I’ll name that tune in 1

February 19, 2012

I was reminiscing recently about my old composer friend Janet Owen Thomas, who sadly died some years ago. A few of us wore specially made JANET OWEN THOMAS t-shirts when she had a piece performed at the proms – I wish I had pictures! Anyway, she once told me a story about showing her Oxford tutor a half-finished composition assignment in which she’d only got round to writing out the rhythms for the main voice and hadn’t put in any melody. Apparently he thought it was just great, and so she decided to leave the whole thing as a monotone.

Jan Thomas

Jan Thomas

There’s an enormous amount of music that sits on or hovers around a single note, and depending on the context it can be extremely expressive or hypnotically serene. There are whole genres and musical traditions that use very little melody – from rap, punk and minimal techno to numerous and varied forms of chant and ritual music around the world. Other types of music are built upon drone notes, such as Scottish bagpipe music, didgeridoo playing, and most Indian classical music, which typically uses the tanpura or an equivalent to provide a core tone grounding a complex elaboration of melody.

But what I want to write about today are examples of specific songs or compositions with radically stripped-down melody written in musical styles that generally do prioritise tunes. And the really outstanding example has to be Antônio Carlos Jobim’s Samba de Uma Nota Só.

Tom Jobim

Tom Jobim

The One Note Samba was a big hit during the global bossa nova craze of the mid 60s, and for me its studied simplicity contributes to it exemplifying the softly swinging, very non-street sexiness of that whole style.

It has long, highly syncopated lines sitting on the tonic and then the dominant, plus a contrasting section running up and down scales that provides a delicious balance in a burst of sunshine. Here’s Antônio himself performing live:

The lyrics by Newton Mendonça draw cheesy but slightly ambiguous parallels between the rules of music and human relationships:

“Anyone who wants the whole show,
Re mi fa sol la si do,
He will find himself with no show,
Better play the note you know.”

“So I come back to my first note,
As I must come back to you,
I will pour into that one note,
All the love I feel for you.”

As with many things, it’s better in Portuguese. (Though these lyrics were evidently too subtle for Cliff Richard, whose horrendous version substitutes a more easily comprehended message!)

The One Note Samba is all about harmony, rhythm and texture, and by taking away melody it really pushes the listener to notice what bossa nova is all about. It’s been recorded dozens of times, and one of my favourites is this version by Walter Wanderley, whose group gives it a gorgeous variety of instrumental colour using electric organ, guitar and trumpet. Wanderley

The thing I love best about Spotify is being able to feed an obsession by listening to all the obscure different recordings of a piece of music one after the other. Some of the more interesting ones in this case are by Astrud Gilberto, Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz, The Modern Jazz Quartet, João Gilberto, Joe Pass, George Shearing, Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, Stereolab and The Postmarks. It was even performed in episode 123 of the Muppet show according to the Muppet wiki.

However there definitely remains plenty of scope for new interpretations of the song. I was slightly surprised by the relatively narrow overall range of all the performances I found.

Before I move on, here’s a rather serious performance by guitarist Laurindo Almeida & the Modern Jazz Quartet (I love the introductory comments!):

There are two distinct ways in which a piece of music can be focused on one note: like the One Note Samba, using a monotone melody, generally above shifting harmonies and colours; or using a fixed drone as a central point around which the different elements of music are explored. The classic example of the second type is the celebrated Fantasia Upon One Note by Purcell, dating from about 1680.

Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell

Written for five viols, the alto sustains middle C for the entire duration of the piece, while elaborate polyphony and sometimes startling harmonies hover around this immovable centre. Elliott Carter describes the effect as “having a bell ringing throughout”.

There are good recordings by the Rose Consort Of Viols, Fretwork, the Ricercar Consort (YouTube), and adapted for modern instruments by the Escher String Quartet. I also found this vuvuzela enhanced version (in B flat):

Purcell’s piece has fascinated many modern composers, leading to a range of interesting realisations, elaborations and recompositions, including Oliver Knussen’s “… upon one note” (1995), Elliott Carter’s “Fantasy about Purcell’s Fantasia Upon One Note” (1977) for brass quintet, and versions by Peter Maxwell Davies and Steve Martland.

Staying with Elliott Carter for a moment, his serene Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for wind quartet include movements probably inspired by the Purcell that take things further. The third etude is composed entirely of a D major chord and the seventh truly is upon just one note.

Moving back closer to the world of Jobim – and perhaps this gave him the idea – we have Johnny One Note, a Rogers & Hart show tune with a ‘normal’ melody but featuring a high drone that reminds me of the expressive wire effects in Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman. Here’s Anita O’Day singing it.Anita O'Day

There’s also a sweet One Note Blues by Norwegian jazz ensemble The Real Thing. “Forget the samba, I got the one note blues.” Listen to it here.

Moving back to classical music, there’s an intriguing early set of piano pieces by György Ligeti called Musica Ricercata which progresses from extreme simplicity in the first pieces to using the full 12-tone scale by the end. The mournful second piece in the series, using three notes, was used to notable effect in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. But before that comes a piece almost exclusively on the note A, which gradually builds up a tremendous rhythmic propulsion:

Much of the mature work of the bizarrely little-known Italian master Giacinto Scelsi consists of subtle, meditative but often sonically lush microtonal explorations of single pitches. There’s an interesting article about him by Alex Ross here. And here’s the first of his Quattro Pezzi (Su una nota sola).

Experimental artist and composer LaMonte Young took some of these ideas to an extreme, effectively bringing together the one-note melody and the one-note drone in his Composition #7 (1960), which consists of a perfect fifth with the instruction “to be held for a long time.”LaMonte Young

I’ll finish this post with a swift survey of a few other pieces I’ve been drawn to over the years that definitely aren’t one-note pieces, but dwell on a single note or chord at length for expressive purposes. It would be interesting to explore the different musical meanings a monotone can have: in some of these examples it clearly creates tension, seeking release in melodic movement; in others it gives rise to a certain inherent ecstasy that needs no resolution.

Amy Winehouse – Back to Black

The second movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony

Public Image Limited – Careering

The opening minutes of Das Rheingold

Plastic Bertrand – Ça Plane Pour Moi

Ebben! Ne andro lontana, frmo Catalani’s ‘La Wally’

Consort Sett a 6 in C major by William Lawes (second half)

And finally, this astounding moment from Peter Grimes:

Tom O'Connor