A Different View: "On Miles and the Modes"
As one of the scholars cited on the first page of William Thomson's article,1 I am writing to point out several inaccuracies contained therein, and to offer an alternative interpretation of the author's principal point, in which he suggests "questioning our unblushing reliance on coeval description for our understanding of remote musics."
First, to the errors. It was, of course, not the Beatles, but rather Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, whose 1968 recording, "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme" (Columbia LP CS-9363) contained Scarborough Fair.
It rather surprised me that the artifactual subject of the article, Miles Davis' seminal "modal jazz" recording, Kind of Blue, was inaccurately cited as "Kinda Blue."
Professor Thomson's account of the mistaken switching of the titles for All Blues and Flamenco Sketches was not the only mistake Columbia Records made on Kind of Blue. Only recently has the proper pitch of the recording been restored; the original "production master" was made on a defective recorder, causing most subsequent reproductions to play back nearly a semitone sharp.
Additionally, the alto saxophone player Julian "Cannonball" Adderley's surname was consistently misspelled on Columbia's original LP jacket and notes, as well as on subsequent tape and CD media. Although the late saxophonist and his trumpet playing brother Nat made many other recordings, primarily for Riversidein which their names were properly creditedProfessor Thomson, unfortunately, perpetuated Columbia's spelling error in his article.
Given Columbia's sloppy production on various levels for Kind of Blue, Professor Thomson's story about the switching of titles for All Blues and Flamenco Sketches regrettably leaves Bill Evans' pithy description of the two tunes in his minority portion of the complete liner notes as the only written evidence that Davis originally named them differently. As I will later argue for the authority value of Evans' comments, I will give him the benefit of the doubt here. I'm certain that the quintet performed those five works in public upon numerous occasions; Miles must have been able to identify the tunes easily to his musicians and audiences, at least before the LP was released.
It was not only the "Real Book" which perpetuated that error a decade later. Indeed, very soon after the release of Kind of Blue, Oscar Brown Jr. penned a clever set of lyrics to that 6-8 tune in G we all know today as All Blues; he sang it on his best-selling 1963 LP, Oscar Brown, Jr. Tells It Like It Is (Columbia CS 8825). By that time, the die had been cast forever.
I will now begin a discussion of more substantial concerns from the article. The subject of "modality," as (perhaps differently) understood by medieval and renaissance composers, performers and theorists, today's musicologists and theorists, and jazz players from the fifties to the present time is definitely a thorny topic. In arguing for loosening up current musicology's insistence upon accessing a work of art "against the artistic and intellectual background from which it sprung," as the author quoted from a line contained in Leeman Perkins' well-known Josquin article,2 I believe that he has unwittingly fallen into a semiotic trap of his own. Thomson repeatedly refers to the concept of "modality"—as he thinks it is understood by modern musicologists—and finds that Davis' conception, and therefore his execution of it, falls considerably short of the mark. I propose, rather, that Davis' and Evans' understanding of the theoretical basis for the tonal structure, as it were, of Kind of Blue, had very little to do with the kind of "modality" Perkins, Treitler, Dahlhaus, Christensen, Carpenter, Pesce and I wrote about and were not, in fact, "fooled into. . . thinking they were creating a piece in the Dorian mode."
When I began graduate school at Yale in the late sixties, my own understanding of "modality" was reasonably close to that of Miles Davis and Bill Evans, as I was primarily a jazz player myself. That is to say, as jazzers we believed that a mode was a "white key" octave scale beginning on a pitch other than C; it could be transposed to another location on the keyboard, but doing so would necessitate the addition of accidentals. We were certainly not alone in this understanding; every definition from a jazz source and mention of the term the author cites in his article includes the word "scale" and talks about its beginning note.
A year spent reading a large number of medieval treatises under the guidance of Claude Paliscatreatises whose authors wrote about the concept of modusgradually revealed a very different understanding of "mode" to me. The earliest descriptions of modus talked mainly about short melodic formulae and gradually, by the time of Hermann of Reichenau,3 added discussion of ambitus and the species of fourths and fifths. I learned that the immediate practical use of such writing about modus was to organize the chant repertory in order to efficiently teach young ecclesiastical singers. The concepts were simple, the method practical, and the music was monophonic.
Over the next few centuries, as music became polyphonic, theorists continued to discuss modus. By the time of the writings of Tinctoris,4 and then of Aaron5 and Gafurius,6 an entire system of modal syntax had evolvedat least in the minds of the theorists. In addition to the modal skeleton of the characteristic interval species and their specific repertories of recurring melodic formulae, each mode contained pitches of practical and structural significance: the finalis, the cofinalis, as well as the particular scale degrees used to begin or close melodic distinctions, and the various reciting tones and differentiae.
