One Thing Leads to Another

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!

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