Thursday, May 22, 2014

2+2+3 = Math Rock!

In the 24th episode of Welcome to Night Vale, the Mayor goes into the Dog Park, and returns to announce that she is stepping down at the end of the year.  The weather for this episode is purely instrumental, "Biblical Violence" by Hella.  A good example of math rock, much of the piece is in the asymmetric meters of 7/8, 9/8 (2+2+2+3), and 11/8, though the closing drum solo in standard 4/4. 

The form is created by shifting grooves established by the guitar and drums, with no real melody. 
The opening section has a lopsided feel, with two big beats followed by a rushed 1.5 beats, filled by slightly frenetic drums on that second "half" of each measure.  The guitar groove is a neighboring figure between I and IV in D major.  This section ends with a sustained chord under some drum spurts, with unclear or asymmetric meter of a different pattern than previous.

The second section is even more uncomfortable, with an insistent F# in the guitar that is interrupted by more flourishes in other notes, while the drummer seems to be in a different rhythmic country.  This country shares borders with the guitarist, and there is a decent translating dictionary, but they speak decidedly different languages.  This repeated one-measure groove moves on to a third section in 11/8 that has gaping holes to create the asymmetry.  The drummer has decided to move to another country that is also on a different world, playing around with small rhythmic ideas completely at odds with the guitarist's groove.  The second section comes back again, and then the first section, creating a large arch form:  ABCBA. 

The magic is that after the Tower of Babel feeling of the B and C sections, the return of A no longer feels lopsided, but rather like a welcome stability as the two musicians cooperate on the groove in a clear tonic expansion.  This desensitization to asymmetry makes me wonder about the purpose of the song title.  "Biblical Violence" is evocative, either as a confluence of positive and negative energies or as a condemnation of the violence done in the Bible or "inspired" by the Bible.  As our culture produces more depictions of violence in ever greater degrees, we are desensitized to the lesser forms of violence, perhaps the more biblical forms of violence? 

The song is not over after the arch, but rather introduces a fourth section, D, that has a new asymmetric feel, before returning to the C section and the B section.  Rather than finishing with another return of the A section to create a variant of the arch form, stability is established in a fifth section.  This last section is in 4/4, with the guitar establishing a straight-ahead groove between I and vi chords, with a heavy emphasis on the bass line.  The drummer solos over this groove, not fighting the meter but not helping to establish it either.  There is always a sense of remove between the two musicians, though a deliberate one.  Is biblical violence an act of aggression against the misunderstood other, through a lack of communication?  Even this last section is misleading, as a very short coda returns to the violence of the D section as a teaser for an abrupt ending. 

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Camping can be a bummer

Episode 23 of Welcome To Night Vale is "Eternal Scouts," about two local Boy Scouts who become the first to ever achieve the rank of Eternal Scout, a cause of celebration and despair.  The Weather for this episode is John Vanderslice's "Too Much Time," in which he wakes up from camping on the beach, and bemoans his lost love.  I'm including two different performances of this piece.  The first one is the studio version used in WtNV.  The second is an arrangement done with Magik*Magik Orchestra.  I find it interesting how the orchestral sound brings out different aspects of the music. 

The first thing I noticed about this song is the melisma at the end of the first and third lines for each verse, on "and," "[for]ever,"  "and," and "and" respectively.  This oscillation between scale degrees 6 and 7, with that little pause after the first note to make some of the words almost stuttered as it transitions from "sand" to "and" or "mat" to "and"gives a plaintive tone to the piece right away.  We know that the singer is not happy to be out on the beach.  The choruses continue the plaintive sound with the faux sobs "ah ah oh."  

The original, with synthesized string sounds have more unclear harmonies.  The brightness of the sounds, combined with the reverb causes a bleeding between chords and clashes of overtones within the chords, so the tonic chords feel less settled than in the orchestral version.  The dynamic flatness of the studio version makes the singer seem less disappointed, perhaps because the recording techniques create an extra boundary between the singer and the listener.  He becomes less real, with more artificial emotions.  The live performance is still restrained, the singer is resigned to his fate.  But the emotion seems more present, even if the strings are rather rigid in their rhythms.

Why is it that so many pop/rock/indy tunes avoid minor keys when they are about sad subjects?  That is still a powerful trope across almost all cultures, so why avoid it?  Perhaps it is too easy, or perhaps playing in minor keys is too hard.  There are groups like the Gregory Brothers who shift the modes of popular songs, showing the power of modes to affect mood.  Perhaps artists like John Vanderslice want to temper the emotions being expressed, to make them more nuanced.