I'm struggling right now with how to teach my Popular Music class about dissonant and consonant harmonies. They already have problems with identifying the tonic of a piece, and this is really pushing them. The Weather for episode 12 of Welcome to Night Vale has a very clear example of dissonant harmonies in Anais Mitchell's "Of a Friday Night." This would have been a great blog post to publish last Friday, but I didn't even start listening carefully to the piece until Saturday morning, so that serendipity was already lost. I instead did a bunch of biking and decided to wait for Monday to post this.
The stark piano introduction sets up a cluster of notes against oscillating B and E bass notes, sounding like an homage to Erik Satie:
But this is both simpler, and more complex. The right hand doesn't move, filling different roles against the two bass notes. The first chord is a B minor triad with an added ninth, that half-step clash in the top two notes. When the left hand moves to an E, the right hand creates an E13, a seventh chord with extensions of the ninth and thirteenth. But this chord is missing the third, so it is ambiguous in quality. Given the context of the minor tonic chord, and the remaining half-step clash in the upper voices, it is likely to hear this second chord as an E minor seventh chord with the added ninth and thirteenth, so a iadd9 - iv13 progression. This is denied by the melody, which uses a B Dorian collection of notes, so the E chord gets an implied major quality. This is important, because that E major chord takes over as tonic in the chorus, providing a bright contrast for the good old days against the darkness of the ghost town.
The bass line gets embellished, and the meter changes from a weak 3/4 to a clear 4/4, yet with the same progression as the voice enters. This shift in meter is odd, and doesn't happen again in the song. Is the introduction the real ghost town, and the 4/4 beat the remembrance of a remembrance? This gets a little Inception-y, but as I interpret the lyrics, there are at least four time periods referenced: 1) when the poet is a young man; 2) when the poet is old, but there are young men filling the streets; 3) the present time when the town is empty; 4) the future for which the narrator is waiting. So the introduction represents time period 3, the B Dorian verses represent time period 2, and the E major chorus and bridge represents time period 1 and the potential of time period 4, suggesting a cyclic nature to time. Hence the two oscillating chords, with the static upper notes, the dissonances that change without changing.
I love the pause and drop of Mitchell's voice to a low G# on "midnight writer" in the chorus and the little chromatic notes on "young men" and "those" in the first two verses. I'm not positive what midnight writer means, the pause could suggest that the narrator is censoring herself, or to emphasize that it is important that the night life was filled with writers/creators/memorialists. The chromatic bends portrays the old poet's aching memory of his own youth, and the narrator's aching desire for joy to fill her own life.