Notes Before the Road

I’m preparing to get my car out of the repair shop (blown head gasket, among other things) to drive to New Hampshire to play with pianist Denman Maroney and drummer Bob Meyer in a trio that focuses on playing music that employs rhythms that can be perceived and performed as outlining several simultaneously occurring time signatures and/or tempos. Before I go, however, I want to posit a tenuous, but real, connection between these multi-temporal constructs and so-called “slash” chords of letter-based chord symbols that get to the heart of Western music.

This idea was inspired in part by a lecture I attended last night at the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers University’s Dana Library in Newark, New Jersey. It was part of the Jazz Research Roundtable series that the IJS hosts about once a month covering subjects from nascent discography databases (jazz research is still largely about record collecting) to the impact of jazz on global politics. The lecture I attended focused on Dr. Michael Kahr’s (University of Music and Performing Arts, Graz, Austria) research on Clare Fischer, a composer and pianist who is one of the most influential figures in American music, despite a career clouded by relative obscurity. His arranging for the Hi-Los inspired much of the musical output of Herbie Hancock (or so Hancock admits) and his composition “Morning” is a Latin-jazz standard. His compositions for string orchestra and cello that have just been made available, while showing a profound Shostakovitch influence, reveal a unique voice in tonal art music.

Fischer’s inability to gracefully accept the dilution of his musical vision might be at the heart of his relative obscurity. He writes what he intends to be performed and is exacting in his use of notation. He makes it very clear that third-party editing is not welcome. One of the reasons that so few collections of his sheet music are available is because when music editors don’t believe what they see in his manuscripts and begin to “correct” them, Fischer withdraws from the association. His highly chromatic approach to voice leading and tendency to resolve to dissonant chords probably freaks out the journeyman theoretician engaged as an intern at a publishing company. Besides the regular use of double flats and sharps, Fischer is also strict in his approach to letter-based chord symbols. He feels that the use of suffixes like “b13” and “#9” can be confusing and should be replaced with “-13” and “+9,” respectively, and that “M” and “m” should always indicate major and minor chords. I don’t agree with him on this. I think that “-” should represent a minor triad root of a chord with “ ° ” being diminished, “+” being augmented and the delta (“∆”) indicating major (the absence of a modifying symbol indicating a major triad). Suffixes then include b (meaning “flattened”) and # (sharpened). In the case of repetition, say an A-flat triad with an added minor 6th, is spelled out: Ab add b6 (the word “add” and the suffix would be higher than the baseline offered in MS word).

I haven’t seen a Fischer-approved lead sheet so I can’t say whether he approves of slash chords or not. My single question to Dr. Kahr was about whether or not Fischer discussed the use of pitch-class sets in his composition process. But Fischer’s approval of using slash chords (where an independent root is listed after, or below, a slash that is placed after or below the triadic chord symbol, such as A7/Ab) would not sway my feelings about their value. Especially when a chord like the A-minor triad with a major seven (A-(∆7)) can be better described as an E-augmented triad over an A (E+/A). Then a chord like C7b9 can be described as a Db diminished triad over C (Db°/C).

This allows for thinking about the harmonic-melodic universe for the chord as either D-flat diminished or as C-major with a dominant seventh. The slash chord allows for multiple perceptions in a similar way that the rhythms of Alt.Timers’ music does—only one is about harmony and the other is about meter. One gives the illusion of the musicians playing in differing tempos and the other in differing keys. In reality, there’s not much new about any of this. Jazz musicians and 20th-century composers have been doing it to some degree for quite a while. To me it exemplifies the spirit of what John Corigliano calls “multiple processes” in his composition class as part of the American musical paradigm. I wanted to use a term “poly-procedural” to describe the technique, but it has been rejected, for one reason or another, from just about everyone I’ve suggested it to.

To me, that is what improvising boils down to: the simultaneous multiple processes going on whenever two or more people get together to make music that isn’t written down or memorized. Of course, multiple processes are at work when one improvises while the other reads a part, too. The idea that everyone is playing the same thing is an illusion. While it’s not particularly earth-shattering, like the Fall of Troy, it helps me get through another dismal chorus of “Georgia On My Mind.”

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3 thoughts on “Notes Before the Road

  1. D

    A very interesting post. I agree with your analysis of chord symbols, and that slash chords should only be used where the harmony could be interpreted as 2 different triads. But when you say improvisation is about the multiple processes of 2 or more people playing unwritten music – what about solo improvisation? It sounds from your analysis like you wouldn’t consider Koln Concert to be improvisation.

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  2. Freddie Jacobs

    hi Ratzo B,
    I like both uses of chord symbols, thinking vertically of the entire chord, as your example C7b9, or the polytonality Dbo/C7 (or Db-/C7 or A/C7…) And the scales that fit melodically as well.
    Cheers, Freddie J

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  3. MarkNGrant

    As an occasional playing musician on gigs I always find sheet music with horizontal slash chords hard to read at sight. On the other hand, if the root of the chord is placed vertically below the slash, I have no trouble sight reading it. It’s more legible and intelligible (and musically logical) when the slash is “stacked” vertically.

    Ratzo, I don’t follow why an A minor triad with a major seventh would be better expressed as an E augmented over an A root. The former defines the chord’s function in tonal harmony, the latter begs the question.

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