Play It Again: On the richness of repetitive basslines

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“Play it again, Sam”, is not the actual line and it is not spoken by Humphrey Bogart in casablanca. Ingrid Bergman is the one who says to the pianist: “Play it, Sam”. The song she requested is “As Time Goes By”. The title and the six-note melodic figure, placed successively higher on the piano, are charged with romantic reverie and the weight of moving history, but they also say something about the music itself – how repetition, like the ticking of a clock, seems to freeze time even as the melodic cycles mark its passage.

The larger structure of a song like “As Time Goes By” – set in the tried-and-true 32-bar format – can also be repeated, its bassline and harmonies providing a platform for improvisations that can encompass the elegiac and the immediate: past, present and future merging in musical sound.

Dexter Gordon’s “As Time Goes By” Daydream Grows Emotionally: Augustine animal distention:

The great tenor saxophonist and others of equal stature were also masters of shorter musical time cycles: the 12 bars of the blues, or the even tighter two-bar harmonic twists sometimes keyed to a tune in order to build over- the -steal the coda.

These building blocks of musical time are ubiquitous in many diverse musical traditions.

The descending four-note minor bass line of “The Cat Came Back” was crafted four centuries ago with astonishing and seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness to the arbitrary limit of 100 variations by the flashy organist of Saint-Pierre in Rome, Girolamo Frescobaldi.

The city violinists and the titled court violinist could try their hand at bass lines that repeated themselves endlessly under the variations they improvised and which, like a self-winding clock, seemed capable of going on forever: variety and mixed uniformity over time.

Such bass lines are close cousins ​​to the still familiar, if less flowery and fantastical, doo wop motifs that produced so many songs in the 1950s and beyond:

This treasure trove of musical figures has long funded ensemble improvisation, but also, as in the Frescobaldi example above, solo display.

In these ways of making music, the bass stubbornly repeats (hence the Italian term for technique, ostinato bass), though this line may also be adorned with runs and jumps, faster mid-notes, rhythmic changes, unexpected rests, and chromatic inflections. Whatever variety is introduced in this foundation, soloists can rely on the succession of harmonies and unleash their highly trained creativity in cyclical time.

Chaconnerya CD covering nearly five centuries of ostinato bass collected and performed with exuberant virtuosity by the Spanish harpsichordist Silvia Márquez, landed in my mailbox earlier this week.

Released in 2018, the disc was dropped in this mailbox by my friend and colleague, the composer of the last of the ten tracks on the recording, the eminent Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra. The “chaconne” embedded in the title of the disc refers to a dance – libidinous, it was said – imported from the New World after the Spanish conquest: sonic gold extracted from the colonies. This disc is a veritable museum of musical artefacts made from these raw materials.

All shine with exoticism, as Márquez points out in the witty and informative booklet. His notes invest these historical and aesthetic contexts with a sense of fun. Quirky figures of speech parallel the unexpected turns that make these repeated bass lines sparkle.

Márquez begins with three numbers from the 16th and 17th centuries traveling from Sicily to Rome and on to the Iberian Peninsula, and moving from sunny brilliance to the darker interiors of court rooms.

We then rush into the 1970s with György Ligeti’s “Hungarian Rock” pedal-to-the-metal groove. This powerful modernist knew his history, but his retrospective look at the chaconne is only a quick glance in the rearview mirror: at high speed, he leaves the past behind him. At the wheel of this 20th-century classic, Márquez steers the harpsichord with formidable control that revels in the risks of speed and relishes those tight, throttling turns until, at the giddy conclusion, she lets off the gas as if she was amazed that the racetrack could be survived at all.

After this perfectly executed frenzy, Márquez tours the titans of Europe’s great keyboard dynasties: a Couperin, a Scarlatti (Alessandro, not his now more famous harpsichord son, Domenico), two Bachs, and a fiery contribution from Handel, son of a surgeon who did his best to prevent the prodigy from pursuing a musical profession. The outpourings of Handel’s Chaconne in G minor prove how misplaced his father’s concerns were: the grace, grandeur and energy of his musical imagination in these varied repetitions of the venerable bass passacaglia prove how much his desire remained irresistible even after it became European. star and a rich too.

There were no better bassliners than Bach. Márquez presents a compelling transcription of Johann Sebastian’s famous Ciaccona for solo violin, followed by the sprawling twelve variations of the “Folies d’Espagne” – the madness of Spain that plagues northern Germany, played on a monster harpsichord with three keyboards in a Hamburg color.

The Bachs are a difficult act to follow. Enter Sierra. Written for Márquez and nominated for a Latin Grammy for Best Contemporary Composition, its 5:43 thrill ride is titled “Montuno en forma de chacona.” The piece draws its repetitive power from the Puerto Rican traditions that inspire much of Sierra’s music. Equipped with genuine historical knowledge and compositional rigor thanks in large part to his teacher, Ligeti, Sierra navigates this Caribbean keyboard vamp (Montuno) into uncharted territory.

The score is a riptide of shifting meters, harmonic deviations, deft contrapuntal maneuvers that enliven and often mask the bass motif, even as its restive force propels the engine. The tribute to Ligeti heard (and felt in the fingers of the keyboardist) is fascinating and heartfelt. This admiration inspires Sierra to create work of irresistible scope, momentum and excitement. There are also maniacal echoes of Bach (JS) in the two-part streamlined counterpoint. Spark past and present ever nimble fingers from Márquez.

In the middle of the Montuno there is a lull troubled by dark clusters. After an agitated enunciation of the legendary Folia motif, the sails of the boat fill up again. The machine meets the open sea, the fists of the harpsichordists slam against the keys. The final storm lingers in a resounding and disturbing sequel. Only at the calamitous conclusion are they aware that time has passed. Has the ship returned from the Caribbean to Spain?

On this record anchored by Sierra’s sublimely streamlined ostinato, constraint becomes a form of liberation.

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