Sunday, 4 September 2016

Musical cues, melisma, masques and misdirection.

Melisma comes from the Greek: μέλισμα, melisma which today we would think of as melody; from μέλος, melos, its plural is melismata.
Melismatic singing presents a long flowing line of melody and is the opposite of syllabic singing where each syllable in the text is joined to a single pitch. It is also one of the best examples of a musical cue for heightened emotion, love and passion. We cannot trace the first uses of melismatic singing, but as it extends speech into a wider pitch range we can assume that it was used to accentuate the emotional content and articulate the importance of a given word or words within a text. If we take Qawwali singing as an example of music that is some 700 years in its development we can hear in the impassioned poetry the use of melisma to great effect in the recordings made by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
As a musical genre Qawwali is akin to the Hindustani classical tradition of India. It uses the designs of raga and its metric patterns, talas. Its formal structure is similar to khava, a song genre. The music alternates metrically even choruses and vocal improvisations by the soloist who makes full use of melisma while the accompanists hold onto a regular beat.

The melismatic element takes place in the “ghazal” section which translates simply as love song. The text is influenced by Sufi philosophy which itself plays with the concept of intoxication through wine and pain arising from the loss of one’s lover. These can be taken on the literal level or taken as the higher aspiration of divine union with God, even down to the tavern as the place to find enlightenment. Performers like Khan can be seen as being “intoxicated” with the beauty of the text, and possibly hypnotized by the rhythmic beat of the clapping of the group. In terms of melisma as a cue it is important to recognize the interplay between what is said in the text and the manner in which it is delivered.
While ghazal identifies with the divine later music gradually drew on more secular texts, moving through Chivalric romance with its high ideals, through to the present day where love has yielded in many cases to sexual content. The melisma in this context is not restricted to popular music, the “Dulcissime” in Orff’s Carmina Burana is a remarkably beautiful example of the extended voice where the soloist abandons herself to her lover:
“My darling love, now I’ll give you all I have”.

If we take a historical look at cues in Western music the Baroque makes great use of prompts. We begin with associations which may be heard in Renaissance music, ascendit having rising scale figures and descendit falling scales. Developing this to include such devices as the interval of a ninth to indicate loss, anger, horror or desire is not surprising when we consider the Baroque development of opera and or staged works (masques). A school of theorists were at work on the use of cues thought of as the doctrine of the affections. Readers interested in this period may wish to explore the work of Mattherson, Werchneister, Printz, Merburg, Schiebe and Quantz. Their philosophy was that music should depict human emotions and show states of mind. There are a number of devices for reflecting these moods, wide leaps, tremolo, rapidly repeated notes, pizzicato, chromaticism and dissonance. With the growth of instrumental music we are also experiencing the use of the extended voice which takes us back to the earlier discussion of the extended range of the voice to express heightened emotion. There is a specific catalogue of instrumental associations, the timpani are heroic while trumpets and drums have martial associations to imply courage. Trombones are indicators of melancholy and violins love, while the horn for rather sadly is associated with portentousness.

Cues function like tags on your photos and videos in drawing attention to salient features and make your composing intentions clear to your audience. The following paragraphs examine ways of making the best of cues and offer some music examples that have benefitted from their intelligent use.

The use of quotation brings together two or more styles of music where the contrast acts as a major input to shock the listener. George Crumb does just this in the second movement of his “Black Angels”.

Direct quotation can be substituted for parody as P.M. Davies does in many of his works e.g. inserting foxtrots or reels into otherwise cerebral music. Later in his career he uses folk elements in a less acerbic manner, as in Kettletoft Inn, making use of Northumbrian pipes. At the close of the blog reference is made to deliberate miscuing as heard in “Rosenkavalier”.

