Dialog Box: Modality & Miles Davis

3 Mar

The third track on Miles Davis’ 1959 Kind of Blue, called “Blue in Green”:

You can see how thinking about music moves into mysticism–Kwami Coleman

This Sunday, I talked to my friend, musician & musicologist, Kwami Coleman, who resides in San Francisco, about modality in music.  I was listening to Miles Davis’  “Blue in Green”, a highly textured musical composition, from his record Kind of Blue, which is very modal. Now, I’ve studied music, namely violin, but still have lots of questions regarding the theories.  At first, Kwami broke down the basics of my questions, but then it soon delved into the relationship between music & tonality & its (unknowable) effects on human psyche.

When we hear a piece of music, it elicits a response from us. Whether we listen to Miles Davis, to get into a heady, reflective, sober condition or the energetic, multilayered, orchestrated spontaneity of Fela Kuti—there is an emotional response drawn out of us. We attribute emotions—longing, misery, whimsy, joy—to the melodies we hear. We all know this.  And we know that the reason for this will never be fully understood, there’s value in understanding what certain tones provoke in the listener.

To read the Dialog Box interview, click the title of this post.

Another thread to this series: The highlighted links will lead you along a random Wikipedia trail. Now, this may seem like a way to make something random boringly structured, but I hope it invites you to veer off the set track onto your own Wikipedia trails. Sort of like those Choose Your Adventure books. Anything to distract or inspire you.

I hope to continue this exchange with Kwami in future installments of Dialog Box.

me: what is modality?

kwamicoleman: instead of the chord built on “do” as the beginning & end of a piece (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do) a chord built on another note, let’s say “re” begins & ends the piece. So it reads: (re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do-re). “do” still sounds relatively strong & stable, yet not as the beginning/ending/most important note/chord of the piece

me: hmmm i just sang that out loud it’s like you end in a “higher place”…it sounds very different to me

kwamicoleman: yes different, but it only sounds higher if you look at it in relation to “do”. “do” is no longer the centerpiece that it used to be

me:i wonder if there’s a philosophical significance to utilizing a certain modeover another or does that just happen organically?

kwamicoleman: theorists/composers/musicians/philosophers pondered the significance of different modes for centuries now

me: since the greeks or some shit?

kwamicoleman: we don’t know what the Greek modes sounded likewe just appropriated their language gave our modern modes Greek names there’s a sound/color of each mode this has to do with the relationship between each of the notes

me: what is the “reason” for the system of modes? is it just coincidental? purposeful?

kwamicoleman: it’s hard to know whether the system of tonalitycreated these relationships, or if these relationships created the system. It might be a chicken-and-egg question. You can see how thinking about musiccan move into mysticism, very quickly. the idea of different modes having different flavorsby virtue of the array of semitones adds up to a collection of frequencies provoking emotional states in the listener. If the Dorian mode elicits sadness, somberness, etc. A connection between these notes these frequencies & a state of emotionis a purely human experience, is a connection between the natural world (sound), explained by acoustics (science) & human emotion becomes fused. If you follow this line of thinking as a composer, you say to yourself: “i want this piece to express severe longing and despair in the face of a love that proves to be impossible,” you may consider the Dorian mode & not consider the Ionian mode (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do)

me: What are some examples of musicians utilizing the Dorian mode?

kwamicoleman: Erykah Badu’s “Didn’tcha Know” and Miles Davis’ “So What” both in Dorian mode

me: is this a choice sprung out of the artists’ mind? Spontaneously?

kwamicoleman: You know how most emcees rhyme coming out of someone like Rakim?  He’s an icon & stylistic revolutionary. There’s not an emcee today who hasn’t come away from him, even if it’s through someone else that, in turn, came from Rakim.

me: you’re brilz

kwamicoleman: haha. i’m like, “brilz?!”

And now, the glorious and glamorous Miz Badu in ‘Didn’tcha Know’:

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