Monday, December 9, 2013

Bach, Queen, and Polyphony in Music and in Writing

Bach and Queen side by side

Sometimes a tune gets stuck in your head and refuses to leave. This is happening to me with a short scene from a nice Brazilian movie I saw about six months ago called Se Eu Fosse VocĂȘ (If I were you). The movie is about a husband and wife that wake up in each other's body, similar to what happened to the mother and daughter in Freaky Friday. The wife is head of a choir in an all-girl Catholic school and in this scene, near the end, she/he arrives just in time to get on stage and lead the choir in an important school ceremony. The twist is that the husband has completely changed the orderly, classical segment planned by his wife, into something bouncy, energetic, and full of movement, both physical and musical. Usually when a tune doesn't let go of me it's because it is polyphonic, but after consulting with my wife (a composer and teacher of music theory and composition) this turned out not be the case, which got me to thinking about polyphony as an instrument in music as well as in writing. Anyway, for starters, I invite you to listen to this short scene, see how it resonates with you, and if you can tell how the impression of polyphony is created.


You probably noticed that there is a lot of movement in this short piece: The singers are moving their bodies, waving and clapping their hands, and stomping their feet. At the same time there are some very interesting things going on in the rhythm section, mainly due to the many rhythmic instruments and the fact that they often tend to hit the offbeat, or in musical theory parlance, they create syncopation, which is defined as "a general term for a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm: a placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn't normally occur." But although the texture is rich and interesting, it is not polyphony, which is something a little different.

What is polyphony?
In music, polyphony is usually defined as a composition having at least two voices that are equally important, which together form a unity, or in more formal terms (from the wiki entry): "In music, polyphony is a texture consisting of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody, as opposed to music with just one voice (monophony) or music with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords (homophony)." Using two or more independent, different voices ensures a constant interest, movement, and tension in the composition, because one lead voice or another is always playing.

Polyphony was all the fashion in the late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, with its most notable practitioner being J.S. Bach. My (future) wife introduced me to Bach a short while after our first and only date, and it was love at first sight hearing. Bach's music struck a chord deep in my soul and I remember thinking that this is what all music should be like. Listening to Bach was, and still is, an almost supernatural experience for me. I am particularly fond of his violin concertos. Here is one example, the first movement from Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D minor:

The Brandenburg Concertos are also marvelous:

In both compositions it is not easy at all to tease apart the different voices which, my wife tells me, is a sign of an excellent polyphony: when the voices blend into one (in this post, a visual image of Bach's music is used to see the separate voices). Personally, I feel that if I ever write even one story as complex and as rich as these compositions, with the same degree of coherence, I will die a happy man. Doing it over and over again, as Bach did, is a sign of remarkable genius.

I was thinking that perhaps not everyone can relate to classical music or to Bach's music specifically - even if it is the best music ever made - so I set out to search for examples of polyphony in modern popular music. I scoured the internet for way too long, but in vain. All I found were, at best, examples of polyphony in limited parts of different compositions. After complaining to my wife about this lack of polyphony in modern music she laughed and said of course, because almost by definition popular music will not be polyphonic since it is built around lyrics, and once the melody for the lyrics is set, there is no need to create another completely different, equally important melody; all that is needed is an instrumental accompaniment. Put together we get a melody-dominated homophony, in which one voice sings a distinct melody, and the accompanying voices and/or instruments work together to articulate an underlying harmony. It is pretty easy to tell the difference between the lead voice and the accompaniments, since in pop music the lead voice is usually whoever is singing the lyrics, and the instruments are used as a background - they do not tell a separate story. Here is a widely admired song from another band that I love, Queen. The song is basically harmonic, but does include a more polyphonic part. See if you can identify where the lead voice splits into several different ones:

From about 3:05 minutes the melody disappears and instead we have different voices that complement each other and create a rich musical texture that does not have any lead voice. This is a polyphonic technique called complementary counterpoint. This part ends at 4:09 minutes, at which point we return to the previous homophony.

One final example uses the famous "ABC" song. This was created by my wife, the aforementioned composer, and it is quite dizzying. I bet you have never heard this childhood favorite rendered like this!

Polyphony in writing
In music, polyphonic techniques arose from the desire to make the simpler, almost monotonous, monophonic Gregorian chant more interesting. In a process that lasted several centuries, church composers gradually elaborated on the idea of inserting greater complexity into ecclesiastic music until at one point in the 14th century the variety of voices in compositions had become so wild and so incoherent that the church attempted to set rules to limit the chaos. Additional attempts were made in the following centuries and this is an issue that still arouses emotion today, at least for some (source, and also here, and here). So polyphony too has its limits, since all the voices must be related to each other and they must make sense together, or else the result will be cacophony, not polyphony! So successful, interesting composition in music, in writing, and probably in any other art form is simply a matter of balance. Concerning polyphony in writing, it seems to me that the question is what should be balanced against what, and how?

The corollary of voices in music would be, I think, plot lines in writing. Thus two independent, yet equally important plot lines that are related to each other and create a unity, would constitute a polyphonic story. Without knowing it, I attempted to do so in my upcoming novel. I had just written a very slow and cerebral short story that kind of traumatized me a bit, so I set out to create a story with a very fast pace, and I thought that one way to do this would be to contrast two protagonists against each other, each set in different plot lines that nevertheless were connected and in the end, fused together. I'm not sure how successful I was, but by weaving scenes from one plot line with the other, the pace of the story became much quicker, and since there is always at least one primary plot line being discussed, the story maintains a decent level of tension throughout. The difficulty with this technique is that you have to develop two separate story lines and make sure that each is internally consistent and interesting as well as related to the other, which is easier said than done, no doubt.

Of course, the use of polyphony by no means precludes the use of other techniques. Other minor plot lines and characters can be inserted as an accompaniment, a background to the main plot line and protagonist. As in music, each one can serve to further characterize the protagonist and create a richer texture. The beauty of polyphony, though, is that the two plot lines and protagonists serve to characterize each other throughout the story, and neither one is subjugated to the other. For some reason I enjoy this kind of equality. It is difficult to pull off but I think that when done successfully, the results can be most gratifying. What do you think? Has anyone ever written in words something similar to the Bach compositions posted above? Is it even possible? I tried thinking of examples but came up empty. If you have any ideas or experiences in the matter, I'd love to hear them!

About the author
Joab Cohen is the author of the psychological thriller The Jewminator and
the vegan action hero novel Captain Tofu and the Green Team (coming soon!)

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