Thursday, October 30, 2008

Vesamachta Lead Sheet Analysis- Trio

Here are some more reader comments on the Vesamachta lead sheet I’d posted . (You can find the first three comments here.)

Reader # 4 writes:
A few thoughts if I were reading this sheet (as is, I had someone else's on Succos...'twas not all that much better!)

1. It is missing popularly-sung Part C! (So was mine)
2. It does not have a beat or tempo notation
3. I'm not going to address the syncopation (though others did), since most people on a Jewish bandstand would interpret this right.
4. 1st note in 2nd bar should probably be Gb
5. Chords that continue from bar to bar probably should be repeated on 1st note of the 2nd bar in which they appear
6. Chords in B should be:

G /// | Ab /// | Fm / F#dim7/| G ///| (I personally would play G7s for all those Gs but that's personal preference)

7. I do not understand the half notes in 1st ending of B. It should just be a whole note.
8. The chords should be printed in a larger font. (The horn players in my band go nuts when the chords are not printed in some large font -- YMMV.)
Reader #5 wrote:
Your second opinion is incorrect. Key signature is fine and considered acceptable (Harmonic minor, fraygish or ‘Mixolydian Minor’)

Your third opinion is incorrect for the most part because he’s trying to make it more interesting or ‘musical’. For me I like to reflect the sung lyric in it’s purest, original form. He’s right about that D7 chord though.
He also writes:
And it is harmonic minor (albeit having the 5th degree serve as it’s tonic), which is why some refer to it as Mixolydian harmonic minor
BTW, some call it Spanish Phrygian (raised 3rd degree)…
Reader #6 wrote:
My main criticisms of the lead sheet posted (chord choices I find to be more subjective and so will not comment on these):

1. Key signature is wrong, wrong, wrong – it suggests that this is in C minor (or I suppose, Eb), when of course it is actually G Phrygian (or “Fraigish”, as some insist). This error then requires the use of accidentals in bars 4 (1 and 2), 5, 6, and 8 (1), to “fix” what would otherwise be played as Bb.

2. Lack of expression A: No rests! Where does one breathe? Whoever did this probably writes sentences with no commas or semicolons!

3. Lack of expression B: Some phrasing marks in the low part, and accent markings in the first bar of the high part, would be helpful to a player who is not familiar with this tune.

4. Missing ties or wrong note values in bar 6 and 7, if the melody is sung using the traditional words and phrasing.
Reader #7 writes:
My 12 year old son didn't like the D7 chord at the end. He was voting for a G and then maybe an F at the end. (I may have gotten his suggestions wrong, but I think that's what he was voting for. What do I know? He's been taking piano lessons for a third of his life...I haven't.)
Reader # 8 writes:
You are picking up a relatively subtle point.

The key signature indicates C minor or Eb major, but the home base chord seems to be G. The reason is that the song is in a freigish key. One way to look at freigish keys is as an altered dominant of a minor key. That would put a G freigish song in C minor.

But that only holds true for certain songs. In Yiddish music, as in other folk idioms, Freigish is the "home" key, so the key signature should be constructed to reflect that.

Another interesting manifestation of this phenomenon is the G minor ending often sung on the Shenker Eishes Chayil. In the original recording, the song ends on a D. But our Western sensibility pushes us to hear the D Freigish of the first section as naturally ending in G minor, which was not the intention. That song is a bit misleading, because the tune does take a detour to G minor, but ultimately returns to it's proper home.
Thanks to all of those who took the time to send in their comments.

The reason I posted this was because I thought the errors/omissions in the Vesamachta chart were revealing of a common misunderstanding of this music. The indicators are the D7 chord, and to a lesser extent, the choice of F instead of E natural as the first note in measure two. (In the book 101 Hassidic Dance Tunes -- 2nd Ed. Pub. 1988 by Renanot, Jerusalem, Israel -- Andre Haidu and Yaakov Mazor have recorded both versions of the melody, the F and the E natural, as known variations.)

Here’s how I understand this (and similar) tunes.

This song (as well as many other Klezmer and Chassidic songs) is a modal song. That means that it is not in Cm or Eb; the keys usually indicated by this key signature. It is also not in a mode of C harmonic minor, although the written melody in the example I’d posted shares the same notes as the C harmonic minor scale.

This melody is in a Jewish mode called either Freygish or Ahava Raba by klezmorim and chazzonim. It differs from the Greek Phrygian mode in that it has a major third rather than minor. (There's another difference I'll get to shortly.)

