Blues Based Music Theories

Blues Based Music Theories

8 December 2023 / William Anderson / On the Beat

also touching on
21st C. Homophony
Manuel Ponce the Progressive

Following up on some earlier thoughts on George Lewis and Philip Ewell and their call for blues-based music theory. I repeat that call and elaborate.

For decades I’ve complained about the inauthenticity of Amercians adopting German Expressionism. And more recently I’ve begun to find my way toward a blues-centered musical value system. I do not wish to dismiss or discard anything that came to the US from Europe; we want everything, but I am for a thorough process of *onshoring*.

The Europeans drove some of their best composers out of Europe. Many came to the US and tried to put down roots. Did we nurture that new growth? So many musicians were bereft when the Schoenberg Institute was relocated from LA to Vienna. But did we nurture what Schoenberg sowed here?

Blues connections –

–clearly bluesey Leonard Bernstein & David Amram

–Over the last several years I’ve come to understand and appreciate Carman Moore’s blues groundings. His music can sound outwardly bluesey or highly abstracted blues yeilding something more more like a modernist surface.

–Babbitt was on-shoring when he stopped setting the German Expressionist poet August Stramm (*Du* and *Mehr Du*) and began setting the poems of Emersonian John Hollander. Babbitt called his chromatic trichords, “bluesey”. And then there was “All Set”, his overtly 3rd Stream piece for Bill Evans.

–Stefan Wolpe was on-shoring when he took his Bauhaus/Joseph Albers-inspired interval studies and adapted them for his own unique musical channelling of the jazz-influenced American Abstract Expressionist painters. Matthew Greenbaum, Wolpe’s youngest protege, reminds us that Wolpe & Charlie Parker were friends.

–George Lewis –Voyager Duo 4 I need more time to get acquainted with Lewis’ work, so I hesitate here to give first impressions.

–Anthony Braxton – The Cygnus piece, composition 186 is hard to find on the web.

–George Walker explained patiently that he and his family didn’t identify with the jazz scene. He was a doctor’s son living in a fine middle or upper middle class neighborhood in Washington DC. And yet spirituals are everywhere in music, sometimes very well disguised.

–something like musical *terroir*, but not tainted with nationalism–

There is Latin blues; I think of Misa Creolla. Manuel Ponce’s Mexican blues reminded me of something we all know, something we may need to remind to ourselves: American jazz musicians in Paris influenced French composers and French music influenced the Americans. Ponce studied with Boulanger.

In measure 4 of Manuel Ponce’s Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord, the guitar instates on a focal set class –
[ 0 2 7 ] – a subset of the dominant 9 chord. The opening phrase in the guitar instates 027 [EAB] extends it, adding a C natural, and returns to a re-disposed, unadulterated 027 .

I don’t remember the exact term, but the dominant 9 is the…Morris vector(?) for the entire piece. Ponce’s Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord is a most *public* manifestation of that Morris vector concept because the large set and the subsets are all well known coins of the realm.

The domiant 9 is 3/5ths consecutive members of the 5th cycle: 4/5ths consecutive members of the whole tone scale; 3/5ths consecutive minor thirds. The guitar dramtizes the 5th cycle on beat 4 of measure 4. (See the opening of the Beatles, “Mother Nature’s Son”. I write about it somewhere.)

The chord on the third beat is bluesey in a typically Boulanger way. The dominant 9 chord on beat 4 leaves us feeling that two descending minor thirds feel bluesey, I contend. In this case the C natural on beat 3 making contact with the C# on beat 4 has a pungent bluesy quality that rubs off on the descending minor thirds. In other situations, the descending minor thirds can involve a bluesy cross-relation.

Ponce’s second movement is very bluesy. The third movement reinvents the set class story about 027, brilliantly.

Robert Fertitta reminds me that it was Robert Levin who came up with the ii with raised and lowered 5th. It was the exotic creature that confounded students at Purchase in the 80s. It is more exotic than the German +6 chord, but it is found in the wild. There’s one in Augustin Barrios’ Etude de Concert.

[I’m trying to reconstruct the minor v with 3 of I. Still unsuccessful.]

Robert Levin and his hand picked theory staff taught us that it was a mainstay of Boulanger’s teaching that all 12 transpositions of a dominant 7 chord can relate to one key. Or, one dominant 7 chord can relate to any key. Moreover, Boulanger taught that the 6/4 chord is so powerful that it can affect our peception of the chord succeeding *or preceding it* (!!). The Dominant 7 chords is almost as powerful.

Glenn Alexander, the jazz guitar wizard of the Sarah Lawrence Music Department, says the same; he remarked more than once in conversations that one dominant 7 can relate to any key.

The 6/4 or the dominant 7 both force us to relate chromaticisms to the keys that they signify. They can be bluesy. What, preceisely is bluesy? Tell me. For me, descending minor thirds in certain lights and any 034s. Mozart’s #9 move is bluesey, involving an 034 across collection boundaries.

I mapped it out here. Secondary dominants are powerful, augmented 6th chords are more powerful, and the difference is an enharmonic spelling. Generalizing this beyond augmented 6th chords is a 21st C. project. Aren’t all such moves signatures of complementation of the diatonic hexachord?

As I toyed with different voice leadings, I favored bluesey descending minor thirds. In the Ponce sonata we have an example in the flesh, not in the abstract.

Next, In less triadic music, any collection can be bluesified. Here, bluesification of 4/5ths of the
Balinese Pentatonic –

This move is related to Mozart’s #9 move. There’s an 014 across the collection boundary and it’s also very minor third heavy across the collection boundary. The missing member of the dim 7 chord is the missing member of the Balinese Pentatonic scale – C# in m. 68 and F# in m. 70.

I found it slipping into variations on Suzanne Vega’s “Last Train From Mariupol”–

Americans composers Ponce and Duke Ellington and so many more have been doing blues based music and they have generalized (theorized) about their practice. I don’t think we consider this an historical thing, but something ongoing, nowhere near finished. It’s at the heart of cutting edge American homophony.