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5.   Discussion


5.2.2   The Musical Narrative

The more important implication concerns interpretation. Everett was criticised in Chapter 2 because his analysis of ‘Soma’ equated tonic and dominant harmonies with harmonic stability with listener relief, in a context that,

arguably, did not justify such an explanation. There is little doubt the dominant-tonic relationship can signal closure, security and stability to listeners in certain contexts. But this effect cannot be accepted a priori as normative, because the evidence suggests the V-I relationship is not normative in popular music.

One cannot argue the converse position either — songs without a V-I relationship lack the aforementioned qualities. There is nothing to prevent Everett hearing the music as he does, but his “critical argument,” to return to Scruton, is not sound. Moore tentatively suggests various modes and their cadences have attentive qualities, such as the “nonetheless” quality of the Aeolian cadence bVI-bVII-i12 or the “illusory possibility of escape” contained in the raised Dorian sixth.13 But as Moore also states, “This hermeneutic construct is yet to be empirically tested.”14 Although this study has not carried out the empirical testing sought by Moore, it is clear bVII and, especially, IV are used in popular music to effect harmonic closure. Thus, one must critically examine songs on their merits, rather than fit them into rigid frameworks. This is a challenge for the popular music analyst, but can lead to greater interpretative rewards.

upon a “quest narrative” whereby the tonic is departed from and returned to within a single work.15 By comparison, the blues structure, with its repetition of often identical strophes “minimizes narrativity in the musical process”; McClary further contends that “we tend to dismiss as primitive” those musical forms lacking the “quest narrative” such is Western cultural conditioning.16

Julian Johnson vindicates McClary’s view when he bluntly dismisses popular music because it lacks internal tension. According to Johnson, the ‘fade-out’ is the antithesis of musical resolution. He argues the feature is ubiquitous in popular music because the music does not require resolution in the first place.17 Without engaging Johnson’s aesthetic argument, the aim here is to work from McClary’s ideas.

McClary is concerned, in her comparison, with larger musical structures and, implicitly, harmony.18 Thus, it is appropriate to examine the structural harmonic relationships in Nature’s Best songs in relation to her argument. She contends blues has “most shaped [the music of] our era.”19 This discussion seeks to uncover the extent to which blues has bequeathed its minimal narrativity to popular music more generally.

In Section 4.2.4, songs containing modulations and tonicizations were listed. Of the nineteen songs in the former category, sixteen ended in a key different to the opening key. In seven of these songs, the transition occurred moving from the verse to chorus; seven others modulated towards the end of the song in either a coda or final chorus.

15 Susan McClary, Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form (Berkley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2001), pp. 66-67.

16 Ibid., pp. 66-67.

17 Julian Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value (New York:

Oxford University Press, 2002), 56

18 Although she also refers to the static lyrical narrative of Bessie Smith’s ‘Thinking Blues.’

McClary, Conventional Wisdom, pp. 42-49. It is debatable whether a static lyrical narrative is representative of all blues music. Even the twelve-bar structure is set up so the ‘problem’ of the first eight bars is ‘resolved’ in the ninth bar.

19 Ibid., 34.

As mentioned in Chapter 4, the “truck-driver” modulation is employed mainly to artificially expand the song, but for other modulations, the sense of departure is fundamental to the song. Sean Sturm, for example, agreed that the modulation in ‘One Day Ahead’ from Eb to Bb in the coda could be interpreted as the titular

“one day ahead.” The subsequent darkening of the harmonies, from major to major/Aeolian mixture, represents the unknown of the future.20 The same can be said of ‘Stuff and Nonsense’ in which the chorus rises a tone, indicating the narrator’s increased determination and conviction when addressing his love interest.

Three songs — ‘Fraction Too Much Friction,’ ‘Don’t Fight It Marsha’ and

‘Bitter’ — begin and end in the same key, yet none have a sense of “quest narrative.” The reason is that the modulations in these songs occur within relatively self-contained sections. For example, ‘Bitter’ starts in D minor and moves suddenly to F major/Mixolydian in the bridge, before returning to the original D minor riff. These abrupt modulations are heard in the other two songs.

One can observe in these structures an amalgamation of classical and blues narrative principles. On the one hand, the “quest narrative” intimates a journey or a goal-directed progression, which in classical music is taken to mean towards the tonic. In this regard, the Nature’s Best examples represent a departure from this practice; rather, they are founded on progressive harmonic narratives. Even in the songs that return to the tonic, the harmonic narrative is scarcely a journey, but rather a series of discrete points that are visited as the song unfolds. This point may require further evidence in support, but in each section, the structural tension appears to be minimal because these sections are, more or less, harmonically self-contained. This sense of containment is similar to the static musical narrative of the blues.

