“Flawless Imperfection” ... beauty found when we remove imposed and artificial ideas of perfection and allow our medium to simply exist in a more organic manner. 

When teaching music, or ideally anything, we like to establish rules and guidelines to manage the process, and rightly so. The goal is certainly to achieve reliable and consistent results that help to avoid pitfalls and and as many undesirable outcomes as possible. This serves as a great place to start, and often we’re taught to blindly obey certain ideas with little to no explanation other than “don’t do this”, or “only proceed this way”. Perhaps when we later become more adept do we learn not only the reasons for such observances, but more so, a better appreciation as to why they’re taught, and possibly ways to actually entertain such “questionable things”. Inspiration and beauty is not necessarily the result of following rules; dotting all i’s and crossing all t’s, but often the result of a certain amount of non-interference. Our goal as artists is often to upstage what is already beautiful allowing it to be even more beautiful and to work toward not allowing its obscurity. As I often advocate, there’s such a thing I refer to as “Flawless Imperfection”. That is, the idea that beauty is often found when we remove imposed and artificial ideas of perfection, as we might define, and allow our medium to simply exist in a more organic manner. 

 

"Organic"

  • developing in a manner analogous to the natural growth and evolution characteristic of living organisms; arising as a natural outgrowth.

  • viewing or explaining something as having a growth and development analogous to that of living organisms :

  • Fine Arts. of or relating to the shapes or forms in a work of art that are of irregular contour and seem to resemble or suggest forms found in nature.

Less experienced composers and arrangers tend to produce music that is written “safe” or somewhat predictable

By its definition, “organic” refers to something that’s in a natural state of existence, rightly a state that we don’t create ourselves but are only allowed to cultivate. As expected, less experienced composers and arrangers tend to produce music that is written “safe” or somewhat predictable, because they’re closely following rules they’ve been taught and rely on contrived notions and inexperience. Their resulting work tends to be rather “forced” and “inorganic” because they’ve not yet come to understand and maturely harness the natural forces presented to them, but instead try to make the music “bend”, if possible, against “its will”.

While this is a normal progression of a music student and is perfectly fine, how do we advance beyond this and become more seasoned? There’s certainly a wealth of examples to draw and learn from, and I often refer to one specimen in particular, Bob Brookmeyer’s “First Love Song”, as a good classroom example. In this piece we find an organic approach to scoring that is largely based on line-writing concepts, or horizontal thought. This is certainly one of the keys to this sense of remaining “organic”, allowing the natural inclinations of lines to move and maintain their own logic rather than coerce them otherwise. Brookmeyer achieves a very warm and beautiful effect that utilizes close harmonies and rich structures worth their weight in gold to the studious observer, of which we’ll begin to touch on, here.

Using the example below of the first eight bars of this piece, Brookmeyer starts with a romantic melodic structure containing dramatic leaps that beg to be orchestrationally enhanced, combined with a lush harmonic backdrop. Intentional or not, this essentially “seeded” his work ahead of time, purely from a compositional standpoint, to allow an orchestral setting to fully leverage all it’s virtues. This speaks volumes on how good orchestration depends on good source material, and his tune by itself is found worthy. 

Ex. 1 - Eight bar piano reduction of "First Love Song" for analysis. Click to enlarge.

Print Ex. 1, here

An effective method to better understand arranging and orchestration is to produce piano grand-staff renditions for analysis, as was done, above. Here we can better appreciate his horizontal and vertical thinking, with each vertical structure numbered for easier reference. It is clear that the chordal movement was carefully designed to magnify and support the melody, such as in the first measure, where we begin with contrary root motion that leads to a turnaround and deceptive cadence at #13. It’s interesting to note his choice of a non-functional chordal progression at #4, 5, and 6 that is quite striking, especially in the way it successfully highlights the beautiful secondary-dominant II-V pattern approaching #7, 8, and 9. Were it not done this way, perhaps by using a more conventional progression, the effect at #6, #7 and 8 would be far less dramatic. The tri-tone root from Gb to C helps make this sound poignant without being awkward, assisted by the natural melodic movement on top. This is a demonstration of the strength in allowing root and melodic motions to follow their natural inclinations, rather than defaulting to strict melodic and harmonic rules that may sound “stock” or imposed.

Certainly #12 could easily resolve from the V7 dominant back to the tonic harmony at #13, but deceptively moves instead to a C dominant-sus VI for added depth and interest. But wait ... where then is the sus resolution? Once again, rather than force that in, Brookmeyer wisely chooses to not “dot that i” and leaves it unresolved by simply moving ahead. While resolving this suspension would be harmonically acceptable, it may make this delicate moment unnecessarily heavy. Instead, a marked harmonic and artistic statement is made by simply leaving it in suspense. Another thought here is the judicial use of space, or breath. Players and listeners both need time to breathe, and this serves as a worthy topic in itself. Nonetheless, leaving things suspended in this manner helps to lighten things up. 

On discussing all things organic, we find what could easily be considered a series of “faults” starting at #14 onward. Does Brookmeyer simply not understand the rules of jazz harmony and carelessly glossed over his use of non-chord tones? He certainly seems to have neglected all the golden rules taught to students here about not imposing a b9 tension within a tri-tone substitution when that tension is diatonic to the key center (not to be confused with structural-b9 intervals embedded within chords, mentioned later). Looking at the melody stretching from #14 to 16, we see an A7 tri-tone at #15 with a Bb in the melody that defies this sound logic. However, he boldly proceeds here with a possible hint of, “who cares?” tossed in. Oh, I think he cared greatly, and expertly sided with the strong directive of the melodic line in having its way, over musical-correctness, which in this case is only emboldened by the underlying harmony. Now, this can be dangerous territory for students! As stated above, it’s better to appreciate the rules and possess understanding first, rather than execute something like this merely out of sheer ignorance. This b9 situation should not be disregarded as irrelevant, but rather managed skillfully. In this case, the understanding of how this could work, and why. Ideally the upward movement of the melody against the contrary downward root motion, along with tight harmonies that change practically on every beat help to massage any issues “the rules” may incite. Again, this must be handled with care.

