Uncertainty and the Tonic

“Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee” is sung over what is called a dominant chord; the pull of that chord is eventually resolved by the tonic chord. The tonic represents the key in which Mr. Berry’s tune is written; the tonic is the place at which the harmonic progression is at rest. But in this tune, you spend most of your listening or playing time on the dominant chord; in each of the four 19-bar verses, not until measure 16 do you experience the resolution of the tonic, and this provides a sense of structure (in the first verse, that’s at the word “wall” in the line “and he wrote it on the wall”).

In Hynde’s “My City Was Gone” the harmony alternates between two chords that, by their placement, at first seem to imply a tonic/subdominant relationship, but at some point becomes less definite and can be alternately heard as either dominant or tonic. I don’t think that’s the intention, but there it is, like a visual pattern that confounds your sense of depth perception, allowing it to jump forward in your vision. Even more slippery are some tunes by Stills, whose three-chord harmonies further blur the identity of the tonic (intentionally or not) by emphasizing equally the I-IV-V, tonic-subdominant-dominant chords, which appear in many blues compositions. (These perceptions are subjective, and I realize that not everyone will hear the same things, and translating the effects into text is akin to the dis/connect of synesthesia.) Dave Holland has performed some compositions with his big band that seem to sit on the dominant instead of the tonic, in the manner of flamenco. There’s an ominous sense of suspense.

The initial appeal of jazz, for me, was the sophisticated dialect of the language of harmony that I heard on Thelonious’s “Solo Monk” in a listening booth at Marshal Field and Company, downtown. In addition, Monk occasionally finds a faux tonic and presents it as a satisfying resolution in an “inappropriate” place/juncture, as in the bridge of “Everything Happens To Me.” (What?) Taking that strategy even further, Henry Threadgill has composed pieces in which every chord has the gravitas of the tonic, as though the piece repeatedly modulates to a new key — a version of what Mr. Stills did with three simple triads, although not I-IV-V.

I think there are similar strategies in creative camerawork. Ray K. Metzker and Barbara Crane and Ken Josephson seem to have absorbed Aaron Siskind’s conceit of removing the nominal subject from its real-world context just enough to emphasize that the picture is a new object, made by the artist, not merely recording the world, capable of representing an individual’s sensibility.

What do you think? Are there other parallels that make sense to you, that help you to consider or relate ideas of picture-making?

Update: Believe me, I know it’s nuts to talk about music theory without examples. Perhaps the easiest reference to the chords mentioned above is to think of “Louie, Louie,” but that’s not precise enough. Check this video for its first half http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0I49c0TSkHs&feature=PlayList&p=B8E5BE625DCDA049&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=15 and especially the dyslexic moment; or check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-SS2XEGGRkA

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