Without stating more of the obvious and going into unnecessary detail, I will simply say that the concept of mode came to be applied even to polyphony, although Tinctoris always insisted that the "mode of a piece" was the mode of its tenor.7 Later theorists, describing music in which all the polyphonic voices were composed in the same maneria, did in fact classify the "overall mode" of a work, and thus sowed the seeds for much future misunderstanding, since they were applying a concept originally developed for specific use with the chant repertory to music which was not monophonic. I hope to show that Thomson, unfortunately, fell into that same trap in his article.
Those new insights about modality I acquired in New Haven during the early seventies were only then becoming commonly disseminated in the musical academic community, primarily through the articles Thomson cites early in his essay. The secondary sources of music theory generally known to jazz musicians in the fifties and early sixties, if they mentioned the "church modes" at all, reflected the same understanding I myself possessed before my enlightenment. And, while the current corpus of writings about mode in our field is considerable and widespread, it still remains specialized knowledge, generally unknown to jazz and pop musicians.
This alternate interpretation of mode—as scale—has been named "neo-modal" and discussed in Cristle Collins Judd's recent collection of essays on early music theoretical topics8 by Jessie Ann Owens.9 She wrote, "The other modal approach, by far the most common critical language in use today, I call "neo-modal," for want of a better term. It is a modern hybrid that reduces Glarean's twelve modes to five transposable scale-types: Dorian, Phrygian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Ionian (ex. 1). It eliminates the Lydian, which in practice is nearly always found with a and thus duplicates the Ionian; in some formulations, it eliminates a distinction between authentic and plagal."10 After noting that Gustave Reese had described the same usage,11 she unequivocally equated her term "neo-modal" with the same scale-type interpretation jazz players and most non-musicologists understand today.
From the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries onward, not only was the concept of modus applied to polyphony, but a number of different (and sometimes contradictory) musical and intellectual traditions were often brought together. Frans Wiering's dissertation12 makes a very strong case for the different meanings and conventions associated with modus and tonus. These two terms, with their various interpretations, history, and associations, are unfortunately frequently combined in modern studies simply as "mode." The resulting misinterpretation and confusion concerning "modality" evident in much contemporary jazz literature, and elsewhere, is thus understandable, although regrettable.
Let us now consider the few sentences Bill Evans wrote about the tonal structure of the music on Kind of Blue, as I quote directly from his liner notes. "So What is a simple figure based on 16 measures of one scale, 8 of another and 8 more of the first, following a piano and bass introduction in free rhythmic style . . . All Blues is a series of five scales, each to be played as long as the soloist wishes until he has completed the series. Flamenco Sketches is a 6/8 12-measure blues form that produces its mood through only a few modal changes and Miles Davis' free melodic conception."
It is quite clear that Evans is discussing how the various scales employed contribute to the music's melodic structure. He never says "Dorian," nor does he say "in D (Dorian)." In his single mention of the term "modal," Evans uses that word simply in place of "scalar." Thus, his interpretation follows directly from the common conception of "the modes" as transposable (white note) scales beginning on different pitches, with no implied tonal center or hierarchical syntax. It thus seems unproductive to me to argue about how much "D-ness" versus "C-ness" obtains in So What, as the author has done. It appears that the melodic instrumentalists (Davis, Coltrane, and Adderley) are doing just what they set out to doimprovising on scales rather than "playing the changes," which is what they had all done previously. Such an improvisatory technique freed them up considerably from the necessity of being in the right place at the right time in a pre-determined harmonic pattern and, as such, comprised a logical step towards completely "free improvisation," as it came to be known. Evans and Paul Chambers merely did what good rhythm section players always did in jazz—they harmonized the melodic improvisations of the horn players in a style appropriate to those improvisations.
The fact that the two-chord accompanimental motive, as given in Thomson's Illustration 2, is not unambiguously "in D" is, in my opinion, not at all a loading of "the C major dice." It's merely a quite catchy harmonic motive of the sort jazz quintets and sextets of the hard bop genre (Art Blakey, Horace Silver, etc.) characteristically played behind soloists years before Kind of Blue was recorded. Similarly, Davis' solo in measures 30-38, as Thomson points out, indeed "sounds like the fleshing-out of a conventional jazz sonority of the late 1950s." But I differ from the author in my interpretation of that observation. Rather than acting "like a reformed sinner confronting old temptations. . . [who] backslides into more familiar behaviors," Davis is still doing what he set out to doimprovise on that D-d white note scale rather than on something like a typical ii-V7-I progression from a more conventional jazz work.
Since the composer of So What had no knowledge of the conventionally understood tonal syntax of the Dorian maneria, as codified by theorists in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and briefly explained above, I find no valid reason for thinking he should have been stressing structural differentia endings, or circling around the finalis or cofinalis, and taking him to task if he didn't. Since the adaptation of such concepts from a monophonic music repertory to polyphonic music has been a tenuous idea, at best, from the Renaissance era onward, applying them to a conventional tonal music such as jazz is even more problematic. Davis and his sidemen were just playing on the scales, rather than playing on changes. They were certainly not trying to prolong a D-centered Dorian 8-5 sonority, using techniques employed by composers such as Josquinand never, to my knowledge, claimed to be doing so.
