1. The full stop in music ------------------------------------------------------------------- Next - Contents
Gnossienne 1 : by Erik Satie

Babette and Doug, 2008 "The single most important character in writing is the full stop!" I throw into the conversation. Maybe it is because I am still stone sober that I state this so obvious fact. Babette and Doug have been sitting on their front porch for some time, enjoying the sun on this literally very "Sun"day afternoon, with a slow but steady parade of glasses of whites. They have observed and discussed the grass, trees, birds in great detail and now, as I emerge from my siesta, are into the current editing stages of Babette's first novel.

But it is important. The full stop defines the length of every single phrase and therefore too has a strong influence on its shape and content. It sets the step by step thought process for both the writer and reader. Most of all it creates the rhythm, excitement and energy, forward motion and smoothness of flow of every written piece. Or is the cause for the lack of it.

In music too phrase length is important. But unlike in writing it has had the uniform four bar length for centuries. Certainly in Western music, be it classical or the more recent Jazz standards and Popular music. A typical phrase in music starts on beat 1 of the first bar and ends on beat 1 in bar 4, usually sustained in reflection for 4 beats until the next phrase begins. This regular, repetitive format was perhaps first dictated by the requirements for regular dances, or lyrics, or poetry in rhyme. It has subsequently been ingrained into our minds by song, after song, after song, so that we experience it now as the most natural of all musical expressions rather than the straight jacket it really is.

Erik Satie, selfportrait Enter the 20th Century! Even before it has properly started the eccentric and contrarian but brilliant French composer Erik Satie starts to stretch musical sentences like elastic bands. He also leaves out bar lines in some of his pieces, just to confuse and annoy the still very old fashioned audiences who refuse to applaud or even acknowledge him. He is much admired however by his astute musical colleagues. Like Debussy and Ravel for example, who closely observe, adapt and expand many of his new ideas in their own compositions.
Later Olivier Messian stretches the rhythmic approach to music even further by adapting the irregular patterns of bird songs to his compositions.

At the same time when Satie and his contemporaries are redefining Classical music in Europe, a new musical art form is born in the US : Jazz. Initially they gladly adapt the 4 bar phrase tradition, modelling their 12 bar blues and other song formats to fit the standard. Louis Armstrong sets the first important item on the agenda, in his legendary (recorded) improvised intro to "West End Blues".
The legendary Charlie Parker In a mere 30 seconds he pulls the earlier Jazz expressions away from the cosy and safe embellished melody approach, down into the underlying realm of chordal harmonies. This new direction is bold and breathtaking, but also scary because improvisation has now become fully creative, unsupported by the safety line of the familiar melody.

It is not until a few decades later that the restless and explosive Charlie Parker is probably the first Jazz man to feel and rebel against the restricting 4 bar phrase. Like all his many other musical innovations he attacks this one too with a vengeance. Charlie starts and ends phrases at any point in a bar almost at random. He stops one sentence within 2 beats even before it hardly started. Others he stretches out to 5, 6 or more full bars, creating enormous tension and excitement to stunned audiences. After him Jazz has never ever been the same again.

I too, like every other aware contemporary Jazz improvisor, has had to break out of the 4 bar phrase straight jacket. Unlike Parker, who probably did this intuitively with the force of his explosive personality, most of us have to work hard at it. I practised for a considerable period of time before I got complete control over my full stops. But once there it is enormously liberating. Initially you have to remain very conscious of this new facility and use it with thought and foresight in your improvisations. Gradually however it becomes second nature and just another of one's intuitive skills needed for this wonderful art form.

When I think of Armstrong and Parker as the two undisputed giants in the development of the Jazz language, the remarkable comparison with J.S. Bach and Beethoven suddenly comes to my mind. They too are the two towering giants who dominated the development of music throughout the earlier and much longer period of the Classical music era.
It is intriguing to note that both Bach and Beethoven where brilliant pianists, while Armstrong (on trumpet) and Parker (on alto sax) where both wind instrument players. Does this perhaps reflect the situation that in Classical music it were mostly keyboard players who were fully au fait with the principles of harmony and tonality, whereas in Jazz every musician must be well on top of this, regardless the instrument he plays ?

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