Those of you out there who know their stuff will no doubt be familiar with the topic of today’s blog: the paradigm analysis. And those of you with a bit of knowledge of linguistics, and what-not, will recognise the name Ferdinand de Saussure, the French structuralist and semiologist. If you do, you’re probably more prepared than the average blogger for what is about to come and can skip over a few paragraphs below.
If not, read on, grasshopper… 😉
Semiology is the ‘study of signs’. It usually deals with language: how its put together, the various bits-and-bobs that allow us to communicate, and the order in which they appear as we do so. Saussure was your main guy for this, and if you are interested, a quick Wiki will assuredly assuage your Saussurian susses (see how I organised my language there?).
But in terms of what we’re looking at, all you need to know is, in music, two gents, Jean-Jacques Nattiez (France) and Nicolas Ruwet (Belgium), took the basic principles of Saussure’s work and formulated the idea of analysing music by breaking it down into very small parts (or paradigms) that are distinguished by their self-similar properties. This way the smaller building blocks of composition can be seen. It is a great demystifier as we then come to realise that music is written one note (or gesture) at a time and does not just magically appear on the page.
Nattiez (who studied with Ruwet) has long been known for his analysis of Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute, and subsequent analysis have followed his lead. Indeed, PAs have long been a staple of my composition classes over the years, students always enjoy a bit of cut and paste, and the associated ‘learning with the pressure off’ makes for a good leveller. I have often had good-to-great results as student’s take onboard the ideas learnt in their work.
Over the years, my most successful PAs have been on Berio’s ‘Sequenza IXa’ for Clarinet and on two Frank Zappa guitar pieces: ‘The Deathless Horsie’ and ‘Watermelon In Easter Hay’.
Zappa’s extended guitar solos are perfect for this type of work as we’ll see below. He will often state a theme, usually over a two chord modal vamp, and then begin a lengthy improv over the two chords. Zappa was very good at developing his melodic ideas throughout a solo and this makes for a fine PA in my book.
So, let’s have a brief look at the opening of ‘Watermelon in Easter Hay’ from Zappa’s tour de force ‘Joe’s Garage’…
Here is video link to the track (the music begins at 1:36 after ‘The Central Scrutinizer’ intro) and the first two pages of the Steve Vai transcription:
Firstly, let me explain how we go about analysing the score.
On looking at the first page (and we are only concerned with the top line of each stave, not the drum part) we can immediately see some repetition in the melodic line at br.5, br.7 and br.9. Good. The tail ends of these phrases have got a few notes added on, this is good too. It means that we can separate these phrases into groups. Calling them A, B, C and so forth. As I said before, each group of paradigms should be distinguished by their self-same identity.
Upon first glance, this kind of analysis seems daunting to students. There appears to be a lot of difficult decision making to be done. But the good news is that there really is no right or wrong answer, and once you tell a pupil this, they start to relax.
Our paradigms can then be lined up as follows, dropping down a line and moving across the page to introduce new paradigms. In this way the score is still readable. Of course, in real life :), this would extend across a large sheet(s) of paper (I would often hang these up in class for other students in the music school to look at, usually in amazement).
You can clearly see what is happening…
Down column A, Zappa has repeated the A paradigm. On the third statement (A3) he has added an extra note to his bend.
Down column B, Zappa has truncated the repeat by adding on a new paradigm (C) to the end of the line at B2 and B5.
Columns D and E round off the third theme statement. I have not notated this, but E is divided in half Ea & Eb, over the barline, as later on Zappa develops the up and down structure of this phrase separately.
Column F is ‘noise’ and ‘silence’, Zappa’s hand hits the low E – unintentionally, perhaps? Noise plays an important part in FZ’s music in general, and ‘WIEH’ has its fair share due to the amount of gain Zappa uses in his guitar signal.
This sequence is then repeated, starting at A4 onwards, with the most variation occurring in paradigms D and E.
What we find throughout the piece, and particularly during the main solo section, is that Zappa continues to work in similar ways: repeating paradigms in altered forms, subtly changing the repeats, reversing them, mixing up the order in which they appear next to each other, creating palindromes of the motifs, and so forth. At all times he exercises a highly personal approach to rhythm.
So what? You say?
Yeah, well… if you stop to consider what we’ve discovered, you’ll find that this analysis actually tells us a lot about the context in which Zappa worked and how he worked within it – leading us to ask questions like:
- Is Zappa’s melodic patterning and phrasing conscious or unconscious? Can we say anything about its origins from the notes he uses?
- And from this: How does his ‘musical memory’ affect his soloing style?
- Why does he stick to modal and blues ideas exclusively? Is this a musically conservative approach? If so, what can it tell us about his personal/political views?
- How does the use of noise and silence in ‘WIEH’ manifest itself? Is noise important in Zappa’s work?
- Zappa called his solos ‘sonic sculpture’ – what can we make of this statement?
And so forth…
So to sum up, it’s clear that by deconstructing works with paradigm analysis we can discover a wealth of information that other methods may not bring up. A great tool for composition students that shows them, very clearly, the building blocks of a piece. And… they look great!
Try one yourself, if you dare…