Lighter than Air: In which I make up maths and revisit Bioshock Infinite

Normally, after so long an absence from the blog-o-sphere, bloggers (I’ve observed) tend to write a paragraph or more of apologies and excuses. I’m not going to do that, other than to say my wife and I welcomed baby Alec into our home in late August. Since I tend to labor over my blog posts for so long anyway, this made posting untenable according to the following proof:

This is a simulated mathematical equation. The names and functions have been changed to protect the innocent.

This is a simulated mathematical equation. The names and functions have been changed to protect the innocent.

in which P represents the magnitude of parenthood, multiplied by the challenges n of being brand new to the parenting. B is the sum of all baby activities (including crying time elapsed, pacifier coordinates, and urination vectors) and Ro represents all other responsibilities (including spikes in number of errands run; time elapsed in teaching, grading, and lesson preparation; GPD (gross professional development); and number of deaf ears upon which my church music reminder emails fell upon. Added to that is the time spent eating π. These operations result in blogging quotient b, which is less than time t available.

As you can see in the maths, my reasons are justified. As they say, the numbers don’t lie (which is why I used letters).

So today I’m phoning it in and posting a recording I made of my recent presentation at the second North American Conference on Video Game Music, which took place 17–18 January at Texas Christian University in Forth Worth. It’s on Bioshock Infinite again, but this time focusing on some of the original music composed for the game by Garry Schyman, and how reminiscent it is of works composed by Charles Ives. (A look through some of my older posts might suggest that I’m a die-heard Ives fanatic, which isn’t really true; it’s just that I’ve happened to write about him a few times in this venue.)

I recommend watching it at the highest resolution; otherwise the musical notation and some text will be almost impossible to read. Without further ado:

“The Things Our Fathers Loved”–Part the Second: in which we learn a little more about Charles Ives and dissonance.

At long last! Part the Second!

[This post is adapted from a 27 January 2009 post for a musicology class blog on American Innovators.]

Ives was not one to shy away from musical edginess. This was due in part to training given him by his father, which encouraged experimentation. The other part has been said to be his desire to eschew the Romantic ideals of Europe and his fear that a deep interest in music might reflect badly on his masculinity among his business associates (he sold insurance, remember). In fact I recall an anecdote in which he referred to “not-man-enough Rachmaninoff.”

Regardless of the reasons, conscious or not, Ives is believed to have been the first to innovate a lot of compositional techniques that would characterize art music on both sides of the Atlantic for the next century. In Part the First, we looked at his use of borrowing tunes and influences in his art song, The Things Our Fathers Loved. In this post, we’ll have a look at Ives’s use of dissonance in the same song. It is by no means Ives’s most obscure or crunchy piece, nor is it one of his entirely traditional, 1st-symphony sorts either. Here, again, is a chance to listen.

By today’s standards, one might chuckle at the idea that this piece is edgy, highly dissonant, or obscure. As in any generation, we have difficulty imagining society any other way than the one we know. But we live in a post-libertation-of-dissonance soundscape; we have 21st-century ears. One hundred years ago, the soundscape was not so cacophonic.

One of the things Ives learned from his father’s tutelage is the craft of counterpoint. We see that at the outset. The voice begins in a very diatonic, and acceptable fashion that seems to imply C major, but within moments the piano is imitating the gesture up a major third. The piano doesn’t really have time to imply a key, but if the voice’s part is the template for the imitation, then E major would be the likely choice. At the moment the piano enters (on a G-sharp), it is creating an augmented 5th against the voice and the base pedal below.

Dissonant motivic imitation and polytonality

A similar sort of imitation happens again in m. 2, where the piano echoes the same motive. Here, the piano’s pitches have changed, but they still fit into the right hand’s indecisive use of E major. In this spot, the voice and right hand have aligned their timing, but both are sticking to their respective keys. These dissonances result from one of Ives’s hallmarks—polytonality, the simultaneous use of two or more keys at the same time (in this case, C major and E major, which don’t share all that much in common).

From m. 3, everything is rather pleasant until the downbeat of m. 10. In fact m. 10 just seems like a non sequitur—as though a measure is missing between mm. 9 and 10. This is an example of linear or melodic dissonance. That is, m. 10 sounds off because it’s nothing like what we expect to hear.

Crazy Tonal Shift

Even if you are not aware of it, your brain has learned patterns and norms of what to expect when listening to music. Ives thwarts those expectations by giving you something that doesn’t fit those patterns. (If you weren’t surprised by this spot, then it’s probably because you are listening with 21st-century ears.)

