Jan 25, 2013

Suspend This (Updated)

This post has been amended to correct an error.*
Finally caught the Broadway folk phenom Once last night, and I liked it, but what impressed me most was the endearing fragility and directness of its sound; there are some well-chosen reverb effects on some of the vocals, a single moment of dance-club beats piped in, and some slight processing on the fiddle sound (an inevitable byproduct of miking them). Other than that, it doesn't sound much different from what you'd expect from a bunch of guitars and other assorted stringed instruments strumming and sawing away in a big theater. The introduction of a drum kit for precisely one song also sounds hearteningly in proportion; the sounds we hear are transparent, visible in a way even most shows with onstage bands don't quite approach. Even when it's jamming hard, it remains a refreshingly small, quiet show.

So how does it fill up the space with emotion? It's not just the big voices of Steve Kazee, Cristin Milioti, and the chorus. What I noticed, even more strongly than when I saw the movie, is the way composers Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova milk the suspensions--i.e., melody notes that are pointedly not part of the chord beneath them, in a dissonance that snags at our ear, tugs at our heart, and makes us yearn for the resolution. It's a great old musical trick, and you don't need a ton of music theory to hear what I mean. Listen to the word "time" (1:48) and "now" (2:03) and tell me that yearning sound isn't the key to whatever emotional freight the song carries (and by extension, the key to the show's emotional impact):

Crucially, it's a doubled suspension, with Kazee and Milioti hitting a B-natural and a G, respectively, over an F chord, before resolving to an A and an F.

And what's another big moment in the score, when a song positively bowls us over? (This, by the way, is a much bigger achievement than it's given credit for; in how many backstager musicals are we asked to believe that the song/performance of our lead character is stop-the-traffic amazing? The songs that are meant to do that in Once deliver.) I'd say it's the aching 5/4 jam "When Your Mind's Made Up." The burning dissonance that drives the song, on the word "mind" (:48 and :59), happens to be another B-natural, this time over an A minor chord, a particularly hard-edged suspension that beautifully illustrates and feeds the song's roiling frustration:

Hansard and Irglova didn't invent this evocative trick, of course, and while I'm reluctant to make too many claims for the power of suspensions in pop melodies, they are very often what gives a hook its sharp edge, drawing us into harmonic suspense as we wait for the resolution. One of the best examples that springs to mind is the following standard*, with the suspension that hooks the ear on the word "smile" (and later on the first syllable of "favorite"):
Paul McCartney, for one, is an inveterate suspender. I'd argue that the single note that most draws us into "Hey Jude" is the one on "song" (at 1:04), which is an F over a C7 chord:

It's not exactly the same effect, but the main melody of "Yesterday" is built on a series of suspensions that inexorably drive it forward, thus (suspended notes highlighted):
All my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they're here to stay
You probably don't need to hear it, but just to jog your memory:

Not all suspensions are quite so exalted; the chorus of Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You" is based on one. But lest this seem like only a contemporary pop tic, the musical Once is in good company, musical-theater-wise. What notes provide the biggest surge of feeling in the song below? I'd say the suspensions on the syllable "morning" (:30) and later "feeling" (:39) (the latter being same sweet suspension used so memorably in "Falling Slowly"):
This is part of what people mean when they talk about the dramatic character/potential of music. Songwriting, even for the theater, is not primarily about the words.
*This post initially claimed that the song "Harbor Lights" epitomized a suspension; my ears failed me; it does not.
Cross-posted on The Wicked Stage.

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