Thursday 11-12:30 ET
Towards Defining A Musical Style
Christopher Doll (Rutgers University), Chair
N.B. Unfortunately there was a Zoom error during this session, please use the following two links to access the recordings of this session:
Characterizing a Signature Metric Feel: The Stax Sound
Michael Bland, Prince’s drummer, described performers’ unique tendencies to play slightly ahead or behind the beat as being “as signature to you as the shape of your face” (Scott’s Bass Lessons 2021). Is it possible, therefore, to quantify the temporal “feel” of a performer or group in ways that reveal their signature sound? Stax Records was famous for creating a subgenre of rhythm and blues known as “southern soul” that, between 1961 and 1969/70, had a readily identifiable sound (Bowman 1995). Key to this signature sound—supposedly—was the house band’s delayed backbeats, heard prominently on Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” (Bowman 1995; Covach & Flory 2018; Wexler & Ritz 1993).
This paper presents an analysis of how meter is performed during Stax Record’s first period (1961–1969/70). First, I analyze the microtemporal details of inter-beat intervals in “Midnight Hour” to show that backbeats are indeed delayed. I expand on this by analyzing Bowman’s 95-song Stax Sound corpus to ascertain whether the delayed backbeat truly is a signature of the record label’s band or whether “Midnight Hour” is an exceptional occurrence. These analyses prompt the question: if a signature sound may be metrically characterized, might it be possible to then apply this feel fingerprint to a new performance and thereby recreate the “feel”? This paper will also consider the “neutrality” of computational methods, emphasizing how there is no straightforward point of measurement when analyzing something as multifaceted as musical beats, and advocating for musical sensitivity when applying these tools.
“Bobbing on the Surface as the Shadow Glides Below”:Phishy Polyphony and the Evacuated Signifier
Although the music of the rock band Phish is technically virtuosic and steeped in Western art music practice, the band has, until recently, been overlooked by American music scholarship. While much of the scholarly writing that does exist on Phish has focused on the band’s improvisations in performance, undoubtedly a critical component of their practice, it is perhaps too easy for them to overshadow the well-wrought pre-composed elements of their songs. Indeed, during his undergraduate studies, guitarist Trey Anastasio studied composition and theory with Ernie Stires, and Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier figured prominently in these lessons. As a result, baroque-influenced polyphony infuses much of his early writing, and this talk identifies four “modes of polyphony” employed by Phish: rhythmic imitation, free counterpoint, canon, and fugue, and offers several representative songs for each.
Writers such as Walter Everett, John Covach, and William Echard have shown that it is not uncommon for progressive and psychedelic rock bands to incorporate Baroque-style counterpoint in their songwriting. Phish’s practice differs somewhat in that their usage of polyphony is often folded into their broader ironic sensibilities. Specifically, I propose that Phish’s music often “evacuates the signifier,” by which I mean that the band presents, and then systematically deflates, meaningful musical and lyrical concepts.
El cajón del Mariachi: Schemata of a Vernacular Genre
Good Mariachi practice is based on a holistic model of performance that includes a prescribed repertoire of bass lines, harmonic changes, meters, forms and instrumental voicings that operate in synchrony. Despite having coalesced around distinct regional styles both within and without Mexico, the musical tradition of Mariachi rests on select formal principles drawn from the Mexican Ranchera, Mexican Son and the historic instrumentation of trumpet, violin, vihuela/guitar, and guitarrón, transmitted primarily through aural instruction. These models are derived from the “Cajón versions” that form the core repertoire of a Mariachi ensemble, a standard repertoire established by the late 1970s and early 1980s. Classic Ranchera Valseadas such as “Hermoso Cariño,” “Las Botas de Charro,” “Con la Misma Tijera,” and “Los Laureles” were codified in well-known performances by arrangers and artists such as Ruben Fuentes, Vicente Fernández, Linda Ronstadt, and Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan. Inspired by Gjerdingen’s Music in the Galant Style, we present schema prototypes modeled on foundational examples in the core Mariachi repertoire. These archetypes incorporate specific harmonic motions, bass patterns and instrumental voicings within a single, well-defined unit. We will also address the practice of marrying vocal lines to these models according to lyric content and expression, and describe how those units shape larger musical narratives. We further address these paradigms as they shape repertoire expansion and the expression of regional style within contemporary Mariachi practice in ensembles such as Mariachi Nuevo Amanecer (Los Angeles).