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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

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November 25, 2010 | Art imitates life; Impressionist Painters and Jazz Music

Art imitates life. A fascinating perspective on the history of music is to examine how technical innovation, social and cultural changes, and economic challenges shape and impact its development. The austerity of the Middle Ages is apparent in the stark harmonies of Gregorian chants and less dense Medieval music. The advancement of the sciences is mirrored in the calculated, math-like complexities of the Baroque and Classical era. The social upheaval and grumblings of the Bourgeoisie are stomped out in sounds of the Romantic era, and the threats of nuclear destruction manifests itself in the uncertainty and tensions of modern 20th century stylings.

An interesting retrospective is the parallel of the Impressionist era art and its not-so coincidental comparison to the evolution of jazz. The way the culture thinks is always expressed in its arts. Music, architecture, and visual arts are all impacted in the same way with its contemporary history. We recently came across an intriguing article by Jay Lewallen exploring this phenomenon, "Impressionist Painters and Jazz Music."

He quotes The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music on the definition of impressionism. "Term used in graphic art from 1874 to describe the work of Monet, Degas, Whistler, Renoir, etc., whose paintings avoid sharp contours but convey an 'impression' of the scene painted by means of blurred outlines and minute small detail. It was applied by musicians to the music of Debussy and his imitators because they interpret their subjects (e.g. La Mer) in a similar impressionistic manner, conveying the moods and emotions aroused by the subject rather than a detailed tone-picture. To describe Debussy's harmony and orchestration as impressionist in the sense of vague or ill-defined is to do them a severe injustice. Some of the technical features of musical impressionism included new chord combinations, often ambiguous as to tonality, chords of the 9th, 11th, and 13th being used instead of triads and chords of the 7th; appoggiaturas used as part of the chord, with full chord included; parallel movement in a group of chords of triads, 7ths, and 9ths, etc.; whole-tone chords; exotic scales; use of the modes; and extreme chromaticism."

Jazz grabs individual harmonic "intentions" and paints their pictures in broad strokes. We step away from a performance, and we aren't as moored to the specific detail, any more than we are a more realistic, photo-like painting. We get "hints" at harmonic progressions, outlined by melodic interpretation of the vertical/chord structure of the song. Take a look at a Van Gogh painting and you'll see this. Mood, emotion, intent, but little in specifics. Non-jazzers have always objected to the genre's deviation from known melody. It's a completely different mindset, but one all to familiar to the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painter.

Take some time to read this article: Impressionist Painters and Jazz Music


Compose yourself. Story Arcs
Moving Forward; Melodic Progression
Jazz is an accident.

Posted by Ted at November 25, 2010 5:59 AM

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