An Essential Thread in the Fabric of Music


My lovely cohort, Jim Kellough, sent me a link to a very intriguing radio show from WNYC on the pervasive presence of the Phrygian Diatonic Tetrachord in all manner and forms of music. David Garland, the host of Spinning on Air, makes quite a case for this group of four notes as an artifact of the collective unconscious, a sonic version of Platonic forms, a kind of musical DNA. Spinning on Air is an engaging hour full of snippets of songs that use this tetrachord as their centerpiece. I encourage you to listen – here is the link.

Lets break down Phrygian Diatonic Tetrachord into its component parts to get a better understanding of what Mr. Garland and friends have identified. A tetrachord is a four note sequence with interval relationships that generally fall a half or whole step from one note to the next. On a piano this means the notes are side-by-side (half step) or have one note between them (whole step). Diatonic refers to a scale type from which tetrachords are built.  Diatonic is from the Latin “dia” meaning “through” and “tonic” referring to the tonal center to which the remaining notes refer. The most familiar diatonic scale is the solfege do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. This scale, made so familiar by the song “Doe a deer” from The Sound of Music, contains two tetrachords: do-re-mi-fa with intervals whole-whole-half and so-la-ti-do also whole-whole-half with a whole step between the two tetrachords.

So far we have a basic template – four notes that are in some step interval relationship. Phrygian is where things get spicy and specific! Phrygian is one of seven diatonic modes. Michael Hewitt in his book Musical Scales of the World makes a distinction between scales and modes: scales are the pattern of scale steps, while modes emphasize the tonal relationship of the notes to a central tone usually referred to as the tonic. The Phrygian mode consists of two tetrachords with intervals half-whole-whole separated by a whole step. The Phrygian tetrachord is the mirror image of the tetrachord that makes up the familiar solfege scale.

Perhaps that is part of the reason this four note phrase has been so popular with songwrIters. It takes the common major scale tetrachord we are all so familiar with and stands it on its head. Another possible reason is its versatility. The phrase can sound dark and mournful or sassy and sexy depending on the overall context of the song. Whatever the reason, the Phrygian Diatonic Tetrachord has been the centerpiece for a wide variety of wonderful music for over 500 years (if not longer).

And I am not immune to its charms. I realized that this was the centerpiece for my most recent soundscape composition for December’s Prompt at The Carrack. Listen and enjoy:

Adventures in Gorgeous Guitars and the Bottom End

One of the gifts of the new year is that I am realizing a long-held goal of learning to play the bass. I have always thought of myself as a born bass player – laid-back maker of the low end harmonies. I sang the lowest alto part in choirs and choruses for decades. Having spent the past few years playing percussion alongside Christopher Thurston, master bass man, my ear is primed for doing this now. Back in 2009, I bought a Kala U-Bass (a bass ukelele) and it has been sitting in its case ever since. So I pulled it out, made myself a diagram of the neck, and started figuring out familiar bass lines (Mission Impossible, Fever, various Motown, etc.) I am spending several hours a day playing and learning my way around the instrument.

Last Sunday, Lisa Means and Martha Dyer came over to play and record guitar improvisations. Lisa brought four of her guitars, which we looked at and listened to, eventually focusing in on two: Goddess and Yellow Moon. Both of these guitars were hand built by Joe Young, a Canadian Luthier. Here are his descriptions of them:

This is the first in a series of ‘Goddess’ builds. This visually stunning OM guitar is crafted from Pomelle Sapele, a beautiful, iridescent, lustrous wood that delivers a rounded, gorgeous and balanced tone. The colours in her back, sides, headstock and rosette, range from pink to light brown, to red and then to gold. Her Honduran mahogany neck and her striped ebony fretboard and bridge hold perfect tension through the strings; her Sitka spruce top, as sound as a bell . The image of The Goddess is etched into the centre of her back and is found deep within her body as you peer into the sound hole. This Goddess image symbolizes, at least to me, the connection we have with Earth. Roots deep into the earth, their form portrayed as a vessel for life, hair sensing the winds of change, and their arms reaching into the ether, the heavens and beyond. Of course, this image has the characteristics of a tree, the true beginning of wood’s song. The ancient Sanskrit word ‘OM’ which suggests the phrase ‘that which is sounded out loudly’; the sound often vibrated at the end of mindful, spiritual practice, seemed the only appropriate choice for the guitar’s size. Sound and Spirit connects music and soul, creating an opportunity to hear and feel your music just as you want it to be.

Yellow Moon:

This organic guitar is formed with a musical accordance of West Coast woods. Its back, sides, neck and fretboard are yew; the wood named by the Druids for its representation of rebirth and transformation. This instrument is earthy, woody and sacred. It has the clear, fundamental sounds of a bell and vibrates with a bright, sharp tone. At the 13th fret, the yew and yellow cedar neck meets the body; thirteen representing integrity and the female magic of the moon. The bird’s eye yellow cedar burl rosette, tail wedge and big leaf maple bindings unite this delicious instrument. The bridge is carved from the soft roundness of a yellow cedar burl, a wood known to promote peaceful thoughts. Ultimately, the sound is perfectly attuned to its origins: the forest, the ocean, and the sky.

Lisa gives loving care and attention to these instruments. She delights in them and is sensitive to their changing needs and moods.

Yellow Moon from Joe Young's Website

Yellow Moon from Joe Young’s Website

Martha brought some percussion instruments: small cymbals, a toy xylophone, tingshas she had picked up while traveling in Thailand. Martha is an expert percussionist who plays spoons with local bluegrass favorites The Blue-Tailed Skinks. She is equally as skilled at bringing out harmonics on the guitar. The three of us played for several hours in the free improv/deep listening style that I encourage and enjoy.

Two Zoom H2n microphones were placed in the Sun(Ra) Room. One located above us and at the edge of the corner cut out in the room. Experimentation has revealed that this spot picks up a really good mix of the instruments. The other Zoom was placed low, and directly in front of the three of us in a semi-circle. The mics are preset with a low cut filter, auto gain and compression/limiter.  Both were set to surround sound with the five interior mics wide open. This gives me four pairs of stereo tracks to work with when compiling and mixing.

I plan to build a soundscape of all string instruments using clips of Lisa playing her guitars. The cohorts and I will play all strings as well. Perhaps some day we will create a Nested Soundscape in Baldwin Auditorium. That would be so cool!!

In the meantime, here is a moment that happened while Martha, Lisa and I were playing last week. I did not make any extra cuts and pastes in this excerpt. It evolved just as you hear it. Martha on percussion, Lisa playing Yellow Moon and me on the bass. I call this Time Out of the Blue.