Phenomenology Project 2_Data
Establishing a context
Before we move any farther, it’s best to have a listen to the piece as a whole. Originally, Love Like a Sunset was in two parts, but for the sake of this project I combined them to one. The change between parts happens at approximately 5:30 in this file.
Some things to notice right off the bat are the differences between the first and second parts. The feel between the two parts changes drastically, the first is intense while the second is relaxed; this has to do with the function of each part. The first section is more complex formally, having builds and “climaxes” while the second is monolithic (except that odd little guitar duet at the end). Dramatically/narratively the first section is the action, the drive, the motion of the plot, while the second part serves as an epilogue. One of the interesting devices in the first section (which much of this paper revolves around) is the use of a climax, or another way of putting it, the big scene that brings it all together. Most plots have them, the pinnacle of the storyline, the scene where the answers are given, where the ultimate action happens, the “big moment”. I would argue that this piece is in want of such a moment. The first part moves and points to such a moment, but never actually arrives.
This formal diagram shows the break down of the whole piece. Section 3 is Part 2 of the tune. The two red sections designated NE-1 and NE-2 are the “climaxes” or as I have labeled them “non-events”. Although non-event is a misnomer, they are events, just not what we expect according to the preceding materials.
The rest of this analysis will focus in on Buildup 1, a large section of the tune as well the establishment of context NE-1.
How Phoenix builds to NE-1
There are two different engines that Phoenix uses to get to NE-1: repetitive motives and repeated notes. Do not be fooled by the simplicity of these tools, they are more common in music than you think. They are similar in that both are repetitive only with the motives containing not one pitch, but three or more. This is an example of an acoustic guitar line that occurs in Section 1.
Things to notice about the nature of this line: It has groupings in three against a meter in twos and fours and it crosses the barline and continues this pattern independent of the rest of the texture. These characteristics allow it to settle into itself instead of cooperating with the other materials. This is one example of a repetitive motive; another is the opening, which begins with an electric piano ostinato that noticeably begins to get filled in à la early Steve Reich (see example below). This ostinato grows from its sparse, angular, and syncopated beginnings into a free-flowing melody line that seems to float above the texture. Here are the ten different cells, the number denotes how many repeats each one receives. The red boxes around individual pitches show the added note to each measure, the green boxed measure is when the texture is filled in completely with eighth notes.
Have another listen to the beginning, pay attention to how the line fills in and what you expect to happen when it does.
Have a look at what the change looks like over time. This is a Logic session, I have rebuilt Section 1 in midi using Logic’s midi software synthesizers. Look at top two tracks, one is the audio file (it does not reveal any real information) and the other are chopped up midi regions. Notice that each region is a different color culminating on an orange region. The orange region represents the end of a series of changes where the pattern is on “repeat” until it ends. Does watching the time pass change your expectations?
After seeing a representation of change visually, did you hear something different? Was it what you were expecting? Were you expecting anything at all? I think that it would be more common not to expect too much after a line like this is repeated, even when seeing a visual representation of it. Once the cycle is filled in and sets to repeat (the orange region) the forward movement has ended, it is basically on cruise control, it can seemingly go forever without change. Of course this is not what Phoenix does, after eleven repeats it ends and holds the flat seventh while a new texture begins.
Is there an element that can be added to ostinato to give it motion? Is there something that can create another layer of context that might propel our expectations to expecting something else? Yes, Phoenix in a subtle manner adds the other material, repeated notes. A single repeated pitch breaks the cycle of repetition and is able to give a “way out” of a repeated ostinato. This section has no impetus until such material enters in the marimba. Listen to the section again with the marimba added. Think about what it functions as, or what you want it to function as.
It is still hard to determine what could come next after such little information. By the end of the eleven repeats with the marimba, you know that something different is coming. There’s also a third element in the mix that I have not accounted for yet, the melodic bass/synth melody/chords. On top of these two repeat-based materials is a loose melody that meanders between harmonies. It is not a periodic melody its loose structure juxtaposes the tightness of the additive electric piano. Listen to the intro again without video and focus on the melody, and how it interacts with the repeated parts.
Even this melody is pretty static, long tones with a fuzzy timbre that distorts its pitch clarity. Are there one or two pitches? Is it a chord? It seems to add an element of unsteady wavering to counter the periodic strictness of the piano. It does establish the tonality and sense of wandering that the piece will have, but it does not seem to point in any direction.