Again, things seem to normalize for a while until rising to the song’s climax in m. 15 (and continuing through m. 18). Here it seems like the piano and voice are in very different worlds.

When worlds collide

Just look at all the sharps showing up in the piano part; how many sharps, or accidentals of any kind appear in the voice in the these bars? None. Then, beginning in m. 20, the voice starts using some sharps just when they disappear from the piano. (Oh, Ives, you old rascal!)

The end is perhaps my favorite part. The song ends in such a curious way, and I love it. The slowing down and decreased dynamics all indicate that we’re coming to a final cadence, but the pitches Ives uses imply that the song isn’t over.

The beginning and the end

There are a few ways we can understand that last chord:

  1. It could be some kind of polychord. The piano has a D-sharp minor chord in the left hand and what could be a G-sharp major triad in the right hand. It’s a bit nebulous since the right hand only has two of the three pitches. This reading holds that all pitches present are chord tones, but they might belong to different chords sounding simultaneously, and that is supported by the fact that Ives has already used polytonality earlier in the song.
  2. It could be a B-sharp half-diminished seventh chord (B-sharp, D-sharp, F-sharp, A-sharp) with an added 6th (the G-sharp). This reading would view the G-sharp almost as a non chord tone, because it doesn’t really fit into the half-diminished paradigm.
  3. Or it could be a G-sharp 9th chord (G-sharp, B-sharp, D-sharp, F-sharp, A-sharp). Since ninth chords usually function as dominants, this would help explain why this last chord of the song feels, as I’ve already noted, unfinished.
My vote goes to Option #2 by simple virtue of the voicing of the chord. I don’t hear Option #3 because the G-sharp is so high in the texture that it doesn’t sound like a root. And while I can intellectually agree with Option #1, the fact that the the pitches are so spaced out means that I cannot aurally perceive where the left hand ends and the right hand begins. Typical use of a polychord would put some space between the two so that the listener can tell that there are two chords going on. However, a case can be made for any of the options, and if you put three music theorists in a room, you will likely get three answers. (The room itself is optional.)

It’s really the G-sharp in the voice and piano’s right hand that causes all these possibilities. Interestingly, that same G-sharp is exactly the same oddity that began this discussion on dissonance. Remember the piano’s right hand in m. 2? The whole last phrase of text (mm. 20–end) sounds to me like the fulfillment of the hint given by the piano in m. 2. The the melodic gesture and contour of that last phrase is actually the same as that at the beginning! Yet it is still at odds (dissonant) with that beginning.

So yeah! Ives packs a lot of hidden (and not so hidden) stuff into only 22 measures! “The Things Our Fathers Loved” is a super-neato microcosm of interesting stuff.

Here ends Part the Second.

“The Things Our Fathers Loved”–Part the First: in which we learn a little about Charles Ives and intertexuality

[This post is adapted from a 27 January 2009 for a musicology class blog on American Innovators. However it makes for an ideal first topic here, where I’m very interested in engaging the old and the new together.]

Charles Ives (1874–1954) was an American composer who actually made his living as an insurance salesman (certainly not the “starving artist”). His unique contribution to art music, and to American music in particular, is in his quirky combinations of popular music of his time, traditional idioms of art music, hymnody, and patriotic songs.  His sense of humor, wit, and irony are rarely difficult to notice.

His solo song The Things Our Fathers Loved is a particular favorite of mine. I think this piece alone encapsulates a great deal of what Ives is known for. By that, I mean, the composition itself is idiomatically “Ivesian,” as well as the text which Ives himself wrote. The full score of the song can be viewed at IMSLP, along with 113 other songs by Charles Ives. The Things Our Fathers Loved is no. 43 on p. 91.

(Or you can watch the score along with a less-than-stellar performance here)

You may listen to that and decide right away, that its not your cup of tea.  Perhaps it sounds too avant-garde.  But keep in mind that Ives wrote this back in 1917.  Ives is walking a thin tight rope between “push the boundaries” and “make it accessible.”  In many of his other pieces he strayed farther into “push the boundaries” territory (such as The Unaswered Question), so count your blessings.

Quotation, or intertextuality, is the most obvious trait perhaps, and that includes both direct quotation/allusion to specific tunes or pieces, as well as stylistic quotation. (Stylistic quotation is music that gives us the listeners an impression that we associate with a particular time, place, or genre.)  Quotation is a technique used to great comic effect by Peter Schikele (and his fictional creation, P.D.Q. Bach—not to be confused with the historical J.S. Bach, J.C. BachC.P.E. Bach, and all the other little Bachs).

