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Masked Dissonance in The Music of John Williams

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1 hour ago, Loert said:

It's interesting that you talk about Williams "masking" dissonances, as if Williams was trapped into employing dissonances which he then tried to cover up by choosing the right instruments (probably not what you meant, but it sounds that way!).

Yeah, I did mean the opposite!  Not like criminal or hooligan masks, more like the masks at a Venetian carnival.  Adds to the flavour, as you say.  John obviously does not want to hide it, but to integrate it in such a way that it seamlessly becomes part of the overall texture.  In other words, that synthesis I referred to.  

 

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I find it such a pity that very few great artists, whether composers, writers, or otherwise, decide to preserve their unique discoveries and insights within the craft to any meaningful extent and in an organized way, unless they are professors or paid critics.

 

What we are left with are at best scholarly texts from a historical perspective, and maybe published letters if a lot of time has passed.

*sigh*

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4 hours ago, Loert said:

 

There's a fun experiment you can do with this at the piano. Play a major or minor chord in the right hand e.g. C major or C minor. Now, in the left hand, put your hand on a major or minor chord one semitone above and one semitone below the right hand. So, for instance, with C major in the right hand, you place your left hand on B major or Db major. Now pick one of the notes in your two left hand chords. This is now your bass note - play it with the chord in the right hand (so e.g. C major in RH, with D# in the bass from the B major chord). Now do this multiple times for different chords. Voila! You have become John Williams.

 

It's funny because it's true. 😂 That's one of his "tried and true" techniques. Bonus points if the bassline and/or the roots of the chords follow a diminished scale.

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22 hours ago, Arpy said:

Would this be an example, all the action going on around the Love Theme? @1:25 onward

I would say that it is a little more straightforward here.  The dissonance is meant to be noticed, in contrast to and apart from the texture of the theme.

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In other words John Williams isn't lazy with orchestration unlike the majority. Many pieces have been written where every note of the scale is always used, but you don't quite notice these notes--you notice the overall textures that the composer forms by emphasizing certain intervals and their interchanges to relative harmonies.

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On 5/27/2019 at 2:41 AM, EugeneHill said:

I think it is great that we can listen to such music alive and from our gadgets! After reading  https://filmlifestyle.com/best-sci-fi-books/ I was reassured in such thesis and admired it greatly!

 

Yeah, I prefer to be alive while listening to music.

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Hi guys,

i am studying Fawkes the phoenix and I have found a pretty dissonance. The bridge at 1’06 is sounding very pleasing. However by analysing it, it’s strong dissonants polychords.

 

 

During the 2 bars sequence (repeated twice before the modulation), the lower register plays a AMajadd2 chord (A B C# E) followed by a DMaj7\F# and back to the Amajadd2.

 

On the upper register we got other chords:

a quartal B : B C# E F# which marvelously matches the Amajadd2 à la Debussy.

Then it moves to B7\A which is really dissonant on the piano vs the DMaj7 followed by a F#min7 which is ok vs the Amajadd2.

 

But I am amazed how it sounds good on the track but so dissonant when playing thd B7 vs the D7 at the piano.

 

What do you think about it ?

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4 hours ago, Jar Jar said:

Hi guys,

i am studying Fawkes the phoenix and I have found a pretty dissonance. The bridge at 1’06 is sounding very pleasing. However by analysing it, it’s strong dissonants polychords.

 

 

During the 2 bars sequence (repeated twice before the modulation), the lower register plays a AMajadd2 chord (A B C# E) followed by a DMaj7\F# and back to the Amajadd2.

 

On the upper register we got other chords:

a quartal B : B C# E F# which marvelously matches the Amajadd2 à la Debussy.

Then it moves to B7\A which is really dissonant on the piano vs the DMaj7 followed by a F#min7 which is ok vs the Amajadd2.

 

But I am amazed how it sounds good on the track but so dissonant when playing thd B7 vs the D7 at the piano.

 

What do you think about it ?

 

A lovely gem of a cue.  Gentle dissonances can be quite beautiful.  Just adding a little spice to the harmony.  Some of the reasons why it works so effortlessly here, is he's established the pattern right away because it opens in A major in low flutes (a very mellow register compared to their brilliance as they ascend), then goes to F# major where a solo oboe sits on A so you have a minor second rub with the A# (from F# major) and A natural in the oboe at balanced dynamics.  The oboe at this register is more poignant than aggressive so these clashes are gentle.  So throughout the pieces, JW is using gentle harmonic rubs.  At 1:06, that is part of a sequence as we hear the same melodic phrase then it modulates to a bridge but again, he's set up the expectation of this from the start. 

 

Quite dissonances are all over Debussy's La Mer too and you can hear some of the same ideas:

 

Lots of octatonics and harmonies that might not match the melody.

