Thursday, 30 May 2013

A follow-up on the Chord Progression of Resignation

A couple of months ago I wrote this blog post about how harmonic structure relates to the emotional impact of music. It was something I'd been considering for a long time, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to discuss something so personal; I don't like talking about the emotional aspect of music, preferring to let it speak for itself (as, in my opinion, it should.)

In the end, I decided to go ahead and write about my discoveries, but keep most of what I said strictly within the realm of musical analysis. For example, I abstained from saying anything personal about the musical examples I linked to: I didn't say anything about how much I liked them, what I thought was special about them, or how they affected me emotionally. I just wrote one or two paragraphs detailing the harmonic structure of each example. Sometimes it was hard to refrain from gushing about pieces of music which I considered phenomenal works of art and incredibly creative and original in their use of harmony, but I stuck to my word and kept everything detached and impersonal.

However, since publishing that post I've discovered so much more music that uses the Chord Progression of Resignation that it's got to the point where I feel more needs to be said about exactly WHY I chose the music I did to illustrate the chord progression in question.

See, here's the thing: the Chord Progression of Resignation is a very, very common progression. When I first started listening out for it, I thought it was some extremely rare and outstanding harmonic structure which was to be found only in Ravel, Rachmaninov and certain kinds of progressive metal. This delusion didn't last long. Having trained my ears to recognise it, I was soon hearing the progression in even the most banal pop songs pumped out of bass-heavy speakers in clothes stores. And I found that, in the wrong context, the chord progression I initially thought encapsulated infinity (or something silly like that) could actually become boring.

It's not merely the ubiquitousness of the Chord Progression of Resignation that's made me think more needs to be said on the subject. It's also the fact that this progression is by no means the ONLY progression that makes me feel...well, the way the Chord Progression of Resignation makes me feel.
When I was in the process of writing my previous blog post, I actually started off listing about 5 different chord progressions which I thought were significant (although the Chord Progression of Resignation was still the MOST significant.) In the end, I had so many musical examples of that progression, and so few of the others, that I decided to devote the entire blog post to the one progression.

The truth is, although I still believe there is something distinctly special about the sequence of chords Im, III, IVm, VI, some pieces of music use them far more creatively and effectively than others, and the result is much more confronting (I feel that's an appropriate word for the effect I'm talking about) than, say, this, or 0:47 in this. I can think of way worse examples - in spite of myself I do actually get chills when I hear these songs - but they just don't compare to something like 8:09 in this - which isn't even, strictly speaking, the Chord Progression of Resignation! (VI, Vm, III, IVm, so while it still qualifies as a variant, it's a bit of stretch.)
The thing that's unusual about this usage of the progession is that it never resolves to the tonic, so you're left waiting for something that's never going to happen. Often such non-resolution is used to modulate into another key, but in this instance, the melody (which is almost an echo of the bass line a 5th higher) keeps the tonic firmly in sight, so there's no chance of mistaking the progression for III, IIm, VII, Im.
Unfortunately I can't include this song in my list of examples, since VI, Vm, IVm (which is what the progression really boils down to, since the III is little more than a passing note) is not close enough to the fundamental Chord Progression of Resignation to be classified as such.

One of the examples I recently added to my original blog post is from John Adams' opera Nixon in China. In the opening, the bass instruments in the orchestra set up the fundamental chord progression, starting with Im, VI, and then unfolding to encompass III as well. Meanwhile, the violins are playing natural minor scales in very clear 4/4 time, completely disregarding the off-beat entries of the rest of the orchestra. Due to the way the harmonic transitions are layered, it almost sounds as if everyone is playing in different time signatures. I don't have the score so I can't really analyse this piece, but I can tell that the enormous emotional tension of this opening is due largely to the way in which the different layers of the orchestra interact. Even after the chord progression shifts to something less portentous, the darkness and intensity established in the first section remains.

I think I've made my point now. The Chord Progression of Resignation is special, but just how special is highly dependant on how it's integrated with the music as a whole. This is what I've had to keep in mind when choosing what pieces of music to provide as examples. In the end, it boils down to what pieces I feel really deserve the title of 'art'.* A number of songs - including the first one I linked to above - have nearly made it into the list, but at the last minute I realised that in comparison to the other examples, there was a degree of complexity, or deliberate simplicity, or some indefinable stroke of genius lacking. Perhaps, if I persevere, I'll eventuallly be able to define exactly what that indefinable stroke of genius is - possibly a particular number of nonchord tones, or the way a melody interacts with the underlying harmony...

*The 2 compositions of my own which are on the list are not there for that reason; one of them I don't even like. I linked to them because I'd used the progression quite extensively before even identifying its existence, and thought that was interesting.

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