Modaling McCarthy

This topic contains 20 replies, has 8 voices, and was last updated by  BobbyKnoxville 3 years, 5 months ago.

Viewing 10 posts - 1 through 10 (of 21 total)
  • Author
    Posts Mark Topic Read  | 
  • 03 Dec 2013 at 6:06 pm #4811

    franzpeter
    Member

    During an exchange of views that took place a few years ago I drew an analogy between McCarthy’s writing and modal music. I don’t think it’s unique to McCarthy by any means but modality does, it seems to me, characterize a particular school of American prose that seems to start with Faulkner and is particularly evident in McCarthy. Let me quickly point out that I am not thinking of modality as employed by Beethoven in Op 132 (to take the obvious example) but of music that is more rural and traditional, rugged rather than refined. It seems to be there one way or another in all of the novels (with one notable exception). Blood Meridian and The Crossing but perhaps most clearly and rigorously in Outer Dark, which has a tone and deliberate narrowness of range that is mesmerizing, a quality that is itself characteristic of modal music. Modality also shows up in long passages of TOK, Horses and Plains, rather less so in Country and reappears forcefully in The Road. Child of God starts with the same characteristic tone but develops in a way that makes it the most individual of all of McCarthy’s novels. Prologue apart it is almost entirely missing from Sutree, a work as great as BM in my view, but can it be a coincidence that McCarthy’s most chromatic novel is also the one that is most uneven in tone and structure?

    And it shows up elsewhere. In American music (Miles Davis: Kind of Blue an album that McCarthy must have known from its first appearance when he would have been 26). Modal music has been used extensively by Terry Riley, one of the biggest influences on American Minimalism which also employs modes and even when it does not much of its repetitious and motivic material, always changing while always staying the same, creates a similar effect. Nor would it be stretching things to call Film Noir modal cinema.

    In an attempt to explain how I think this works, or at least to explain how it works on me, I’ll take one episode from Outer Dark, the one where Culler meets the trio at their campfire and (amongst other things!) boots are exchanged. I happen to find this far and away the most terrifying episode in all of McCarthy’s work. The first time I read it I broke out in a cold sweat and had to put the book down halfway through the episode to draw breath before I could continue. The usual procedure with hugely dramatic episodes like this is to prepare the reader with something analogous to a modulation to a different, darker key; what can be thought of as a signal to the reader. But McCarthy doesn’t do that here, rather he seems to achieve his effect with a darkening of instrumental timbre rather than a shift in tonal centre, a gradual segue that does not announce itself but is at first almost subliminal until readers find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of the performance. That is, I think, highly characteristic of how modal music achieves its moment relying upon the insistent repetition and close variation of its basic material to achieve what Flamenco’s call Duende.

    [Incidentally and with regard to this particular episode and who it involves it may well be Duende in other senses as well. Consider this – which I confess to having swiped off Wikipedia: >>>In Hispanic folklore of Mexico and the American Southwest, duendes are known as gnome like creatures who live inside the walls of homes, especially in the bedroom walls of young children. They attempt to clip the toenails of unkempt children, often leading to the mistaken removal of entire toes.[2] They are also known for taking items from young children. They have also been able to barter with the mother of young children so that they can take the child and have them to eat. They appear at night when children are at play with a ball, and watch the children and later make their appearance and confront the children. <<<
    I had no idea! Can anyone add to that!]

    I’m loath to drive this analogy too hard (analogy’s are a means of illumination, one should be talking about what is being illuminated not the light bulb!) but for the sake of contrasting and comparing I’ll add one more thought to this. Another episode that might be thought of as achieving an effect similar to the above is the reappearance of the Judge in the final pages of BM. I think there are important differences though and it might be worth working through that. There is in fact a modulation to and establishing of a new key and a return to a modified version of the basic material. The modulation away from the incantatory mode of the central section can be thought of as the sequence that includes the Eldress in the rocks. That these passages are modulatory is clear enough I think, suggestive as they are of a process of change; they feel transitional. The new mode is established with the arrival of ‘the man’ (suggestions of the past appear like a kind of inescapable counter point) taking us through to a review of the earlier material that begins with ‘Watching him across the layered smoke in the yellow light was the Judge.’ (This sentence, isolated as it is in its own paragraph arrives not with terror but with a kind of enervating inevitability. It’s almost funny.) And we now hear this earlier material in a different context and in a more informed way which takes us all the way back to board walk and outhouse.