 

Here is another beautiful example from the repertoire.  Prokofiev is known for thorny dissonances but listen how beautiful and magical it is here, coincidentally at the same place as Fawkes the Phoenix, at 1:06, the mysterious and magical theme in it's second bar has B natural and A# while the winds are sustaining a C major chord.  Just another example that just because it is dissonant, doesn't make it ugly to hear.  It can be gorgeous.

 

 

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3 hours ago, Jediwashington said:

He's intelligent enough to go back and analyze it and write all this out in a book, but I wouldn't be surprised if that was actually a very difficult exercise for him to do since romantic harmony is not likely to be where his mind is when writing. 

 

Cue @Ludwig or @Falstaft?

 

:)

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Really interesting thread. Dissonance is rarely defined very well - in a precise, technical way - by any commentator. I don't personally find basic intervals like diatonic seconds dissonant, or even the kinds of bitonal polychords JW often writes, though they are often heard/spoken of that way. There are probably dozens of definitions to consider, including ones that take pitch/frequency perception into account. Also, accidental dissonance as a result of voicings, mixing, etc. or horizontal dissonance as opposite to just vertical. A historical view on dissonance, i.e. very few examples and almost no bodies of work before 1910 (except say Charles Ives) are dissonant in terms of harmonic language, as opposed to textbook dissonance a la species counterpoint. Certainly JW could be said to hit the mark on many different potential definitions of dissonance, as a passing effect of generally short duration.

Also, JW is an incredible harmonist; however, I often wish his harmonic language as expressed in his film cues was not so full of tonic major endings/climaxes as they are often inappropriate to the mood or direction of the harmony or at least restrict the potential effect of all the complexity that precedes them. I don't know; I've been listening to him since the mid-70s and maybe I haven't taken the time to think about this point another way. But he seems to treat these cadences as generally off limits for dissonance.

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On 7/2/2019 at 9:04 AM, The Five Tones said:

Really interesting thread. Dissonance is rarely defined very well - in a precise, technical way - by any commentator. I don't personally find basic intervals like diatonic seconds dissonant, or even the kinds of bitonal polychords JW often writes, though they are often heard/spoken of that way. There are probably dozens of definitions to consider, including ones that take pitch/frequency perception into account. Also, accidental dissonance as a result of voicings, mixing, etc. or horizontal dissonance as opposite to just vertical. A historical view on dissonance, i.e. very few examples and almost no bodies of work before 1910 (except say Charles Ives) are dissonant in terms of harmonic language, as opposed to textbook dissonance a la species counterpoint. Certainly JW could be said to hit the mark on many different potential definitions of dissonance, as a passing effect of generally short duration.

Also, JW is an incredible harmonist; however, I often wish his harmonic language as expressed in his film cues was not so full of tonic major endings/climaxes as they are often inappropriate to the mood or direction of the harmony or at least restrict the potential effect of all the complexity that precedes them. I don't know; I've been listening to him since the mid-70s and maybe I haven't taken the time to think about this point another way. But he seems to treat these cadences as generally off limits for dissonance.

 

That's an interesting perspective there in the second paragraph. Do you have any particular examples that feel inappropriate to you?

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1 hour ago, Datameister said:
On 7/2/2019 at 12:04 PM, The Five Tones said:

Also, JW is an incredible harmonist; however, I often wish his harmonic language as expressed in his film cues was not so full of tonic major endings/climaxes as they are often inappropriate to the mood or direction of the harmony or at least restrict the potential effect of all the complexity that precedes them. I don't know; I've been listening to him since the mid-70s and maybe I haven't taken the time to think about this point another way. But he seems to treat these cadences as generally off limits for dissonance.

 

That's an interesting perspective there in the second paragraph. Do you have any particular examples that feel inappropriate to you?

Gosh, it could potentially be a long list, and if/when I had the time I would probably start a thread to explore the idea. Let me define inappropriate as something reflecting my personal perceptual and aesthetic response to the music, but also in respect of classical tonality. Leaving aside many examples in OSTs/concert suites, it would generally be in shorter cues where the harmony is meaningfully removed from an overt tonic-dominant trajectory, where a tonic major final chord feels contrived, or at least a repetitive use of a Romantic era convention. It feels less jarring when the ending is less audible as a tonic major as opposed to just a tonic root/octaves, whether due to voicings or a piano/pianissimo dynamic. Or when, there is an added dissonance (here we go again) such as a flat supertonic degree (or triad built on same).

I am definitely not speaking of the big endings, either, whether of the entire score or a key moment like Battle of Yavin. In those cases, the need for a sense of resolution is clearer.

Let me put it another way than "inappropriate" - I often wish there were a more inventive or ambiguous chord/sonority JW could end such a cue on while still providing a sense of finality to the cue, rather than a formal resolution. As though he didn't have to cut his vivid harmonic imagination off at that moment. I'll definitely give some thought as to what are some of the best examples for me, though.

On the other hand, here's a great example of where a tonic minor chord or unison might've been the obvious conclusion, but JW leaves off on a suspended fourth.
 

 

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