Saturday, December 24, 2016

in the wake of Slate's Wonder Week tribute to Stevie Wonder, let's discuss exactly why the chorus for "Living for the City" is a work of genius-a fusion of chromatic mediant pivot chords soaring above an octatonic bass line

"At least we still have Stevie" coming from Slate could be the most jinx-causing headline an online publication could possibly run with this late in 2016.  David Bowie and Prince died, right?  We lost Alan Rickman.  Given the number of musicians who have passed this year Slate saying "at least we ... " could be asking for trouble.

We do, however, for the time being, still have Stevie Wonder around.  There are some fun and fascinating pieces at Slate's Wonder Week but ... but ... it's disappointingly short on what we musicians call the shop talk of "what did he actually do?"

This post is going to try to rectify that by discussing what is easily one of the most justifiably legendary chorus in a pop song from the last fifty years, that chorus from "Living for the City".  First we need to look at what's over on Slate about this chorus.
Innervisions also marked Wonder’s full ascendance as a composer. At 23 years old, the kid who could play every instrument on earth (including chromatic harmonica like it was Charlie Parker’s alto sax) was now writing like some combination of George Gershwin and Smokey Robinson. The bridge to “Living for the City”—“da-da-da DAH, dah dah, DAH …”—is among the more harmonically counterintuitive chord progressions in pop music, a bunch of sounds that shouldn’t fit next to each according to every rule in the book and yet somehow fit perfectly.
I'm going to make a slightly long-form case that this sentiment about how the sounds "shouldn't fit next to each other according to every rule in the book" is completely wrong.  Music theory is a post hoc explanation of what works, not a prescriptive explanation of what you're allowed to do.  Okay, maybe it became that in the wake of dodecaphonic and serial procedures but within the realm of more conventional tonal organization based on diatonic or non-diatonic scales ... the rules are less hard-and-fast prescriptions that aggregated summaries of the things you can reliably get to "work" in the sense of asking moderately trained musicians you've never met before to reproduce reliably for you from a score.  Keep that in mind, because when you keep that kind of thing in mind you may find that Stevie Wonder didn't break the rules because those rules aren't necessarily there.  I'm on a kick against 19th century era musical pedagogy creating double binds by laying down as a law the kind of rules it claimed to be against being stuck with.  We were just talking last week about how in the 18th century there wasn't actually a thing known as sonata form.  By extension, we can do in writing about popular music what we did last week talking about sonata procedures in early 19th century guitar music, we can take some time to look at what was actually done without feeling obligated to say it does or doesn't "break the rules". 

So ...

I regard what Hamilton calls "the bridge" to be the actual chorus itself.  Everything in the harmonic and melodic activity of the song is building up to this point.  Besides, if we're going to call it a bridge why is it the "bridge" that ends the song?  It's not that you can't end a song with material that could be regarded as "bridge".  I've done that myself, it's that I think it's fairly audible that what Hamilton calls "the bridge" is the chorus for Wonder's song.  The bridge, I think, is where the recorded voice-over conversations are in the song, which can be omitted altogether during live performance.  Composing a transitional bridge that only needs to show up on the album performance is another kind of musical shrewdness that could be discussed by someone else at some other time.  On to the chorus ...

The justifiably legendary chorus shows up for the first time at 1:10

I'm going to enharmonically respell the descending bass line for those who think of this song as being in G flat. 

F#7   A Fr6    G  D    C   C7    A    G   F#

E       D#         D        C   A#    A    G   F#

Wonder's melody sounds pretty pentatonic because of that initial hook but he chromatically shifts from A sharp to A natural and then swivels in melodic fourths between A, D and E.  The line is decorated, obviously, but in the movement from the D in the bass line to the C he's swooped through the interval of a minor seventh. 

There are several things that can be highlighted about this little chorus.  If we listen for perceivable root movement what this chorus has is a series of chromatic mediant relationships in which Wonder starts on one chord, uses oblique and parallel motion to leap to a chord with a root a minor third above the previous chord, and then uses that chord as a way to repeat the process with occasionally help from passing chords.  The effect of that second inversion G (chord 3) is to set up an implied circle progression (D here is just a passing chord, albeit an amazing passing chord) from G to C.  Wonder sets up a move to the tritone chord of G flat/F sharp major with help from a G-C progression that's the strongest root movement you can have in conventional tonal harmony. 

But we're obviously not dealing with conventional tonal harmony.  Most crucially nobody except music journalists and other people who write about music ever said we had to.  Look at that bass line.  Granting the D natural may potentially fuzzy the overall linear movement what makes that descending bass line remarkable for a pop chorus is that it's in the octatonic scale, the scale of alternating whole steps and half steps that divides the octave into eight rather than seven tones (i.e. the diatonic scale we're probably taught is the foundational scale in Western music). 

So Wonder has a cycle of chromatic mediant pivots from F sharp to A to C natural and back to A and
back to F sharp.  This set of root movements outlines a diminished triad.  The majority of the notes in ths chorus are explicable in terms of the octatonic scale.