    There is nothing in that last paragraph that could not very easily be applied to just about any novel or substantial piece of music or film one cares to name, because what is being talked about are the devices of dramatic construction in which modes, modulation and the deliberate lack of it play an enormous part. But we are, I think, being told something by McCarthy should we choose to listen. McCarthy puts the theme of kid to man through this modulating material and contrasts it with the Judge’s belief that he will not change (modulate: regulate, adjust. modify: make less severe or decided). Culla is trapped by his essentially passive nature in a similar stasis rendered in music that does not modulate. Both the Judge and Culla are in their different ways killers of creativity (a theme explored in 2666) and McCarthy’s method, these modulations and modes seek to bind form and content to make that clear.

    Sorry I’ve not got more time to clarify and improve all of that and I apologise for having gone on at such length. But for those interested it’s a place to start…

    pf


      Quote
    • This topic was modified 4 years, 1 month ago by  franzpeter.
    • This topic was modified 4 years, 1 month ago by  franzpeter.
    04 Dec 2013 at 5:05 am #4815

    The Tramp
    Member

    Dear Frantzpeter, another brilliant analysis. I love Britten’s piece (as you may have guessed), especially the structural bridges he creates between the magnificent world of Dowland and modern polyphonic music but also between the lute and the guitar (Ogden is playing on the version I have). Nocturne, as a musical genre, when compared to ‘night music’ or serenades conveys a reflexive/melancholy mood that tends to dominate pieces even in Rachmaninov’s extraordinary contributions to the genre. I benefited enormously from comments from a professor at Oxford – a specialist of Milton and metaphysical poetry – explained about William Golding’s intricate relations between music and writing. When I think of it, Golding’s works strike me as deeply “religious” works designed by a master craftsman (he’s one of the few modern/contemporary novelists I keep on rereading over and over). McCarthy said in an old interview that no music was worth hearing after Beethoven (Ellroy did the same), yet, in the Sunset Limited and elsewhere jazz appears and especially so-called modal jazz (Miles, Trane, etc.). What are we to make of this? Your reading of Blood Meridian with the theme of modulation in mind is brilliant. McCarthy did not show in his first novels any interest in blues or any other African-American music (hyphenated lives again) though they took place in the South. What are we to make of this sudden change in his writing? Cogent reasons lead me to think that, especially in the novels, music/musical composition play a greater role than people have acknowledged so far.


      Quote
    04 Dec 2013 at 6:58 am #4816

    Richard L.
    Member

    Nice essay, franzpeter.

    (Well, here’s my wife with the coffee and cinnamin rolls. I’ll make this short.)

    Like Pico Iyer says in his own brilliant essay on McCarthy’s stylistic visions (“BLACK MAGIC REALISM: THE CROSSING” from TROPICAL CLASSICAL, 1997, pp. 223-228), the “uncommonly lucid and lapidary prose that spins an almost hallucinatory spell” cannot stop trying “to peel the surface of the world back to find its metaphysical core.”

    As you say, “There is in fact a modulation to and establishing of a new key and a return to a modified version of the basic material.”

    He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

    That, my favorite bottomless paragraph from THE ROAD, like Shakespeare’s the-sound-and-the-fury paragraph from MacBeth, is deep enough to draw a timeless amount of essays from, and then some.

    I like Janice Lee’s reviews at this link:

    http://htmlgiant.com/random/favorite-books-read-during-2013/

    where, besides quoting that paragraph, the reviewer seems to have a knack for finding other paragraphs from other books that dwell on the metaphysical border–there, between appearing and disappearing. Music and modulation. You should take a look.

    Now to the coffee and rolls.


      Quote
    04 Dec 2013 at 4:45 pm #4819

    The Tramp
    Member

    Tener duende is an essential aesthetic concept in flamenco and in corrida (bullfighting), and is one of the key notions in Spanish traditional music with tener arte, i.e. To possess “art/grace”; two qualities that reject the possibility of permanence. An artist is a great artist because he can never be constantly so. Seville revels in the notion that being constantly good is antonymous with excellence. The third notion is sitio that poorly translates as “location/site/place”. Aesthetics of impermanence, dissonance, and place. Harmonics or modulation towards a new key or an extension of the first motif. Dissonance appears mostly in the novels. Any time you read the first half of McCarthy’s work, dialogues are based on dissonance — a technique borrowed from Faulkner. Then McCarthy is no stranger to leitmotifs either. An unanswered question is the move that takes writing from an almost baroque flourish — as in the first novels and in the patchwork called Suttree — to the ‘lapidary’ later style. McCarthy never wrote any essays and enjoys proofreading scientific papers. The first comparison that comes to mind is the use of variation on a similar theme within a single novel and, whatever the artistic merits, throughout his work read as a whole.

    Is the Judge a mere killer of creativity or, like some conductors — many among them geniuses — the man who wants to modulate creation and people so that they participate to his interpretation of the world? The Judge being another authorial voice, he appears as the only coherent character in the novel. He conducts the savage symphony. McCarthy’s villains are also his best performers most of the time.


