Saturday, February 11, 2006

Profound chords and Tchaikovsky

Driven to listen to Roger Waters's album "Amused to Death" for the first time in perhaps years. It would be better titled by T.S. Eliot's line, "distracted from distractions by distractions" perhaps. Waters quotes from a spectacular song by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds that draws out lines until the singer almost runs out of breath, lower and lower, always ending up with the line "now that God is in the house." It was hearing that song and realizing Waters had copied that made me go back to Amused to Death.

But anyway: I was struck again by the perfection and innovation of the chord progression of "Perfect Sense" on Waters's album. If you have a piano handy, you may want to try this. Play a triad, followed by a major scale downwards from the root until you hit the perfect fourth below. Play a major triad on this note (so the fifth is on the original tonic), and play another major scale downwards in the key of the root of the major triad. Repeat this, every other time taking it up an octave to stay in the same range. Finally, when you're tired of this, finish by playing the old major scale downward but instead of ending on the perfect fourth, play the tritone with its triad. So you're continuously switching from the tonic to the subdominant, using that subdominant (whose dominant itself is the old tonic) as the new tonic, and going down to its subdominant, and so forth. The optimism of the major triad is always tempered--undone, in fact--by two things: the new third is the relative minor of the old tonic, and the new tonic is always the minor seventh of two tonics ago.

If you do the precise tempo of lilting triplets that Waters plays, it has this effect on me: a thought, followed by a slight sinking feeling, and then a subtle realization that has both a sad and a bright side, repeated over and over, each time getting more profound, until you almost return to where you started, disjointed by the tritone. It's very powerful. And I've never heard it with this sort of simplicity before, even in classical music.

Tchaikovsky once said the saddest songs were in major keys: I think Roger Waters has pulled one off.


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