Friday, November 15, 2013

A Quick Look at Improvised Counterpoint

It is widely understood that counterpoint played an important role in the musical thinking of Lennie Tristano. His improvised piano solos occasionally exhibit the contrapuntal interaction of two independent lines (or more, as in the case of the multi-tracked “Turkish Mambo”), and his ensembles frequently engaged in “collective improvisation,” in which multiple players simultaneously improvise melodies (i.e., polyphony).

Perhaps less widely discussed, however, is the technique guiding such improvised counterpoint. How do the independent voices relate to each other? For performances of compositions from the American Songbook, a given chord sequence will obviously circumscribe the harmonic content of the improvisation (unlike purely free-improvised pieces like “Intuition” and “Digression”). But is that the full extent of the musical coherence, or can we discover other significant relationships between the voices in Tristano-school counterpoint?  

A chorus of simultaneous improvisation by Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh on Burton Lane’s “How About You?”, recorded live at the Half Note in 1959, provides an example for analysis. (My transcription can be found here.) 

In the second bar of the form, Marsh introduces a motive which outlines a four-note stepwise ascent. Following by one beat and before Marsh’s statement is completed, Konitz answers with the retrograde version of the motive. Konitz repeats the retrograde form of the motive in bar 4, this time transposed down a diatonic step, and he follows in bar 5 with a varied form of the descending motive which foreshadows later motivic developments. The original ascending form of the motive returns in Marsh’s line in bar 6, where it is roughly played twice in succession. Finally, Konitz answers in bars 7 and 8 with an elaborated statement of the ascending motive, outlining G-A-B-flat-C, plus the falling third (B-flat-G) as when we first heard the motive from Marsh. Konitz’s final sounding of the motive is put into relief by the fact that it clearly outlines G minor, anticipating the formal harmonic arrival of this chord by a measure and a half.

In addition to its motivic coherence, this passage is also interesting for its elegant higher-level voice-leading. In the first four measures, Konitz embellishes a descending stepwise line of F(bars 2–3)-E-D-C(bar 4)---an instance of the motive in retrograde---while Marsh in contrary motion ascends by step from F (bar 2, heard in the upper octave) through G (bar 3) to A (bar 4). Konitz and Marsh seem to simultaneously anticipate the F chord of bar 5 by placing chord tones (C and A, respectively) on the final beat of measure 4. Measure 5 finds the two players exchanging voices, C for neighbor-note embellished E, and another voice-exchange in the following measure switches F and D-flat (C-sharp) on beat one and the upbeat of three. Konitz and Marsh reach a unison E-flat, from above and below, respectively, in bar 7. The prevalence of consonant thirds and sixths between the two voices in these bars is noteworthy.

Another period of imitative cohesion arises in measure 12 beginning with Konitz’s stepwise “down-up” motive (which at least in terms of its initial pitch content seems related to the original motive of measure 2). After stating the motive, Konitz repeats it four times at different pitch levels through measure 15. Marsh follows behind by a bar, imitating the “down-up” motive in measures 13 and 14. Note the contrary-motion 3-6 progression onto the strong beat 3 in bar 13 and the parallel thirds on the first two beats of bar 14. Konitz’s phrase-ending ^3-^1 descent in bar 15 is inverted and lengthened to two measures as Marsh responds with the ascending sixth in bars 15–16.

The start of the second half of the form finds Konitz reactivating the preceding motive, this time in inversion (“up-down”) at the same pitch level as in bar 12 and immediately elided with a form of the original (“down-up”) at the third below. Konitz returns to this motive in its full form in bars 19­­­­–20, and then isolates the “down-up” fragment in bar 21. In measures 22–24 Konitz reverses the order of the motive fragments for two statements of “up-down + third descent / down-up,” with the first half of each accelerated rhythmically as sixteenth notes. Marsh’s imitation, meanwhile, consists of a two-fold answer to the “up-down” motive segment with descending third in bar 18, which then spins off a chromatic ascent of the minor third dyad to bar 21.

It is during this phrase that subtly imitative rhythm also comes to the fore. Marsh plays a four-note eighth-note rhythm on beats 3 and 4 of bar 22, in which the final note represents an anticipated downbeat of 1 (that is, the eighth-note on the upbeat of 4 is tied over the bar to beat 1.) When Marsh repeats this rhythm in bars 23–24, Konitz plays the same rhythm in unison, and it is sounded again by Marsh in bars 26–27. This unison rhythm has the effect of propelling the music towards the coming conclusion of the form, an effect heard to even greater impact with the rhythmic and melodic unison in measure 28 (which begins with an instance of the “up-down” motive fragment) in approach of the final turnaround.

Finally, the technique of voice-exchange heard earlier returns in bars 31–32, where two chromatic instances of it, first exchanging C for A and then F for A, outline the chromatically-inflected tonic triad. This final passage also includes an example each of the chromatically-ascending minor third dyad and the falling third, both of which are motivically salient due to their earlier appearances in the music discussed above. 

It is clear from the nature of improvisation that the relationships described here are subtle, inexplicit, and emergent rather than planned, but they nonetheless contribute to the audible integration of two otherwise fully independent voices and suggest that Konitz and Marsh possess a remarkably heightened sense of musical hearing.

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