Friday, May 30, 2014

Key Transformation and Motive Relation in "First Meditations" and "Sun Ship"

First in an article and later in his book, Lewis Porter shows how the four movements of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme suite are integrated, specifically through the application of set class (025) to both thematic motives as well as key transpositions between movements. Porter writes: "During his final period, 1965--67, Coltrane succeeded in eliminating the feeling of sectionality altogether, so that one experiences each late work as an indivisible whole..."

A Love Supreme was recorded in December 1964. Do Coltrane's studio albums recorded later in 1965, like Sun Ship and First Meditations, exhibit similar integration through motive and key relations despite not explicitly being "suites"? 

The key areas of the fives pieces released together as First Meditations are transformationally related and can be mapped as a transformational network. I find Kopp's system of chromatic mediant transformation most useful to illustrate the triad transformations in Coltrane's music. In Kopp, R/r represent diatonic mediant relationships (two common tones), and M/m represent chromatic mediant relationships (one common tone), with major and minor third between chord roots, respectively; D/F represent the relationships between triads with a fifth between chord roots (one common tone), of the same mode and changing modes, respectively. 

The relationships between the five key areas of First Meditations (Ab-flat major, F minor, B-flat major, D minor, and F-sharp minor) can be mapped accordingly. 

(The graph illustrates a relationship in which the triads representing the different keys heard in First Meditations are transformed into one another by shifting just one or two voices by step around one or two stationary common tones.) 

The five pieces and six separate keys that make up Sun Ship (B-flat minor, F-sharp minor, C minor, A minor, E minor, and G-sharp minor) are also transformationally related. 

First Meditations shows a degree of motivic integration as well. For instance, the themes to both "Compassion" and "Consequences" are based on little more than the whole-step dyad of scale steps 7 and 1, and the ultimately scalar theme to "Love" is generated from transpositions of a whole-step dyad. 

The listener notices furthermore that the scales on which the themes of First Meditations are based are related by common tones, inclusion, and efficient voice-leading. Below are the scale collections at the foundation of "Love," "Compassion," "Joy," and "Consequences."

[Eb F G Ab Bb C Db]-->[Eb F G Ab Bb C]-->[D F G Bb C]-->[D F G A C]

There are similar common-tone and semitone voice-leading scale relations in Sun Ship, for example between the two hexatonic collections comprising "Attaining" and the diatonic collection of "Dearly Beloved."

[G Ab Bb C D Eb]-->[G A B C D E]-->[G# A B C# D E F#]

Note that the common tones between the first two collections are (G C D), set class (027), and the common tones between the second two collections are (A B D E), or set class (0257). Set class (027) also provides the three-note theme to "Amen," [B E F#], to which [A] is eventually added, making set class (0257). "Attaining" also contains melodic statements of (027) and (0257): 

"Dearly Beloved" too contains a very prominent melodic statement of fourths, which stands in relief to its otherwise completely stepwise theme: 

That melodically salient tritone connects "Dearly Beloved" to "Sun Ship," whose three-note theme [C# D# A] contains nothing more than a tritone and a whole step, the interval content of set class (026). Inverting [D#] about [C#] results in [C# B A], the three-note motive that begins "Dearly Beloved" and germinates into its full, diatonic theme. Alternately, inverting [A] about the axis D-G# (the melodic tritone from "Dearly Beloved," as it happens) results in [C# D# G], the pitches which structurally outline the theme to "Ascent." Its major third interval is filled in with rising semitones referenced in the title of the piece.  

The compositional integration of "First Meditations" and "Sun Ship" through key and motive relationships lends support to Porter's suggestion that Coltrane's late period albums can indeed be heard as an "indivisible whole."

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