and arpeggiating the changes makes for a bit more music. Example 5b.
Sounds contrapuntal eh? Very popular back in the 18th and 19th centuries. Any musicologists in the house? Can we do the same for the minor tonality / natural minor scale? Yep.
Do we ever sequence the rhythm? I wonder if this is a contradiction of terms in that our rhythmic groove is just that, a sequence of the pulses or beat. Maybe it's more of a repetition huh? And in repetition we build towards climax? In some of the American styles, it does get a bit repetitive. Is the groove / beat of one successful song used in other tunes? All the time. So is the rhythm of a style sequenced through popular songs in that genre? Just might be as the rhythm often defines the style n'est pas? Nowadays with drum machines, it's oftentimes downright mechanized, but many of the dancers today dig this groove, must be a bear to play live ... that is without the drum machine.
So, the role of sequence in creating musical art. Again I begin to think along the lines that is there all that much out there in the American sounds that does not have sequential elements in it's aural fabric? And even to go a bit deeper into our psyche, is the nature of sequence simply part of our natural way of doing things? Your thoughts?
|Where to next?|
"To avoid criticism ... do nothing, say nothing, be nothing." Elbert Hubbard