It is, in fact, the author's insistence upon looking for evidences of such prolongational techniques in So What which forces him to commit the very sin he discussed in the first few pages of the article. He follows that discussion by asking two rhetorical questions: "How much stock may one put in contemporary descriptions of musical events, especially when they lack a tight fit with artifactual evidence? . . . What do we actually know of correspondences (or not) between a creator's professed conceptualizations and resultant product?" And then, by believing that he has found such "lack [of] a tight fit," he then makes the great leap of stating that since present-day jazz musicians were unable to apply their own conceptualizations to their own music, then perhaps medieval and Renaissance composers were equally inept. ("And it is my contention that master musicians of the 1950s are probably as reliable guides to their music as master musicians of any time or culture.") His inevitable conclusion is that we, as musicologists and theorists, should not necessarily slavishly adhere to Leeman Perkins' previously-quoted dictum, especially when "it risks the replacement of potentially true inference with a void of arid nominalism."
It was Thomson himself who then wrote, "Let us grant that the fear of imposing flawed axioms to any judgment is only prudent. Peerless reasoning is mere sophistry when drawn from fictive bases." It appears to me that, by basing his analysis on anachronistic expectations, and then (1) faulting the music for not conforming to those expectations and (2) turning his (questionable) conclusion back upon the creators of a "remote music" and speculating about their own (in)ability to conceptualize their own art, Thomson has compounded his error.
Although it has very little to do with jazz analysis, I must also comment very briefly on Thomson's "discovery" of the C-major-ness of the Phrygian Sanctus reproduced in Illustration 9. He asks, "Can we believe today that it was wholly consistent with what accounts of his [a hypothetical pre-Renaissance musician's] era have led us to call to mind today when we think of 'the Phrygian mode?'" And I answer, "Yes, it sure sounds like a lot of other Phrygian chants to me." Compare Thomson's analysis of this chant with my own analysis of the versus, In convertendo, from the medieval gradual Exsurge Domine non praevaleat, as discussed in my article,13 cited at the beginning of Thomson's essay. There, I explain-serendipitously now in retrospect-how the precise characteristics which Thomson believes make his example not "textbook Phrygian,"(as he understands it), perfectly exemplify a great deal of chant historically classified in that mode.
On the general subject of the analysis of jazz music such as that discussed in his article, Thomson states that, "To my knowledge there has been no critical study of the musical results, although those results can shed light on this matter of intent and result, conceptualization and product." I have no reason to doubt this assertion, but would suggest that Thomson's article is not a very good start for such an important and necessary study. The application of mode, by definition a monophonic concept, to a tonal music usually based upon functional relationships between chords, might be better served by a linear, neo-Schenkerian approach.
Perhaps my previously-cited article would be a good place to begin, as I believe that the passage of time has shown that I succeeded in being both historically rigorous and analytically insightful, by combining fifteenth century concepts of modus and discant with a modern dyadically-conceived theory of linear prolongation. I believe it would be possible to apply an analogous procedure to the "modal jazz" repertory. Such an analytical study might also productively explore the contrast mentioned above between "playing the changes" and "playing the scales," and shed further light on the development of the free jazz movement.
I wish us all luck on this journey. It is a voyage fraught with numerous semiotic land mines. I believe, however, that successful navigation of its methodologically dangerous territory will reward those who have persevered fully with valuable insights about a truly important style of modern jazz.
1William Thomson, "On Miles and the Modes," College Music Symposium 38 (1998): 17-32.
2Leeman Perkins, "Modes and Structure in the Music of Josquin," Journal of the American Musicological Society 26 (1973), 189-239: 191.
3Hermannus Contractus, Opuscula musica, ed. and trans. Leonard Ellingwood (Rochester, 1936).
4Johannes Tinctoris, "Concerning the Nature and Propriety of Tones," trans. Albert Seay (Colorado Springs, 1967), 20-21.
5 Pietro Aaron, Trattato della natura et cognitione di tutti gli tuoni di canto figurato (Venice, 1525), Chaps. 21-24.
6Franchinus Gafurius, Practica musicae (Venice, 1512), Bk. I, Chaps. 8-15.
7Tinctoris, "Concerning the Nature and Propriety of Tones," 24-25.
8Cristle Collins Judd, ed., "Tonal Structures in Early Music," (Garland, 1998).
9Jessie Ann Owens, "Concepts of Pitch in English Music Theory, c. 1560-1640," in Judd, op. cit., 183-274.
10Owens, Ibid., 186.
11Gustave Reese, "Music of the Renaissance," Revised Edition, New York, 1959, 186.
12Frans Wiering, "The Language of the Modes," Amsterdam, 1995.
13Frederick Bashour, "Toward a More Rigorous Methodology for the Analysis of the Pre-Tonal Repertory," College Music Symposium 19 (1979), 140-153: 143-145.