So far, this intro does not seem to be pointing anywhere except away from itself. It cannot sustain itself, it has no where to go. But if we were to guess what type of elements would be used as material through the rest of the piece what could we guess? Minor mode, repeated pitches, repeated motives, juxtaposition of layering, a certain sense of anticipation because at a certain point what is happening “now” cannot sustain itself. These are elements we can guess will be coming at us later in the piece.
Running up a hill
The shift to a new section happens simply, by basically overlapping or interpolating them, the acoustic guitar just grows out of the electric piano, the marimba fades out, and the low melodic synth stables out into a held chord. Let’s assume (for now) that the materials in the next section will be similar to the first section. Then this static transition makes sense. It is a mapping of the beginning in a different context, the acoustic guitar picks up the ostinato, but instead of starting over with a few pitches and filling it in as a process it just repeats three notes continuously (this was an example above). The low voice becomes a sustained chord (similar to the beginning) and there is no repeated pitch.
Listen to the bass line when it begins to move. Try to determine its phrasing. Is it in groups of 2, 3, 4, or 5? How does the phrasing affect your stability in this section?
Once the bass voice begins to move, it becomes a rhythmic augmentation of the guitar part but on different pitches. Each phrase is broken off into two three note motives. Phrases are repeated four times before the pitches change but the phrase structure stays the same for two repeats. The first repeated phrase is light blue and second phrase is green. This is a midi realization, it does not have the same timbres and layers, it is a stripped down version.
Have another listen to the original version while looking along with the midi bass line. What do you notice about the periodicity in the bass line? Is it what you expect? Does what you are hear line up with what you see (as far as phrasing goes)?
I hear the phrasing differently than what I see. Looking at each region, it is easy to see the two three-note groupings that form a simple six note phrase. The phrasing feels to me in two groups of four pitches. At the beginning of the bass line we can hear it either way, but a change happens at pitch 9, if in groups of 4 would be the “downbeat” of a new phrase, but if in groups of three is the third beat of the first sub-phrase (Phrase 2: 1-2-3-1-2-3). There is a very large difference in feeling between the strongest of strong beats (beat 1 of a new phrase) and a very weak beat (beat 3 of of three beats). Aural confusion happens at this point when trying to reconcile hearing it in 4 instead of 3.
At this point what we’re hearing is a variation of the first section. We have two of the three elements: ostinato and bass line (melody in the first section), but what about the “chain breaker” repeated pitch? When does it come back?
As before, the repeated pitch breaks up the autonomous nature of the ostinati. It is peculiar that as a motive a repeated pitch is monotonous in itself while an ostinato has the ability to create forward motion. At least in this tune, they have reversed roles. In this case, the repeated pitch in the marimba gives a sense of movement, it propels us forward in anticipation of what comes next. The first time the marimba entered in the previous section also moved us forward into the next section, this one on the other hand repeats for a significant amount of time and invites more layering.
Have a listen to the layering for the rest of this section. What are the layers? How does each layer function? What does the whole of the texture lead you to think will come next? Is this section self-contained or does it want to lead somewhere else?
I hear this section leading into another section, it is a pointer to something greater. But before we get to that, what is in this texture that makes us hope for something greater to come?
Again, it comes down to the interplay between ostinato and repeated pitches. These two elements are what drive this section. Have a look at what you just heard in the Logic session. You are hearing the original (not midi) just like the last audio example, but now you can see the different layering and within each region a graphic representation of the music.
The regions in dark green (Marimba, Basic Pad, and Acoustic Hi-Hat Bank) are all layers that are repeated notes. It is hard to tell what exactly the Pad is doing in the recording, whether or not it is sustained pitches or repeated ones with a long decay which would blur them together. I inputted them as eighth notes to match the rest of the repeated rhythms. The multi-colored regions are ostinati that repeat with some small variation. These two elements together comprise the whole texture.
Separately, these textures do not have the same push toward a new place, each one by itself is perfectly content staying where it is, but combined they cancel each others stasis out and look toward something greater. Here is an example of just the ostinati.
The three layers work well together and form a great base for the overall texture, but they do not point anywhere. They seem content is just doing their thing without worrying about advancement. The bass in its last region breaks from the ostinato pattern and sort of freely moves about in the same style, pacing, and phrasing (in 3′s) that it was previously. Hearing the bass line break free gives some sense of movement, except it’s really so subtle in the mix and it had been repeating for so long that when it breaks free it does not change consciously the level of motion. I think that the change that does happen in the bass accompanies the forward motion instigated in the repeated pitch layers.