One of the only times I'm going to regard a wiki as worth referencing because you're probably not going to trawl through many theory textbooks or music history surveys on this weekend.

The octatonic scale features prominently in the work of composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky.  It's a scale with a history of being favored by a number of early 20th century avant garde composers in the Western tradition.  Chromatic mediant relationships go back fairly far.  Schubert and Beethoven were playing with mediant relationship modulations in large-scale formal units in the early 19th century.  Debussy and others played with chromatic mediants.  Wagner had a chromatic submediant or two in a few of his works. 

The short version of this point is that what makes Stevie Wonder's chorus to "Living for the City" so remarkable is that we can hear French sixth chords, octatonic bass lines, chromatic mediant pivoting by minor thirds from the initial tonic to the tritone chord and back through circular harmonic pivoting--and thanks to help from a neapolitan to tonic phrygian plagal cadence we're back to our opening chord like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Stevie Wonder's legendary chorus just took us through all the most durable harmonic innovations of the last two centuries of avant garde experimentation in tonal organization this side of the twelve-tone row and he did it in a merely twelve second chorus tagged on after what we thought (at first hearing) was going to be a pretty standard issue I-IV-V pop song. And he did all this in one of the simplest and most haunting chorus hooks in the 20th century. 

But the genius of the chorus is that it does not, in fact, come out of the blue.  Wonder has been preparing us for it calmly and steadily from the opening chords throughout that first full minute of the song. Those opening four chords move through a linear 1-2-3-1 in F sharp minor while harmonizing the chords in G flat major/F sharp major. This tension between minor mode linear movement and major mode tonality doesn't reveal its full range of possibilities for a minute, not until after Wonder's given us that classic IV-V-I conventional tonal resolution.  He gives us the most by-the-book harmonic resolution for Western pop music and the high Classic era.  Okay, now that we've got that done, bam, the music takes flight into that remarkable chorus. 

And it's also the end of the song, obviously.  It's here where the genius of the harmonic/melodic craft is also audible.  What Wonder does is simple, he refuses to let the step-wise root movement in the octatonic bass line reach its by-now predictable end point.  We're not going to go back to where we were before.  We can stop at a higher, brighter, more shining place.  That G major chord, the Neapolitan harmony, is allowed to do two things.  First, remember how I mentioned that the G was set up as an implicit dominant that moves by circle progression to C?  It gets to play that harmonic role, a kind of half cadence to a never-arrived-at C major triad that is as harmonically far away from the "ground" of G flat major as could be possible.  The voices are striving ever upward toward a world in which no one has to live just enough or give just enough for the city (let's just throw in a direct reference to "the city" as Babylon or the City of Man while we're at it, that's not inimical to Wonder's approach). 

But there's a second way in which this non-resolved G chord can function, as the new tonic.  It's able to be heard or "read" as arriving at a new, higher, better and brighter tomorrow or as the aspiration toward it (the aforementioned function of the G chord as a dominant that pushes toward C major).  The key of G flat major, in terms of extra-musical association and symbolism, can telegraph that the people who live in Wonder's song-world live in a world of all flats and the emergence of G major is the paradoxically "natural" world that does not yet exist, where things will be made right and the oppression of racism no longer exists.  With either interpretation of the final harmony we're given a vivid musical image of an eagerly anticipated world in which injustice has been defeated.  Wonder has deployed several of the musical tools of the trade of mystical apocalyptic of the sort we might also hear in Scriabin but puts it to more compelling and socially engaged use.  Yes, I said that, it's not meant as an offense to Scriabin fans as such, I just enjoy Stevie Wonder more than Scriabin if I "have" to pick one of the two. 

But in both cases we could propose there's the possibility, existing as a flame within the music itself, of apocalyptic that is not a thing predicated primarily on fear (more or less the base line for the super-majority of apocalyptic imagination in 20th century pop culture a la James Cameron's Terminator or Kubrick's Strangelove), but apocalyptic expressing the paradoxical but natural mixture of anger and hope.  If that closing G chord is the new tonic it may just be a dream, if the closing G major chord is, as it has been up until the end, a quasi-dominant function preparing to launch us into C major, then the harmonic irresolution/resolution is wordlessly asking a question--we could be on the cusp of launching into C major, that bright shining realm in which the injustices of racism no longer define how blacks get treated in the city ... but will we get there?  Not just "we" in the sense of Wonder addressing "his" people, but all of us in the United States who can hear his song.  Wonder has made a song in which "we" can be read at different levels.  He couldn't have been more direct about his voice of sorrow and his hope that what we hear in it will motivate us to make a better tomorrow.

This isn't a chorus that somehow breaks every rule in the book, it's a chorus written by someone who, however he opted to do it, familiarized himself with the panoply of harmonic innovations from avant garde music in the Western idioms over the last two centuries and distilled them into a twelve-second chorus that uses musical ideas we could also hear in Debussy, Scriabin, Stravinsky and other composers in what's known as the classical tradition, but all within Wonder's idiom of R&B/Motown. 

