Off Key

Mike Curtis ironmanc@JUNO.COM
Tue Jul 29 00:11:06 EDT 1997


On Mon, 28 Jul 1997 08:51:51 -0500 Bill Salmon
<netfest@MYCROFT.MEXIA.COM> writes:
><< Regardless of what you choose to call it or where it comes from, if
>it's not played in a concentric key with the rest of the band it just
>becomes noise.>>
>
>Hi All,
>I have stayed out of it because I am afraid someone will take offense,
>AND I AM NOT AN EXPERT, (in fact such heresy might really get me
>kicked off of Blues-L instead of just being part of a temporary blackout
:~{
>)..)but isn't much of the "modern art" of such greats as Picaso
>describable as just this type of disharmony?

No offense taken, nor did I find anything at all offensive.

I'm not an expert in art, but the IronMissus is.  Neither of us is all
that crazy about Picasso.  But we both agree that Picassos painting does
follow definite rules, although not as much so as Rembrandt and other
more traditional artists.

BTW, a friend has a painting consisting of just a few very simple
brushstrokes, depicting a bullfight.  At first glance, it looks like a
childs painting.  I'd seen it hanging in his living room for years and
thought nothing of it.  But one day I took a really careful look at it,
and it almost came to life.  You can see the anger in the bull and the
cold, arrogant stare of the toreador - despite the fact than only a
couple of shadowed silhouettes are painted and no facial details are
included.  It was a lousy likeness - but it captured the attitude of the
bullfight uncannily.  I remarked to my friend "The guy who painted this
is quite talented".  He responded "Yes, I'd say so.  His name is Pablo
Picasso".

> In poetry, how about the
>whole stream of conscience school and it's intentional disassociation?
>or a rose is a rose.. is a rose..

Well, poetry I'm not much into, because it is surely a sin to
make unharmonious rhyme, and make it fit in perfect time.

>While I realize that this is not a part of an accepted musical form
>such as the Blues, we might see just such an evolution of a new musical
>genre.. harmonious disharmony if you will.. I seem to recall that much
>of early rock was described this way.. In fact some heavy metal,
>headbanger and Rap seems to fall into this category.

Yes, but even these have rules.  Knowing rules allows one to bend and
break them, of course, but with NO rules, we have random noise.  In
electronics and audio, we have "random  noise generators".  These make a
sound similar to a large waterfall, a jet engine, or tuning a radio
between stations.  Called "pink noise", it contains all frequencies, with
equal energy per octave (as opposed to white noise with equal energy per
hertz).  BUT - as you'll notice, even these supposedly random occurrences
follow rules!

>BTW I am not referring to accidental off key such as Albert Collins was
>apparently guilty of, but an intentional discacophony (sp) with it's
>unsettling effect, for that effect.. Have you ever noticed how the
>tuning up of an orchestra seems to grab the attention of the audience
>and settle them in for the actual show?

Yes I have.  I never gave it much thought and always assumed that it was
the anticipation of the concert that had this effect, and the fact that
the tuning meant we were that much closer to the start of the concert.  I
find the tuning rather interesting, to a point anyway - but I often find
it a bit tedious after a while.  I LOVE electric instruments (that can be
turned completely down during tuning) and electronic tuners!  But even
tuning has rules :-)

There is a fundamental difference between "rules" and :"laws".  Rules may
be bent and even broken with minimal consequences.  Laws either may not
be broken, or there are serious consequences for breaking them.  And then
there is a third class that I'd call "suggestions".  For example, much
blues is 12 bar - but not all blues is 12 bar, and not everything 12 bar
is blues.  If one wants to compose blues, mastering the 12 bar format
would be a good place to start.  Yet some artists generally accepted as
blues rarely use the standard 12 bar format, such as Robert Cray.

I know the rules - and FREQUENTLY break them!  I frequently
(intentionally) play notes that are technically wrong - but make them
right by resolving them into a "proper" note.  these become what we call
"passing tones".  To hear this, play a tape of a song and STOP it at some
random point during the song, preferably midphrase.  Note the LAST note
played/sang - was this a good place to end the song?  Or did that note
sound bad when the song stopped?  Now, start the tape again and listen to
the next note (or several).  Notice how it proceeds to a note that makes
that bad note sound better.

There is a technical explanation for this (aw, c'mon - you KNEW it was
coming, didn't you?)  The "wrong" note, being wrong, creates an
uneasiness, a tension.  It doesn't belong.  It fights against the harmony
of the music.  It clashes.  And if left as is, it causes disharmony.
It's not at all pleasant or acceptable sounding.  BUT by following it
with a note that belongs, we RELEASE this tension.  (Note: anyone making
this into a "sex" joke shall be promptly, mercifully, and happily shot).
Instead of being a poor destination, it becomes a colorful step on the
way. Instead of being cacophonous, it's variety.  I use entire phrases of
tension, resolving them into a single release note.

While it may appear to the outsider (nonmusician) that there are no
rules, to the informed insider there are indeed rules covering many
seemingly random things.
Knowing these rules allows us to use them effectively, break them
acceptably, create effectively, and put our feelings into music
maximally.

But what about the uneducated blues greats?

Simple - they weren't as uneducated as the uninitiated sometimes believe.
 They learned from other musicians.  They heard other music and learned
from it.  They created, and had the intelligence and taste to discern
what sounded good and what didn't.  Maybe they didn't know all the names,
but they certainly and demonstrably knew the rules.  School isn't the
only place to be educated - nor is it necessarily the best place to learn
all things.  And this is coming from a degreed engineer.



 -- IronMan Mike Curtis
The One Man "Better'n A" Band
Electric harmonica, guitar, bass pedals, vocals
Cassette available - Email for details





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