Musician, producer and composer Dave Painchaud writes about current events, politics and the culture at large.

Ideas are odd things - at least how and why they germinate - but if we ignore their arrival we do so at our own peril. They're gifts. I had one recently and it came up because I saw some electronic/edm producer/composers completely break down one of their pieces. The group in question is the duo called Kiasmos. I've liked their minimal sound for some time (I just think it's smart stuff) and was always curious as to what they thought they were creating. In a video filled with transparency they ran through everything they were thinking and I found it very informative as to their mindset.

A Kiasmos album cover - listen to their stuff!

There were a number of takeaways, but one of the ones that impacted me was that the music had very little harmonic movement at all and that, by itself, is a key to their sound. I knew this already - a lot of electronic music has this quality, but is it a choice? Is that what they want to do or is at all they can do? Is it all they can hear? It turns out they like things lean - it's a choice - and their audience finds these simple structures (and they are simple structures) easy and enjoyable to digest. There's a harmonic sweet spot being achieved here. That's cool... and it got me thinking... because a harmonic sweet spot has happened before.

If you go back to the history of jazz (and Western "classical" music as well) you find that the entire direction of this music is about getting increasingly more harmonically complex - about expanding the harmonic palette, as it were. Jazz progressed and changed from it's inception in the 1920's very quickly. By the late 1940's, bebop happened. Bebop was about pushing yourself, pushing what the ear could comprehend and what could be executed on an instrument to the limit. More chords, more complex chords, all moving at much greater rates of speed. Playing bebop requires a hyper-sophisticated musical animal and puts great demands on the listener as well.

Like any musical movement, there was a reaction - actually several. One of them was almost immediate - called cool jazz or West Coast jazz. It was usually slower and more melodic in the most general sense and simply not as harmonically complex. It's nice stuff, actually. Miles Davis, who started out life as bebopper and played in some of Charlie Parker's groups, helped usher in this reaction by doing his "Birth of the Cool" sessions which he recorded in 1949 and '50.

In 1959 Miles got a more radical idea. Jazz harmony had always been built on chords and the idea that the chords gave a song it's sense of harmonic movement and that depending on what the chord was certain notes became "legal" or "illegal" - knowing what the harmonic environment is at any given moment is an enormous part of playing jazz, particularly if there are a ton of chords going by. Miles wanted to change things and make them simpler because the character of the music would change and it would make the improvisor far more free to go in a variety of directions, which was something he desired for himself. Instead of chords, Miles was interested in scales, particularly scales that were derived from basic major scale harmony. This is where we enter the realm of the modes and modal jazz. It's actually not that tough. If you go to a piano and play the C major scale you have played the Ionian Mode. Congratulations. But what if you stay in the key of C and play all the same pitches except your start on a different note? What if you still play the same pool of notes but instead of going from C to C, you go up one note and play from D to D? They're the same notes... the only difference is you started on a different one. Why is it significant? Because even though they're the same notes, when you play from C to C - when the note C is home base - where everything wants to resolve to C - your starting point - you're playing in C Major as a key. But if you play the same notes and start from D and go to D - when D is your home base - you're now playing the D Dorian scale and... the world has changed harmonically (you're now in a minor key for one thing)... even though you're playing the same freaking notes! Start on the third note and do the same... a new mode with it's own characteristics. You can do this throughout the scale.

Here's what it looks like. Not that tough of an idea really. Now Miles found that there were certain modes he liked better than others and he decided to concentrate, at least initially on the Dorian mode. Fine. So here is where there is a little wrinkle: Miles wrote a tune that stayed in the D Dorian mode for 16 bars and then for the next 8 he decided to stay in the Dorian mode... but start a half step up on the piano for those next 8 bars. He went from D Dorian to Eb Dorian. The tonality shifted for 8 bars, but the mode... didn't. For the last 8 bars of the tune he went back to D Dorian. So... you didn't need to know a ton of chords to play this song, you only needed to know one mode and be able to be fluent in it starting on two notes. If you had that down, you were fine. On his recording session he had John Coltrane on tenor sax, Cannonball Adderley on alto, Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. None of these guys were going to be tripped up by some new ideas - they loved new ideas.

This modal idea, which had very little harmonic movement, was the basis for the landmark record "Kind Of Blue" which happens to be the highest selling record in the history of jazz and a cultural touchstone. Modal jazz would become important throughout the 1960's and beyond. If you've never done "Kind Of Blue", get it - when people aske me how to start listening to jazz, I always advise that they start with "Kind Of Blue" and play it in their house for about three weeks without paying too much attention to it and while reserving judgement - just have it on. After the three weeks they can decide whether they like it or not. Invariably the become jazz fans.

Where am I going with this? Well, after a ton of harmonic movement from the beboppers, the musicians and the people listening were ready for something different. That's natural. I wonder if that's true of the people that listen to Kiasmos and similar things - minimal electronica with limited harmonic movement. Maybe they're ready... for a little - just a little, mind you - more harmonic movement. So, what if you took Milles Davis's ideas about modal jazz... and plugged them into electronica and had... modal electronic music? I mean... what the hell would that be like????

