West Side Story

I recently came back to playing this music with Paul Clarvis, twenty years after we first tried it.  The same feelings returned, the physical buzz of diving into something so full of musical opportunity.  Physicists tell us that time doesn’t exist, that their quantum equations don’t add up unless you take the bit out, and I can verify that. Coming back to this music, it feels as if time stands still whilst our bodies simply age around it. I am 29 again, in so far as I ever was.

Somehow the plot of West Side Story, of true love scuppered by the squabbling of rival gangs, is in the music itself.  He somehow builds it into the sound, shooting through the popular musical with darkness and uncertainty, a kind of instability.  A chord in music has what’s called a root note, it identifies the “key” and is the main thing that defines its relationship to other chords.  If you put this note at the bottom, you get a “strong and stable” sound.  An Ed Sheeran song like “Perfect”, for instance, has all its root notes on the bottom.  It’s unambiguous, it gets to the point.  This is great.  Plenty of good songs like that, but….this is the fossil fuel of music, fresh ways of doing it are running out.  Chords seem to be the last thing that anyone thinks of tinkering with (jazz, on the other hand, often has the opposite problem).  In songs like “One Hand, One Heart” and “Tonight”, Bernstein takes this “fist in the air” sincerity and undermines it.

“One Hand” is a hymn to devotional love. Hymns are celebrated for their logical beauty, parts moving impeccably yet beautifully between well chosen chords that are easily recognised by a congregation. Bernstein sticks to this idea, the melody moves one step at a time for most of the time…but underneath, he chooses to jump from one unstable bass note to another.  The chords are solid, secure, but the bass movement has an “unresolved” quality.  (I once saw Jack Dee doing stand up, years ago, and in the middle of it he put his glass of water down on a stool, but right on the edge of it.  He carried on with the next joke, then, a few minutes later said…”you’re all worried about the water aren’t you?”)  It’s like that, both comforting and disorientating. Like building a statue on a plinth that is slightly too small.

“Tonight” takes the lyrics and sprinkles not fairy dust, but seeds of doubt, all over them.  Tony says:

Today, all day I had the feeling/ a miracle would happen”

On that word “to-DAY”, what should be a solid, life-affirming chord is instead a slightly hollow sound, the fifth in the bass shocks us not with a horrifying dissonance, but with the most boring note of the chord that “fits” but sounds wrong.  It’s the grey suit, the fake “thank you” face after an unwanted Christmas present. A half sneeze.

We know it’s ending badly for these characters, but they don’t, and so their swooping melodies are somehow “unaware” of the shifting sands in the bass.  Of course, Bernstein didn’t invent any of this.  He used his knowledge and applied it.  Brahms did this kind of thing a lot, and so did many composers before him.  And Keith Jarrett does it too.  I like a band called “Blonde Redhead”; they do it.  Sometimes music has no fixed bass, but a moving line, another melody that means simple chords can be heard more than one way as the bass line moves.  “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five is a good example. Come on Ed Sheeran, have a go.

I can’t quite decide what comes first here, the knowledge or the feeling.  My gut tells me that the knowledge points you, as a composer or as a listener, to the source of the feeling A fifth, or a third, in the bass when you are expecting a root has always produced this effect, like time it stands still.  We do not invent it, we reveal its long term whereabouts, put its timelessness in a new context.

Music theory, or knowledge, is not lacking in emotion, vibe, or feeling.  It is like a summation of all the gut instincts of every composer, songwriter, improviser and performer which, being too big to keep in its original form, is condensed into a “boring” compressed file of lists, notes, principles.  You don’t follow it, you unwrap it. It’s like complaining that the ingredients of a cake, having not been put in the oven, taste flat and cold.

Chord sequences stand up like a table, and if you want to build one with three legs you’d better know where to put them.  Of course, there are still many beautiful four legged tables waiting to be built, but there might be a reason why no one has ever put legs in the middle.  To do so is not a “new discovery”, or a “revolution”. It is a pile of broken planks on the floor and nowhere to put your dinner.

Pass the salt.

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