When playing this kind of modal music, it’s important to understand that it is modal, rather than diatonic. Doing so allows the musician to make better melodic and harmonic choices when harmonizing or embellishing the melody. A good understanding of how modes traditionally work lets the musician make educated choices about harmonies and improvisations. Modal music differs from diatonic music, even when the notes in the mode are the same as the notes in a diatonic scale. Nowadays, people sometimes use some contemporary harmonies and chord substitutions over modes, but that’s not how they were traditionally accompanied.

You can step out and also choose harmonies from outside the mode, if a more contemporary sound is desired, but, it’s important to understand what the traditional approach would be in order to understand how/why to choose another approach. In other words, it’s helpful to take a look at the roots of the music, before moving on to advanced explorations.

Many Simcha musicians meet this music on the bandstand in a more modern context and so they never really get into a full exploration of the modes. They just play the “hip” changes the other guys are all playing, without necessarily gaining a full understanding of how this music works. Alternatively, they just play the “bad changes” in the charts they might be given and assume that the changes are right and their “ear” is off. Then they get used to playing that way.

In modal music, the mode is strong and essentially supports itself. Modes do not have “avoid tones” as opposed to diatonic music which has "avoid" tones that are harmonically dissonant (unless you play out jazz etc.). For example, try playing a C or Eb melody note against a G major chord. In diatonic music, this is very dissonant. Yet, in Freygish, you’ll see this frequently. (Take, for instance, the first bar of Ben Zion Shenker’s Yosis Alayich.)

A modal tune can use just one mode throughout, or it can shift modes without strong harmonic modulation needed to do so. This is because the tonal center of each mode is so strong. A mode just is. It doesn't need to have tension and resolution via Western dominant-tonic harmony.

It’s possible to notate this mode in several ways. For those interested, I wrote about the question of which key signature to use here a while back.

For this example, I’ve used standard key signatures and indicated the accidentals where they occur. This approach works well for the “standard” Klezmer keys that are commonly used on the bandstand; where only a few accidentals are needed. I might choose a different approach for a melody in Bb Freygish, for example. Using standard key signatures, instead of the more obscure ethnomusicology ones, makes the music more immediately accessible to the non-klezmer player who is sight-reading it for the first time on the bandstand.

When notated this way, the key signature alone does not give a good indication of the mode. Instead, it is the melody itself that indicates the mode. An experienced Klezmer musician will recognize the mode by ear, but many musicians, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, might not recognize the mode if they haven’t played a lot of these melodies. And, if they think of it as C harmonic minor, their improvisation over it might technically work, but they miss a chance to add additional coloring using the “optional” notes.

Now, lets take a look at the mode. Here’s how it looks on the staff.

You’ll notice that the first two notes in my example are in parenthesis. That’s because the mode actually begins on the third note G. Those first two notes are only used when the melody dips below the root of the melody; the E natural is not used in ascending the scale. In other words, the E natural is the choice a Klezmer musician can make when dipping below the tonic and improvising around it. It would be used as a leading tone back into the F. That E natural is simply not available in C harmonic minor and that’s why I don’t view the scale as a mode of C harmonic minor. It’s also why using the E natural in bar two sounds so natural to me. It’s a melodic choice that more clearly helps to define that we are in Freygish.

To more clearly illustrate this, here is a klezmerish melody fragment I improvised. I’ve set it in both G Freygish and C Harmonic Minor. Play it over the indicated chords to hear the difference.

Examples of familiar Klezmer tunes that use these lower notes include “Old Sher” off the seminal Andy Statman/Walter Zev Feldman recording "Jewish Klezmer Music", as well as “Sherele”, “Fun Der Khupe”, and “Ot Azoy”.

You can check out some recorded examples here:

It’s important to understand that modal harmony is not the same as traditional Western harmony and that it doesn’t use the same chord progressions or resolutions. Understanding how modes work will help to choose appropriate chords from within the mode. (It is also possible to choose chords from outside the mode, but this does change the feel of the piece. I’ll give examples of popular Freygish songs with sections that are typically harmonized this way later on.)

In the traditional approach, one would use chords from within the mode to accompany this melody. In this mode, the chord used in place of the dominant in cadence is a minor chord built on the seventh of the scale; in this case Fm-G. In Greek music, the similar cadence often used resolves from the second instead (Ab-G). Contemporary Simcha bands use both approaches. (Ironically, Bock and Harnick used the Greek approach in “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof.)

The D7 error in the chart I posted comes in the context of the transcriber attempting to fit standard Western harmony over a modal melody. It looks like he was trying to fit a I-iv-V-I progression in (G-Cm-D7-G). In this case, as many pointed out, it doesn’t work.