On the other hand, the progressive nature of the modulations, often beginning and ending in different keys, is derived from the “quest” principle. ‘I Hope I

20 Interview.

Never’ is exemplary in this regard. Beginning in a quasi-B Mixolydian, the music employs pivot chords and applied dominants to move through D minor to E minor, which in turn, enacts an extended ii-V-I cadence in D major. Although Tim Finn claimed no theoretical knowledge21, this type of harmonic movement would not be out of place in the development section of sonata form.22 The difference is that in classical music, the “affirmation of original identity is guaranteed in advance.”23 In the popular examples, the final destination is not known until it is reached. But at the heart of both idioms’ structures is the notion that the harmony is moving towards some point.

If the narrative idea is extended outwards towards surface relationships, one can identify other features that are goal-directed. Examples of tonicizations are predominantly found in songs’ bridges and, thus, primarily serve to strengthen the tonic’s return. This is, albeit in shorter form, analogous to the classical harmonic narrative. In a related area, Moore distinguishes between open and closed principles with regards to sectional phrasing; he considers the most common verse/chorus pair is open/closed, in which the former ends on V and the latter on I.24 That most of the Nature’s Best songs cadence onto the tonic at the end of the chorus suggests this principle is at work. Again, the harmonic motion is teleological.

Although beyond McClary’s scope, the prevalence of arch melodies, outlined in Section 4.3.1, relates to a sense of musical narrative; the melody starts at a given point, departs and returns. This description can only be applied generally

because precise pitch relations were not sufficiently analysed, but arguably, the basic idea stands. This point is raised here for comparative purposes, using The Chills’ ‘Pink Frost’ as a brief case study. Although the arch shape may not be

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22 By which I mean the sense of moving through multiple keys before settling into the tonic, not the specific progression.

23 This is not necessarily the case with Wagner and other late-Romantics, but is generally applicable to classical music, especially that underpinned by sonata form principles. McClary, Conventional Wisdom, 66.

24 The terminology is borrowed from Schoenberg. Allan F. Moore, Rock: The Primary Text, 2nd ed. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), pp. 58-59.

considered normative, this song provides a fascinating contradiction to the overall melodic and harmonic trends.

Whereas the majority of Nature’s Best melodies involve movement or tension-and-release techniques, ‘Pink Frost’ is notable for its sense of stasis. The song’s verse, chorus and bridge contain their own melodic ideas that, on the surface at least, appear unrelated. The verse contains angular F minor arpeggios rising in one-bar fragments as part of two-bar phrases. This riff is extended in the third and fourth phrases to include an arpeggiated descent. At the end of the third phrase, the melody lands on the leading-note G, while the other phrases end on C. The harmony repeats vi-V-I in each two-bar phrase, with the guitar accenting the line Eb-C in the second bar. Combining these details, the tonic is avoided in both lines. Hence the melodies begin away from the tonic, hovering around the relative minor, but never appear to reach the tonic within the phrase and instead remain stuck to C.

The chorus inverts these features.25 The vocal is much more constricted, only spanning a third. Here, the vocal melody falls to the tonic, a low Ab, in each phrase, but this is undercut by the guitar and bass which rise from Bb to C, supporting a weak II-Ib progression. The introduction of the major supertonic, as well as a lack of other harmonic reference points, ensures that the tonal

orientation is distorted once again, and without this orientation, the sense of stasis remains: there is nowhere to go.

This brief analysis is important because it may provide insight into alternative rock techniques. It appears that either progressive or “quest” narrative features, or in other words, musical movement, are fundamental to popular music at various structural and surface levels. This is not to dismantle McClary’s earlier assertions as they have been taken and applied to areas outside their original contexts. What is interesting, however, is whether the musical stasis of ‘Pink Frost’ could be construed as an ‘alternative’ music trait.

25 I am grateful to Graeme Downes for pointing out this musical trait.

Bannister notes that independent (indie) or alternative rock does not share an antithetical relationship with the mainstream; the dynamic is much more complex.26 Nonetheless, several musical traits stand out in ‘Pink Frost’ as potentially oppositional to mainstream popular music, including the rough recording quality, the blurred instrumental textures especially in the lower registers and the minimal harmonic and melodic movement. This observation mirrors Graeme Downes’ harmonic and modal analysis of The Clean, noted in Chapter 2. He concludes The Clean’s “special place in the history of this country’s popular music” stems from “clearly discernable compositional differences [modal tensions] that distance them from the mainstream.”27 Downes emphasises this view when stating Dunedin bands “shared [unusual]

compositional strategies relating to form…irregular phrase structures…[and]

polymodality.”28 Furthermore, McDonald notes alternative rock bands in the 1990s used unconventional harmonic relationships, such as movement by thirds, as the foundation for songs. This can be heard in Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom’ and

‘About A Girl’ or Soundgarden’s ‘Head Down.’29

The details identified, such as phrase or riff structure, by Downes and

McDonald have not been closely analysed enough here. But one can argue that the musical narrative analysis suggests another strategy employed by The Chills to denote an alternative position. Further research into contemporaries of The Chills, both locally and internationally, may confirm if this particular trait is common to other artists outside the mainstream.