      Quote
    • This reply was modified 4 years, 1 month ago by  The Tramp.
    05 Dec 2013 at 6:41 pm #4838

    franzpeter
    Member

    Thanks for coming in on this thread F and R. (Where’s the rest of youu?)

    I can’t put another post up tonight because I need some sleep. Probably tomorrow.

    Btw, a few minutes ago I finished Bolaño’s ‘By Night in Chile’, the last pages of which I thought intensley moving. What do we think of his use of clusters of repetition, usually triple and one of them: ‘burning, burning, burning’ obviously ‘The Waste Land’?

    pf


      Quote
    19 Dec 2013 at 4:35 pm #4893

    Glass
    Member

    Interesting. A few days prior to this posting here on modality, I was thinking about how much I liked the disharmony in McCarthy’s writing, the discordance and confusion that sometimes crops up. Along those lines, I have this image of the spikes sprouting from the newly born earth in the exterior panel (Creation) from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. But this thread is about harmony and modality and I must confess I don’t quite get what modality is, though I enjoyed reading what everyone has had to say and am not in disagreement with any of it. Is modality at all like those notes that are played throughout Close Encounters of the Third Kind? I was wondering, too, whether there is any resonance here to Song Lines — singing the world, dreaming the world, like Chatwin wrote about.


      Quote
    23 Dec 2013 at 11:50 pm #4908

    jVh
    Member

    Glass,
    The Close Encounters theme can be heard as five tones in a major scale (E flat). In “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do” terms, the theme goes: so-la-fa-fa-do (with the second “fa” one octave lower than the first).

    Notice that the do-re-mi series has seven unique terms/tones, and that it ends where it begins, on “do” (or as Homer Simpson might say, d’oh). The last “do” is said to be one “octave” higher than the first one because it is the eighth note in the series. Thanks to <i>The Sound of Music</i> and other bad influences, we tend to think of do-re-mi in terms of the major scale.

    But don’t think that major/minor scales are different from modes. The major scale and the Ionian mode are one and the same thing. So a mode is basically just a series of seven tones. In modern western music, there are seven modes: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian. So each of these modes has its own “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do.”

    We tend to relate everything to the Ionian mode (major scale). So the 2nd-7th tones of the Ionian mode (“re” to “ti”) form the first tone of the other modes. The Dorian “do” (1st) is thus the Ionian “re” (2nd); the Phrygian “do” is the Ionian “mi” (3rd); the Lydian’s “do” is the Ionian “fa” (4th); and so on…

    So: in a C Ionian (C major), the tones are C D E F G A B
    The D is the second tone in the C Ionian, so it is the first tone in the D Dorian…
    F is the fourth tone in C Ionian, so it is the first tone in F Lydian…

    In general, North American ears find Ionian, Aeolian, and Mixolydian modes most familiar. Ionian and Aeolian modes (major and minor) are pretty standard for Western European classical music and many kinds of popular music as well (e.g. folk). Tonally speaking, the blues and blues-based popular music, with their “dominant five” chords, can basically be understood to be in the Mixolydian mode. The other modes are less ubiquitous, so they sound different. I suspect Franzpeter is talking about such other modes (like the minor sounding Dorian mode, exploited by Miles Davis in his cool jazz phase) when he talks about “narrowness of range.” Technically speaking, no mode is “narrower” than any other. But some (like Dorian, Phrygian or Lydian) may sound so, since they frustrate our ingrained expectations…


      Quote
    24 Dec 2013 at 2:33 am #4909

    robmcinroy
    Member

    It is also the case that Irish traditional music, which someone by the name of Cormac McCarthy is likely to have more than a passing interest in, is largely based on modalities, particularly Mixolydian. Years ago when I played (badly) in a regular Irish music session, my guitar teacher tried to teach me modal tunings. They do sound different.


      Quote
    30 Dec 2013 at 12:23 pm #4921

    jVh
    Member

    To continue a little then, in an effort to clarify:

    As previously stated, the ‘do-re-mi’ series is comprised of seven tones. So in the C major (or C Ionian) series, the seven tones are C D E F G A B.

    Each of these tones can be turned into a chord. Each chord is based on three (or four) tones, which are numerically identified as the 1, 3, 5 (and 7).

    A C major/Ionian chord is thus formed by simultaneously playing C E G (1 3 5) or C E G B (1 3 5 7). The former is often just referred as a C chord, the latter as a C major7 chord (Cma7).

    A C chord in C Ionian is identified by the Roman numeral I. The numeral is capitalized because the chord is “major” sounding.

    One can then go on to form chords out of the remaining tones in the scale/mode (D E F G A B).

    A D chord in C Ionian mode is identified by the Roman numeral ii. The numeral is lowercase because the chord turns out to be “minor” sounding. If we treat D as the first tone (1), then we make the chord out of 1 3 5 (D F A) or 1 3 5 7 (D F A C). We end up with a Dmin or Dmin7 chord.