I think I need to find out and thus... on my current project, which is slowly getting off the ground as I learn to use a new computer and digital audio workstation software and which will intentionally feature more accessible material - some of that - maybe a lot of that - will be in the form of modal electronica.

So, don't reject an idle idea or question. Just don't. Run down some answers. You never really know where it can take you! I have a ton of work to do as a result. And I'm thrilled!

Updated: Jan 29

So... When did we lose it? What was the moment where human thinking crossed the event horizon on it's way to oblivion? What am I talking about? Okay, let me put it this way: in this month's edition of Scientific American, the cover story was about the four most pressing science priorities for Biden. Things that he needs to do, from a scientific perspective, to help the country out of its myriad problems. What did they cite? Well, two obvious things and then two that seem more subtle but are probably vastly more powerful. The first two were Covid and Climate change, and within the first week of Biden taking over he's signed a number of executive orders attacking those very issues. There is a great deal to do and you're not going to get it all tackled in a week to ten days, but.. it's a start and it's a demonstration of intent. Great. Those two are truly emergencies in the time sensitive sense - stuff we have to get our arms around. The next two are fascinating...

They discussed restoring expertise - the idea that there even is such a thing is to most everyday Americans an idea that's rejected and that expertise is something that can be trusted (and not secret societies out to hoodwink the common people) is likewise rejected. Clearly to have a functioning society, this trust in and reliance upon expertise needs to once again be the dominant position. What seems fairly obvious was that this mission goes hand in hand with education and a sense that what people are being taught in school while growing up is true... if, in fact, it hones to scientific discoveries made over the past centuries. In order for a lot of people to buy into expertise again, they're going to need to be educated all over again - scientific ideas are going to need to be proven... to adults who somehow didn't give a damn the first time around and now are suffering for it. That's a tough one - a multi-generational enterprise to turn around what's been a disaster since well before Carl Sagan referred to the dumbing down of America in the early 90's. Still... it has to happen.

My favorite of Scientific American's big four was reestablishing reality. Ah! The big kahuna! If we can't agree on the easy stuff - a shared and agreed upon construct of what reality is... we're totally screwed. Civilization falls apart. In the past 20 years we have collectively and willingly chosen not to accept the shared reality and agree to it. Why did this happen? Why did we do this? Past generations didn't. Why did we? I think it really comes down to a lack of integrity and a sense, generationally... that Generation X never really grew up. If you want to deny the reality of something these days... it's not that hard to do. There's no real punishment for doing so - in fact, in many communities the instinct is rewarded. I think the bottom line is that when we are forced to agree to a shared version of reality and adhere to its dictates, it happens because we've lost an argument. In the past this wasn't a hard thing to do - there was a sense of fair play across disciplines (including arguments) and when you lost... your sense of integrity compelled you to admit to that and to conform... to somebody else's reality. Some people still do that, but a critical mass of the general population... won't... and never will.

That's a problem! And it's a problem bigger than all the others. Without a shared reality... there's no starting place for working out any of our other issues! This came to mind this week after the death of two famous people: Hank Aaron and Larry King. King once said that "Life imitates the World Series" which I'm not sure he invented, but he heard it somewhere and repeated it and that's how I came to be familiar with it. Yes, baseball in all its majesty and faults, is a great microcosm for the American experience. That occurred to me and then I thought of Aaron. What a towering personage - a truly marvelous human being of enormous integrity and possessing great talent. I thought of Aaron and thought of him as the greatest home run hitter of all time, which I believe he was, but then remembered... baseball still thinks of Barry Bonds as the home run king... which is ridiculous!

People have been disconnected from reality as long as there have been humans, but rarely do we truly suffer from mass delusion - or mass self-inflicted delusion. But we did in baseball... for a while. And we did it because we couldn't stand the idea that we would have to admit to ourselves that Barry Bonds and all the other steroid users - yeah, all of them... were cheating the sport. They were... cheaters. This doesn't need to be relitigated here - there were tons of people that revived flagging careers or had ones they never would have otherwise had because of their use of steroids (and don't make the weak argument that somehow being on steroids is the same as taking vitamins - sorry, there's a world of difference). Bonds was one of the most obvious and like many of the steroid guys, not a terribly likable human being. The truth was he was a taciturn, angry man and always had been, but the steroid use only made it worse. Like Roger Clemens and others, Bonds was about one thing and one thing only... the greater glory and financial success of Barry Bonds. And yet... there were tons of sports media people... that would never hold Bonds accountable because... he was a story... and it was happening on their watch... and after all anything that helped them as writers and commentators... no matter if it was evil... was okay with them. Bonds went for Aaron's record with all the drive of a man... taking every bit of juice to get him there. The shame of course is that Bonds was a great player - he didn't need to do this... but his drive and ambition was insatiable and not in a good way.

