Holiday Cheer and Voice Leading

Another missive for my NEC jazz piano students: 

If one is writing SATB, all the voices should have a good melody. Melody in the inner-parts is called voice leading. A certain number of rules and regulations should generally be followed, but creativity is allowed if the final effect is suitably attractive.

A genial way to explore part writing and voice leading is with Christmas carols. In all the old SATB carol books, one sees the arrangers having plenty of fun solving the problems. Here are two I picked at random, both harmonized by Sir John Stainer in 1850. (Thanks to Matthew Guerrieri for the Stainer attribution.)

Good King

The above version of “Good King Wenceslas” is utterly diatonic throughout. Gorgeous. In this diatonic context one can really feel the power of relative minor and subdominant. (The final two bars predict 80’s pop music.) 

God Rest

For “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” Stainer lets himself have even more fun. The first bar is especially beautiful and distinctive. For myself, at the end of the piece, I’d put the alto on B and have the full E minor to finish. But on the other hand, leaving out the fifth perhaps gives it an “antique” or “medieval” kind of feeling.

Carols are often done by brass ensembles. From brass ensembles it is an easy step to jazz band. On Carla Bley’s wonderful Carla’s Christmas Carols the Partyka Brass Quintet can play both with a pure tone and take jazz solos, and Bley’s casually pretty yet sardonic aesthetic is a perfect fit.

Alex Raupach tweeted his transcription to Bley’s score to “Joy to the World.” In this arrangement the point is not a simple chorale texture but something canonic over a wandering bass line.

joy to the world Bley

Bley is a pro. There’s nothing she can write that will have bad voice leading. If she “cheats” it is for a good reason.

Johnny Greenwood tweeted out some of the score to the new movie Phantom Thread.

greenwood 1

greenwood 2

greenwood 3greenwood 4

Greenwood is explicitly trying to sound like old European Classical music in this excerpt. It’s a historical movie, and he even writes “baroque dynamics” and “baroque ornaments ad lib.” Because of that context — I’d never bring up this stuff while looking at a Radiohead song — I am surprised by his voice leading choices.

phantom 1

Why is the above so strange? Don’t be fooled by the rhythm, look at the outline, the “chorale” hidden inside the notes.

phantom 5

The weirdness in the very first three bars can be boiled down even further:  If you are going to put the seventh in the bass, you’ve got to resolve it down to the third and put the melody on the tonic of iv.

phantom 3

The wide-ranging and harmonically colorful melody Greenwood came up with is striking, I can understand why he would want to keep that melody all cost. But then he has to fix the bass line. How would you fix it? (I can see a half-dozen ways, from simple to complex.) As the piece moves on there are several other things that seem “wrong,” at least to me — does anything else strike you that way?

Stravinsky does exactly this kind of “incorrect” cross relation for special effect in anachronistic styles, for example the arrangements of old Italian tunes in Pulcinella. It’s unlikely that this kind of irony is what is driving Greenwood’s argument here — the piece is almost certainly just straight up “moody sounding stuff like old classical music” — but obviously I can’t know for sure.

Greenwood is wildly successful and moves multitudes with his art, so he’s obviously doing something right. In addition, movie music is indeed its own genre: Maybe I’ll see Phantom Thread and really enjoy it.

My larger point is simply that there are better and worse note choices in all sorts of situations. Or perhaps they better way to say it is: there are more impersonal and personal choices. If you going to become a professional yourself, it’s time to pay attention. Whether it’s the carolers on the street or the sounds on the silver screen, tune up your ears and ask, “Is there room for improvement? How would I do it?”

Bonus tracks: “Deck the Halls with Vince Guaraldi” and “West Coast Piano.”

Previously: NEC post featuring many harmonizations of “All the Things You Are.”