Today there are many opportunities for associating images with music. We know from earlier blogs that visual inputs are stronger than aural ones. This arises from early memories of the human face, which is so powerfully imbedded that it is impossible to draw a circle and insert three lines without forming a face. We read images rapidly and create a wealth of associations. Words also promote internal visualisation so the combination of word and image can direct the listener's attention directly into the intentions of your composition. Perhaps you are old enough to recall the scene from "Yellow Submarine" where "glove" becomes "love" at 1 hour 12 minutes into the film:

The creative use of scores as visual cues in "Ludwig van" by Kagel provides further examples of new approaches to image and music.

The emotional power of music lies in its ability to create expectations in the listener. These expectations can be created through form, contrast, selection of instruments, vocal resources etc. Traditional formats are powerful structures because of their ability to create and deny successive outcomes, blending old and new promotes better contact with the listener. Henze’s First movement to his first symphony illustrates the point clearly:

Music is formed from a complex succession of cues, knowing how to blend them the composer’s art. The character of intervals is one of the most significant methods of creating a cue, and recent research shows that the different effect of (e.g.) the major and minor third is recognised across all cultures.  The blog “Deciphering musical codes” gives a guide to which cues feature when examining our musical intentions.

      To specify one work that makes excellent use of intervals is close to impossible but for the sake of completion Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” will be offered:

We have also seen from previous blogs that exposure to patterns leads to increased preference, even where the listener actively dislikes the music on its first hearing, this is known as the “mere exposure effect”.

Use inputs that are infused with tags, tremolando indicates suspense even fear and does playing up to the bridge of string instruments.

Some attributes of music are universal, tempo particularly so, rapid movement = joy, slow speeds = sadness. This also applies to register and dynamics. When rehearsing your music consider that even small changes of tempo, accelerando and rit. have a greater effect on the listener than many composers recognise.

Everything comes from the voice is an expression I came across when studying Indian music.  Our brains certainly believe that and melodies are extensions of the pitch and cadence of speech. Contour is aided by tone and register, consider the slow movement of the New World Symphony as to association with the voice in what is labelled “musical contagion”.

Contagion brings together movement and emotion, so dance rhythms make us respond physically and affect our involuntary responses (breath, heartbeat etc.).

Let us consider one successful work, Ravel’s Bolero for some of the above qualities.

It creates expectation through repetition, its climax is powerful because it denies (closes) the rhythm with a wrench. It has been set as a ballet and even as an orchestral work in its own right has visual connotations of place and time. The musical cues are reduced through the process of repetition but are made all the more powerful by the use of tone and register. Ravel’s orchestration creates a number of tags, the saxophone part becomes a character quite different to the flute, and for some the crescendo might offer the tag of menace behind the work as a whole. For me the version for two pianos is the perfect example of how tags work in one format and not another. Three options are given to examine your own responses, please let us know your views.

2 piano version



Mixed cues
Strauss Rosenkavalier waltzes. The opera and suite demonstrate that composers can create music which sets out to deliberately misdirect the listener, I offer the following as an example.
Set in mid-18th-century Vienna, Der Rosenkavalier was composed as a comic opera indebted to Verdi's Falstaff and Molière's satires. The most popular offshoot of the opera is the Waltz suite worked (by many different musicians including Strauss himself) from the opera more for financial than artistic purposes, but nevertheless hugely popular. Many nit-picking commentators have labelled the music "anachronistic" missing the point that Strauss, a master of musical cues, created a perfect example of how to play with our sense of expectation, creating nostalgic music, most appropriate in light of his anticipation and experience of the remarkable changes occurring even in the first decade of 20th century music.
The musical conventions used by Strauss are closely related to the action of the opera and not used as a frame for the entire work, the opera was never intended as a “period piece” composition even though there are older styles of musical action (choruses, arias, and duets) embedded in the more natural unfolding and disruption of the action.
Misdirection is a valuable tool in many aspects of entertainment, Strauss develops an approach in Rosenkavalier that reflects such thinking and directs it towards a wide range of emotions, not just nostalgia.