The truth is there shouldn't have been anything to discuss. Bonds, on 'roids for years, would break Aaron's record. The reality of the situation was perfectly obvious - it was a completely hollow and tainted achievement - but a lot of people (think sportswriters, broadcast people and a lot of fans) had either stopped caring about reality or had long since forgotten where they had left it (and were way too lazy to look). All that mattered for sports media, in the main, was self interest. The truth? There wasn't any truth, there were only opinions and what the mob was accepting as the truth on any given day. Journalism broke down in this instance and it has continued to do so. The institution of journalism - editors and those in power were derelict in their duty and if we could collectively lie or ignore what was true on a baseball diamond... we could lie about anything. Bob Costas spoke out on this sort of stuff during that time and, coupled with him telling the truth about concussions in football - something else nobody wanted to talk about - it undoubtedly made him a pariah, and he had (and in some quarters has) as good a reputation as anybody in sports journalism.

It's been said that America has given the world three great gifts; the U.S. Constitution, jazz and baseball. We can't agree on the constitution, jazz is a fractured mess that has long since lost its identity or any connection to an audience and baseball... can't agree on it's own history as the lords of the sport continue to tinker with it rather than accept it for what it is. Things are more than a little tattered right now and everyone is asking for a way to put it back together. There is no magic bullet, but a shared reality is the foundation of all else. How do we get there? We admit when we're wrong. We hold ourselves to a far higher standard of individual integrity... and we demand it of others. In fact, we demand it so much that the idea of lying or bending the truth for personal gain... becomes impossible because... it makes you unemployable. When we get there - when this sort of thing is something we all police as a society... we'll be on the right track. Not until.

Updated: Jan 20

Recently I had a moment of whiplash when I saw something that I held near and dear and also realized that sometimes things that are relatively old can be completely new, relevant and have something to say... again!

In my case I ran into an old BBC series on the history of science and knowledge from the mid-1980's hosted by James Burke called The Day the Universe Changed. Burke was the BBC's top science guy for many years - he had covered the moon landings for the BBC and was considered a first rate explainer of all things tough to wrap your head around. He was all of that - the BBC got that very right - but he was also so much more, His knowledge of the history of science was, and is, nothing short of extraordinary. I discovered the series as a single man living in Manhattan when it was rerun on The Learning Channel in the early 1990's (which at that time was actually all about providing programming that lived up to its name). At that point the series was probably about 6 to 8 years old - so not terribly out of date. Burke was absolutely captivating. I couldn't get enough of his shows and eventually recorded them via VCR tape (as one did in the time of stone knives and bearskin), so I could re-watch them and really get a feel for the material which was sometimes dense. Not since I was a kid when Carl Sagan had me totally knockered with Cosmos had I felt this strong about anything on television.

Burke had one main thesis for the entire show: that we are what we know... and that when the body of knowledge changes... so do we! The series then goes on to explain how, often by accident, great discoveries, advancements and developments that changed the world (the printing press, sanitation and public health, geometry in its applied sense, evolution, relativity) caused us to regard the world differently and eventually behave differently as a result. Rather than look down on previous generations as being too dumb to know better, Burke argues that they're intelligence was fine, but... they had to deal with the body of knowledge they had and that we wouldn't have done any better in similar circumstances! Shortly after postulating this in the first episode he'll take you all the way back to the Ionian Greeks and Thales of Miletus - arguably the father of science and philosophy who demanded that we ask questions... about everything! And without religious taboos! If you want to check it out (and you really should do so) you can see it right here.

Look, the entire series is wonderful - you'll be blown away, I think, by the fact that the ideas hold up so well - in fact some of them hold up even better than Burke could have imagined! For instance at the beginning of episode two, Burke is driving through the Tunisian desert - there’s nothing around for many miles when he encounters a traffic light right there in the middle of the desert and... he stops for the red light. Why? I mean, what’s the point when there’s nobody there? And Burke explains that it’s not because he’s been brainwashed or had his rights taken away, it’s because he’s part of society - there’s a social contract - with rules. And because he follows the rules he has a moral right to expect the good things that come from being a member of any society. Those are important and relevant ideas right now. Following the rules is, in essence, siding with civilization. Not doing so, which we’ve done before and was a decision that was advocated by a certain Carthaginian after the sack of Rome, actually helped lead to the Middle Ages at one point, and is a similarly bad decision now. So, what you do at the traffic light... matters.

I think it's fair to say that many today reject the social contract because they don't believe that the people offering the contract... are fair brokers... about anything! They're trying to make an essentially immoral and unethical act - the rejection of society - an ethical/moral choice. On the short list of the unsustainable... this has to be a killer of an idea! You can't possibly make it work... It doesn't stand up to scrutiny... but those offering it could care less. This is misdirection designed to get the credulous... angry. And it's worked. But the actual idea? No matter how hard you try to shoehorn that huey through the grinders of logic it will never make it through.

So, in these days in which we try to make sense of what we've just been through in the last four years and how people can believe the patently crazy, it might be a good idea to go back and relive how we got to be logical in the first place, because those arguments - even if made for mid-80's British TV - still are telling us some things and might help us find our rational feet again!