We look next at a succession of non-functional harmony found from #16 to 23. By rights, these progression do not resolve into each other if it were not for the energy from the top and bottom lines pulling everything through this section. The motion of these lines at best hints at common changes we might be familiar with but doesn’t actually follow them. For instance, starting at #14, the chordal suggestion might compellingly be: Bbm7 (#14) Eb7 (#15), Abmaj7 (#16 & 17), Dm7b5 (#18), G7 (#19), Cm7 (#20), Eb7 (#21), Abmaj7 (#22), Db7 (#23), to Gm7 turnaround, which would sound quite expected and perhaps, a bit dull. Maybe this swayed Brookmeyer to abandon such initial thoughts and create something more unique. The D melody notes in #18 and #19 could easily conjure a thought of using Bm7 to E7 as fitting chords tone with just enough of a departure from the main tonality to keep things interesting. The movement from E7 back to the overall key center at #20 works as a sort of deceptive tri-tone cadence - that is, rather than resolve E7 into Ebmaj7 it moves to the relative minor, instead. 

We encounter more non chord-tone use at #21 with a Bm7 harmony under a C-natural melody note. With chord changes on every quarter beat, and one and three normally considered strong beats, we could argue that #21 is a weaker beat (beat two) and this melody note thus serving more as a passing-tone, perhaps. Regardless, just as with #15, the confidence of the melodic line finds no fault with the underlying chromatic harmony and is pleasing to the ear. Interestingly from there, moving chromatically from a Cm7 to Bm7 would cause one to expect Bbm7 next as in a secondary dominant type function leading to Abmaj7, perhaps. But instead we jump from a Bb dominant (#22) to a Db7 (as a minor IV substitution) which is a rather non-functional progression overall. Do we now continue to question Brookmeyer’s sensibilities in all of this, or applaud his originality and achievement in taking what could have been quite mundane and ordinary and instead infuse a fresh sonic perspective? It seems rather clear at this point that his main motivation in this piece was about emphasizing texture and sound qualities while not allowing conventions to stand in the way of that. 

Lastly for now, we tackle yet another rule of arranging that’s been healthfully violated in this example; the avoidance of structural b9 intervals embedded within stacked chord tones. This is not to be confused with harmonic-b9 functions with roots. We’re not referring to avoiding rooted dominant7 b9 harmonic functions, but rather the existence of literal b9 intervals within chord structures that makes for much unpleasant discord. Again, the arranging student should greatly appreciate the validity of this rule, but also come to respect how wonderfully Brookmeyer goes around it to great advantage. Essentially, we have b9 intervals embedded at #9, 11, 18, 20, 24, and 26. His judicial use of this troublesome interval attributes to much of the lush, moving quality that we admire in this piece, and he makes it work by doing a number of things. Firstly, the harsh and undesirable quality of the embedded b9’s is subdued by keep their existence mainly within the tenor range, which is neither too high or too low. That, combined with injecting an octave-doubling into the b9 further smoothes things out and makes that rogue interval suddenly quite inviting. Finally, the continually dense chord structures that change on practically every beat and the strong melodic content equally contribute to the success of this approach, resulting in breathtaking warmth and character.

[We seek to] find flawlessness in what is not absolutely perfect and sterile, but rather what organically possesses immeasurable character and depth, and allowing that to take centerstage. This is a high calling and challenge of any artist.

To sum up, the arranging student can expand their skill set that might be currently based on rules and practices, and better understand how to wield the forces of music to their advantage, often times involves non or lessened conformity to what is taught. Truly inspired music isn’t always built so “safe” and cannot necessarily be reduced to such things, with “First Love Song” serving as a wonderful example. We examined how our writer drew upon an organic framework that helped to shape and define what he wanted to say, even when it didn’t follow all the so-called rules. Certainly, it may be better to not refer to scoring fundamentals as “rules”, but rather as simple and safe options to learn from and to ultimately expand on later. Things like observing proper chord tones and avoiding structural b9’s are all good advice to get us started, and serves as an introduction into how to begin working within this living medium we call “music”. However, we ultimately want to develop our skills and understanding of “Flawless Imperfection” of which has been the focus here. That is, finding flawlessness in what is not absolutely perfect and sterile, but rather what organically possesses immeasurable character and depth, and allowing that to take centerstage on its own merits. This is a high calling and challenge of any artist.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the luxury of the Vanguard Orchestra at your disposal. It’s easy to understand how a writer could get quite adventurous and confident with such a prospect. And even when you don’t, your first love song can be just as gutsy and whimsical, and, imperfect. Look soon for part II of this study where we’ll consider some final thoughts on this brilliant work and of this topic.

 

Marc J Stasio is an east-coast based composer/arranger, pianist, educator, and author who actively lives out his calling producing scores for hire, serving as jazz faculty, and performing abroad for over 35 years. His work is heard on recordings by today's top artists in jazz and contemporary music. As professor of jazz studies, he specializes in teaching composition and arranging based on “the Hidden Score,” with a dedicated blog by that title. Marc holds a Masters degree in Jazz Studies and is currently pursuing his Doctorate. Visit http://marcstasio.com.

This article may be freely reprinted by including the author's bio and website address, above, subject to copyright law.