The Things Our Fathers Loved is not a very long composition, but it contains a wealth of interesting details. In fact, the first line of the lyrics provide helpful insight into how Ives put the piece together:

I think there must be a place in the soul all made of tunes, of tunes long ago

1. Direction Quotation

First, let’s look at some examples of direct quotation.

Compare the melodies of these two excerpts. The first is from the first three measures of The Things Our Fathers Loved; the second is the popular southern tune Dixie. The blue boxes in each excerpt enclose the same melodic material, with the exception of a brief alteration that Ives inserts into his version.

Example 1

Ives, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 1–3

“Dixie”—a popular tune in the American South, written around 1859 by Daniel Decatur Emmett

Even though Ives has altered the rhythm, the right pitches are still in the right order.  Now when Mark Evan Bonds discusses this piece in his textbook A History of Music in Western Culture (2003, link is for the 2009 ed., I believe), he says that Dixie ”merges imperceptibly into My Old Kentucky Home” (p. 504). Well, in my opinion, that merging is so imperceptible I don’t hear My Old Kentucky Home at all.  Perhaps someone can point it out to me (assuming anyone is reading this).  Still, Dixie is there.  Not convinced? Read on.

[EDIT: After further consultation, My Old Kentucky Home does show up, but later than I had expected to find it, based on Bonds’s comment. It actually begins in the voice, pick-ups to m. 5, whereas I’d been expecting it to actually merge with Dixie in m. 4. This egregious oversight is entirely my fault.]

Compare these two excerpts. The first is from mm. 7–9 of The Things Our Fathers Loved; the second is from the tune Nettleton, better known for its association with the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Notice the similarities? The red boxes show how much the two tunes share in common.

Example 2

Ives, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 8–9

“Nettleton”—an American folk tune composed by John Wyeth. It is better known for its use as the hymn tune for the text, “Come, Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing”

Here we find Ives using a hymn tune to underlie his text: “Aunt Sarah humming Gospels.”  On some level, then the listener is associating the words with familiar Gospel-associated music.

Now compare these two excerpts. The first is from mm. 13–14; the second is from the  then popular patriotic song ”Battle Cry of Freedom.” The green boxes show the part that is shared between the two. (The yellow box in the “Battle Cry of Freedom” excerpt will come into play soon, so be on the lookout.)

Example 3

Ives, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 13–14

“Battle Cry of Freedom”—a popular song of the American North during the Civil War, composed in 1862 by American composer George F. Root.

Notice how Ives uses a patriotic tune to set the text “The town’s Red, White and Blue, all Red, White and Blue.”  Granted, the tunes end differently, but that’s because Ives is preparing to introduce yet another quotation.

Compare these two excerpts (last time, I promise). The first is from mm. 15–20; the second is from the the spiritual song In the Sweet By and By.  The purple boxes (once again) show the parts that are shared between the original and Ives’s version.

Example 4

“In the Sweet By and By” in Charles Ives’s “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 15–22

“In the Sweet By and By”—a hymn tune by Joseph P. Webster, published in 1868

Ives does make some adjustments to the tune but we can still hear it embedded there—quite a lot of it actually.  And look! As promised, the yellow box in “Battle Cry of Freedom” did matter. Here the piano echoes a different part of the tune that the singer’s part never quoted.  And actually, hints of “battle Cry” show up all over the place in the piano’s right hand, underscoring the singer’s “In the Sweet By and By.” There are some other quirks having to do with voice/piano interaction, but I’ll save them for “The Things Our Fathers Loved”—Part the Second.

2. Stylistic Quotation

Stylistic quotations are a bit more nebulous and subjective.  However, I would cite mm. 6–7.3, where the text reads, “I hear the organ on the Main Street corner” as an example of stylistic intertextuality.

Ives, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 6–7.3

To me, this lilting melodic/rhythmic style conjures a sense of parlor entertainment popular around the turn of the 20th century that. With the rise of the piano in the 19th century, members of the emerging middle class were able to afford pianos. With an increase in laypeople playing piano came a blossoming of popular songs that people could play for their own enjoyment or to entertain guests. (Remember, this would have been before iPods, cassette tapes, television or even radio; the only way to disseminate popular music was if people could play to for themselves.)

Likewise, mm. 11–12, “The village cornet band, playing in the square,” has nuances idiomatic oom-pah of the American brass band, with the bass line in the piano.

Ives, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 11–12

You may notice in the right hand of the piano, the “Battle Cry of Freedom” theme shows up, foreshadowing its arrival in the voice part (which occurs in mm. 13–14, shown back in Example 3).

In “The Things Our Fathers Loved”—Part the Second, we’ll have a look at melodic and harmonic dissonance in this song.