Wednesday, March 7, 2018

19.) But Beautiful

Song number 19 is But Beautiful by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke.  I knew this song from the Tony Bennett / Bill Evans duo album and as the title track of a great Nancy Wilson album.  I like the tune because of the thematic nature of the melody - the same phrase repeated three times at higher pitch levels.  And there are also these nice pauses in the song..."but beautiful...".

One of my previous projects was The Messiaen Project, in which I composed, recorded, and posted one song a week using the techniques of the French composer Olivier Messiaen.  This arrangment of But Beautiful became a little Messiaen/Standards mashup.  It started out with a desire to create some beautiful dissonance on the second half of the tune - the thematic part I was describing above.  Each time the melody reaches the repeated high note of the phrase, I was hearing some kind of increasingly dissonant sound.  I realized it was a diminished sound I was looking for.  So the first one is a diminished major seventh chord.  The second one is a double diminished chord - two diminished seventh chords stacked on top of each other.  The third one is a...wait for it... a triple diminished!  Whooooo!  I can hear your minds exploding.  When you stack three diminished seventh chords on top of one another, you end up with all twelve tones of the chromatic scale.  The way I did it was to play a double diminished on beat one, and then add the 3rd diminished chord on beat two.  It's dense and dissonant, but it quickly resolves to a chunky major seventh chord, hopefully providing you with some relief.

Messiaen made extensive use of the diminished scale, also known as the octatonic scale, and what he called "the second mode of limited transposition".  After making use of these diminished chords on the second half of the arrangement, as I described above, I thought it would be fun to try to incorporate diminished harmony elsewhere into the arrangement.  I used it in the introduction, at the end, and mainly in the long pauses of the melody, which happen after the lyric "but beautiful".

[I realize this post is getting pretty heady.  Especially if you're not familiar with the song.  Help me out and have a listen to the Tony Bennett / Bill Evans recording.  And for a Messiaen reference I'd recommend the Vignt Regards sur l'Enfant-J├ęsus]

To my ears Messiaen's music, particularly his use of the diminished scale, is full of really bright, beautiful, shimmering, dissonance.  In context that dissonance is not abrasive at all.  He was somehow able to take us along and make us believe.  However, interspersing the diminished harmony with regular major harmony, may or may not be a little weird.  It's difficult when I'm working on these to keep a sense of objectivity.  The objectivity is there the first couple times I try something.  After that it slowly dissipates.  By the time I'm getting some decent takes recorded it's completely gone.  It's really fun to come back and listen to these recordings a month later - the objectivity returns by then.  For now, you can be my objective listener and decide for yourself if it works or not.  In the meantime, I'll start arranging the next one.  Five more to go!  Thanks for listening!

P.S.  Here's the youtube playlist for all the Standards I've uploaded to YouTube!