As I was saying earlier about genres such as early 19th century classical guitar and ragtime, it's one thing to say that genre doesn't exist and another thing to say that genre boundaries are permeable.   People who say genres don't exist in music are being morons of the sort who would have us believe a cinematic equivalent, that there's no such thing as superhero movies.  But that the boundaries between and within genres are permeable is something we can be reminded of by those musical geniuses who show rather than tell us that this is the case.  The octatonic scale isn't the exclusive property of Russian or French avant garde pianist composers from the late 19th and early 20th century.  French sixth chords are just called that because the French were most observably likely to use them.  Chromatic mediant pivoting well outside a previously established key was common in German music since the early 19th century.  But there's no reason a black pop musician in 1970s America couldn't take all of these musical innovations and distill them into a single twelve-second tag in a pop song that sums up the greatest innovations in the Western musical traditions.  That's not "breaking the rules" at all, except the most draconian and generally unwritten rules of musical styles, expectations of what "ought" to be in a genre on the basis of what writers write about music.

The thing is, too many writers want to keep the genius of what Wonder did mysterious.  It's amazing but not necessarily mysterious in the sense that we can't work out what it was he did in that beautiful chorus and explain it in terms that at least musicians can understand. 

But non-musicians can understand the affect of what's going on.  While the doctrine of affect from the Baroque era won't really be applicable today we can at least say that the cyclical vamping Wonder lays down at the start of the song can be a kind of meta-textual tone-painting of the circularity and confinement black people deal with.  Living just enough for the city is confining, we get that clearly from the words but we ALSO get it from the music.  The plea to stop living just enough for the city abandons conventional words for the chorus, which bursts open the deliberate strait-jacketed I-IV-V in favor of letting the minor-mode linear pattern of the upper-voice in the keyboard guide the entire musical substance into the chromatic mediant shifting octatonic chorus.  Wonder saves this explosion of harmonically expanded music, a musical symbol, perhaps, of what the music can be like if we don't live just enough for the city, until he's made the primary plea.  All of this octatonic/mediant shifting music is the sort of thing we can also hear in Scriabin and, well, Stevie Wonder's kind of pan-spiritual 1970s New Age optimism and activism isn't "that" impossible to correlate to Scriabin's apocalyptic theosophical aspiration for universal human brotherhood, is it? 

Maybe Stevie Wonder could be regarded as a kind of late 20th century pop-maestro American counterpart to Scriabin ...

if Scriabin wrote gorgeous, unforgettable hooks for pop songs that dealt with the plight of black people in the United States dealing with systemic racism. 

That only took about 2,600 words to explain what's so brilliant about twelve seconds of music in a Stevie Wonder song.  What's nagged at me this week is that Slate has been that when it came to explicating Wonder's genius there was a more telling than showing when it came to discussing that musical genius.  Go ahead, tell us (again) that Wonder is one of the greatest pop musicians of the age.  I've never disagreed!  When I added love for Haydn and Bach to my musical admirations Stevie Wonder was in no way displaced.  But let's not shy away from explaining, even in technical and theoretical terms, what it is that Wonder's done in his music that's so brilliant.  If we don't do even this it's almost as though we pay lip service to the brilliance without showing we have to wrestle a bit with understanding it.  When we're talking about a musician who called one of his albums Music of My Mind, the least we can do is take seriously that however schmaltzy some of those love songs are, there is also a vibrant intellectual substance to it.  It's just that, perhaps, with Wonder the intellectual substance may be pulsating within the music itself and far too few people who deign to write about Wonder's music may have the technical and theoretical interests to discuss the genius of what the music does, preferring instead to use bromides about how it somehow breaks the rules.  Well if it does break the rules, at least say what those rules are.  If Wagner fans can write reams on the Tristan chord can't fans of Stevie Wonder spare a few thousand words for that twelve-second break in "Living for the City" to describe what it is that's so amazing about it?  I think that's the least we can do.


Here's something extra to consider about the chorus. The two chords that don't fit into the octatonic scale that would seem to explain the instrumental parts are G and D.  These two chords would obviously not fit into the octatonic collection that would start on F sharp or, if one chord could the other one could not.  It's known as the "diminished" scale because a dominant-tonic circle progression can't happen in the alternation of whole and half steps that characterizes the scale.  Secondary dominant functionality obviously also doesn't happen.   What the chords G and D have is that they have to be borrowed from the other two transpositions of the octatonic scale, a mode of limited transposition.  So the sense of aspiration and transcendental grandeur that the song ends with can "still" be explicable in terms of octatonic sets if we take it to mean that Wonder sets up a chorus with an octatonic collection for the instrumental parts that uses passing chords to borrow chords from the other two transpositions that are available before pitch replication occurs in a way that precludes truly differentiated sets within the twelve-tones of the chromatic scale.