There are three repeated pitch layers work well to move our anticipation up for something different to happen. Listening to it on its own, it has an interesting mix of stasis and forward motion.
One reason this texture so strongly points forward is the choice of pitches used in the Pad. There are only three pitches used, B, E, F sharp, or the I, IV, V of the key. Together they form a B sus.4 which is a chord pregnant with anticipation. It has traditionally been used as the V of a key that resolves the 4 to a 3 which is the leading tone and resolves to a nice little I chord. That suspension of energy is also present even when doing a suspension on the I chord (as it is here). Eventually we will see the 4 resolve to a major third (which is unusual because this is a minor key) but for now it stays suspended.
When these two layers are mixed together, even in my miserable Logic session, they have a sense of forward anticipation, a sense of urgency that wants to explode into something even greater.
You will have noticed by now that I have not let any of these videos actually reach the next section. This is because of the last element that interacts with our expectations of what comes next. The last four bars before the end of the section (or arrival of NE-1) become static in a sort of holding pattern before ending. It seems that something has to be done to propel us into the next section, some kind of gesture. Without one the leap to the next section is too abrupt. This example skips the four-bar holding pattern and moves straight to next section.
Outside of this being a rough cut, without something else to propel it into the next section, the change is too abrupt. Interestingly, Phoenix did not add another layer (an easy way out would be to add a cymbal swell), or make any of the layers have more activity, they actually did the opposite.
Notice in the Electric guitar and Electric Piano in the last four bars the orange regions, they show that they are now repeating that fragment. The electric guitar part settles into a pattern earlier when the Electric piano enters, but the piano continues between two motives
until the final orange section where it repeats the first four notes. The bass also stops its movement and holds on a single pitch while retaining the same rhythm.
How does the holding pattern contribute to our expectations? Does it point to something coming? Does it point to a certain type of texture? Does it point to higher or lower energy? Does it makes us want something else more or less?
It feels to me like the holding pattern brings down the overall energy level of the music, but increases our anticipation of something new. The stasis in these four bars with no new information does not add anything to the texture to make it more exciting, but because of the seeming pause adds more expectation for something to happen next.
What if nothing happens next? What if this were the end of the tune? Would it sound complete? Would it feel like some kind of fragment?
The previous context definitely leads us to think something is about to happen. Without something next, it feels cut short. A premature ending is not what we expected to happen. So what did we expect to happen?
There are two possibilities, something bigger or something smaller. This is a pretty vague and non-theoretical way of putting it, but it works. Do we expect it to get bigger and more awesome or smaller and more subdued? For me, I wanted it to get bigger, more exciting, maybe some killer drums in a fat beat with a wall of layered guitar melting my face off.
This was not the face-melting sound I was hoping for. It broke my expectations. The way Phoenix “resolves” this climax is with some kind of vague hit with a guitar bending out of time all around. Periodic time is gone, the sound is now some kind of amorphous blob of frequencies. There is still loudness, but all that potential energy built from the previous section did not culminate in the kinetic.
I spent some time really trying to imagine what I wanted to hear after this section. How would I want all this energy released? It is a much more difficult question to answer. I went to many different bands in many genres to find the ultimate fulfillment of my anticipated musical desires. I found something close, Movement IV: Traffic Shock by Sufjan Stevens.
It has build that culminates in what I would call at successful fulfillment of my intentions. It is built off similar attributes as Love Like a Sunset, ostinato based repetitions and multiple layering. What do you feel when the change happens when the music changes from acoustic to electric?
It is a pretty stark and awesome change when it does happen. This is the type of energy change I was hoping to happen. I even tried to merge the two tunes together to see if Sufjan could fulfill my musical desires.
This type of fulfillment is difficult to achieve, and maybe Phoenix did not know how to top this already active texture. It could be very well that the solution I am looking for does not exist.
There are more relationships to explore in this piece, after NE-1 comes another buildup using similar elements and climaxing in a similar way in NE-2. I will not be going into that buildup or the epilogue. Although, I challenge you to listen to the piece again as a whole and ask yourself how your view has changed through this way of active listening? Are you more adept at knowing what you want out of any particular moment of music and how it will affect what is to come? Are you more in tune with what you are feeling when you listen? Do actually care about what happens next and are disappointed when it does not? These are important questions to ask yourself. I hope that through this experience you will listen at a deeper level and really engage with what the artist is saying in not so many words (or any at all).