This can work backwards too. Klezmer musicians might view certain Jazz chord progressions as modal when they needn't. (Sorry, I couldn't resist!) When I first sat down with a jazz teacher for some lessons, he asked me to blow over Monk’s “Well You Needn’t.” So, I took a look at the F and F# chords over the A of the tune and proceeded to play a Freygish-based improv. Not exactly the approach a typical jazz musician would take to playing over those chords.

Here’s how I’d notate this melody. I’ve included the E natural in the melody, changed the chords on the B section, and changed the phrasing on the B section to match the lyrics. I could have made other chordal and phrasing choices without being “wrong”, but this seems like a nice basic approach.I also added slurs to match the lyrics.

With regard to some of the suggestions offered...

I would not substitute G7 for the G chords in the B section because, to my ear, the G7 implies a different mode, Mixolydian or as the klezmorim/chazzonim would call it, Adonoy Molokh, which is not the mode the melody is using in the rest of that phrase.

Similarly, the F#dim7 chord suggested as the 2nd to last chord in the B doesn’t work, to my ear, because it leaves the mode.

I chose to use an Ab chord instead of a Cm, because that indicates the mode more clearly, by making use of one of its defining notes, the Ab.

As I mentioned, outside choices are possible when harmonizing Freygish melodies, but they still need to make musical sense. Examples of tunes often harmonized using outside harmony include Naftule Brandwein’s “Firn Di Mekhotonim” (in the C section), “Moshe Emes” (in the B section), and “Kumi Roni" (in the C section).

There are many melodies that will shift modes for a short time and then shift back. This works without a strong harmonic progression to support it. That’s because each mode is strong and supports itself. There are lots of Klezmer and Chassidic melodies that do this. A classic example of this that occurs on the Simcha circuit is the melody known by some Lubavitchers as “Shimu”, which is also commonly used for “Baruch Keil Elyon.” When I played with a Lubavitch band years ago, we used to play this one.

(Incidentally, this tune can be used as an example of how songs can be played wrong if the modes it uses aren’t recognized. Check out this song, "Sfashkenaz." It uses the modal melody described above for the “Baruch Keil Elyon” part of the song. Yet, every time through, on the words “Hashomer Shabbos/Shabbat”, it misses the modulation to G major for those two bars until the words “Lakeil yeratzu…” The melody note should be a B natural there, not a Bb and the chord should be a G major not a G minor. This is a typical Klezmer modulation. Omitting it makes the whole section less interesting.)

It is also possible to play diatonic melodies using modal harmonizations too. But that’s another discussion…

A few additional comments on your emails:

Reader #3 wrote a much more specific response that I’d expected. Let’s set his syncopation suggestions aside, as this is meant to be a simple lead sheet, not an arrangement.

He added an additional measure 9A as a correction to the repeat of the B. As with many folk melodies, there are often several common variations sung and these two demonstrate that fact. There is not necessarily one correct notation of the melody. I’ve heard both versions sung. (Haidu and Mazor do not record this second variation in their book.) Another reader suggested a different variation for that bar as well.

I think the “missing part C” a reader referred to is actually a different “Vesamachta” melody. They're just often played together.

Many of the other criticisms are of design/typography choices. Those aren’t errors, per se, just “house styles.” Different people have different font and layout preferences. They are valid points, but that was not the point of this exercise.

The beat/tempo indication is useful, but in the context of when this lead sheet would typically be used, it is not really necessary.

Most lead sheets of this type lack notation of short breath rests, etc. The assumption is that the musician understands how to phrase idiomatically. Here's a website that describes how this works in pop music. Check out his section on "Style" near the end of the page. Here's a taste:
In addition to knowing how things should sound, you need to know how your players are going to interpret what you write on the page. For example, if you write an isolated quarter note on a page and put it in front of an orchestral trumpet player, he will play a full note starting on one beat and ending on the next. If you put the same page in front of a funk player, he will give it a much harder attack and will cut the note short. In order to get the orchestral player to produce the same sound you would have to put an accent and a staccato mark over the note (and he still might not play it quite as short as the funk player).
Expression and phrasing markings would be helpful, for sure, but I don’t think their omission is a critical flaw here. Personally, I often like to put slurs into my lead sheets, but the original posted chart does work acceptably without them.

There’s a difference between a lead sheet for a club date, which is designed to get the job done in the least confusing way possible, and a "record copy" or a more nuanced sheet for when more specificity is required. The more “bits” of information added to the page, the more the musician has to process while playing, and the greater the likelihood for errors. If I was transcribing a specific performance off of a record, for example, I’d be a lot more detailed about the phrasing, embellishments, etc. For this context, though, less is more, as long as the musicians understand the style/genre.

With regard to Eishes Chayil, Shmiel ranted about that here a while back.