    As we continue to make chords out of each of the tones in the Ionian mode, we find a sequence of major and minor chords: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii.

    I stated previously that we tend to relate the other modes to the Ionian. The Dorian mode is based on the ‘re’ of the Ionian, the Phrygian on the ‘mi’ and so on. Juxtaposing the sequence of chords (I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii) with the sequence of modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phyrgian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian) lets us know which mode will be “major” sounding and which “minor.” The Dorian (ii), Phyrgian (iii), Aeolian (vi) and Locrian (vii) modes are minor-sounding and the Ionian (I), Lydian (IV) and Mixolydian (V) are major-sounding.

    C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian, B Locrian are thus all based the C Ionian scale (C D E F G A B). They just start in different places: the D Dorian scale would thus run (D E F G A B C), the F Lydian (F G A B C D E), and so on.

    So long as our ears are accustomed to the C major scale, we will keep expecting D Dorian or F Lydian or other modal melodies or progressions to resolve back to C. Hence they will sound incomplete or tense or otherwise narrowed.


      Quote
    03 Jan 2014 at 12:47 am #4922

    jVh
    Member

    A few years back a friend of mine gave me a copy of More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction, Kodwo Eshun’s crazy book on Afro-futurism and the rise of electronic music. In it, Eshun effusively praises one of jazzman George Russell’s compositions from the mid-sixties, Electronic Sonata for Souls loved by Nature. I hadn’t heard of Russell before, so that led me to start reading his monumental and likewise crazy theoretical treatise on his so-called “Lydian chromatic concept.”

    Russell was mystically minded and his assertion of the absolute primacy of the Lydian mode reflects this fairly clearly. I’m not a musicologist or historian of music, so I’m not sure if Russell was the first person to point this out, but he begins his treatise with the observation that the Lydian is the only mode comprised of a series of fifths (the fifth being the strongest of intervals).

    Normal folks might look at the Lydian mode and say that its distinguishing feature is fourth tone, which, in comparison to the Ionian mode, is sharpened. For example: the F Lydian scale, which we tend to understand as being based on the C major (Ionian) scale, runs: F G A B C D E. The fourth tone, as you see, is a B (natural). Compare this to the F major or F Ionian scale, which rather runs: F G A Bflat, C, D, E. Since the fourth tone in the major scale is a B flat, and the fourth tone of the Lydian is a B natural, we tend to say that the fourth degree in the Lydian mode is sharpened. (If you play this on a piano or guitar or other instrument, your ear will likely hear the scale as unusual, and in need of resolving on a C.)

    So what does Russell mean when he says that the Lydian is composed of a series of perfect fifths? Well, it’s easy enough to see. What is the fifth of F? It’s C (F G A B C). What’s the fifth of C? It’s G (C D E F G). And so on: The fifth of G is D; the fifth of D is A; the fifth of A is E; and the fifth of E is our old friend B. Arrange these seven tones in an ascending series and you get the F Lydian scale: F G A B C D E. Perfectly equidistant from one another, these seven tones create a self-organized “tonal gravity field” that represents a state of pure unity, or as he writes, “instantaneous completeness and oneness in the Absolute Here and Now… above linear time.”

    In comparison, the Ionian mode (major scale) is fixed in a “horizontal linear time state” precisely because of its unsharpened fourth degree. Thus, for example, the B flat in F major means that the seven tones exist in an unbalanced way, which means melodies or progressions are forever in the state of resolving to a goal (F major or the relative D minor).

    Thus for Russell music as such has two poles or forces: the musical active force, represented by the Ionian mode (major scale) and the musical passive force, represented by the Lydian mode’s ladder of fifths. If in the former, music is always compelled linearly toward a goal, in the latter it is no longer subject to any goal pressure at all. Rather, it resonates in a state of pure intensity. Perhaps if Russell had read Gilles Deleuze he might say that the time of the musical active force is that of Chronos, and the time of its counterpart that of Aion. I’m pretty sure the two of them would have liked each other quite a bit.

    Certainly, in McCarthy we see a tension and a mixture between two such forces and two such times: linear time suddenly arresting in untimeliness, the untimely falling back once again into linear time… With respect to Blood Meridian it sometimes appears that the judge embodies the active linear force and the kid the passive and the untimely, but sometimes it appears the other way around. Both characters seem composed out of both semiotics. There may be a further point to draw from that, but I guess I should get back to boning up on ancient Greek musicology in advance of teaching The Republic in a couple of weeks… Happy New Years, to almost all…


      Quote
    • This reply was modified 4 years ago by  jVh.
Viewing 10 posts - 1 through 10 (of 21 total)

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.