Wednesday, May 03, 2006
Space is the Place (via counterpoint)
Counterpoint is a major concept in western music in general, and jazz in particular. In fact in some branches of jazz (i'm thinking of you, Mr. free-jazz) it could be argued that it's the only structural element left intact after melody, rhythm and harmony have been eradicated.
i was reminded of this while talking with Stewart, author of yesterday's fine piece on the Sun Ra Arkestra. He was telling me how he spent a small part of the gig with Marshall Allen standing right next to him playing 'one of the tunes from "Space Is The Place"'. That piece is not only one of Sun Ra's finest, but it's also a great place to hear some counterpoint, if you haven't quite grasped the concept yet.
At it's most basic level, counterpoint is defined as two separate melodies playing simultaneously. The hope is, of course, that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts. As you will no doubt realise, the opportunities for getting it very, very wrong are legion.
Listening to the Sun Ra track, it should immediately become obvious that there are several different tunes going on at once. They all stand out, and actually slightly jar with one another due to the dissonant harmonies, making the counterpoint that bit more obvious. In many other areas of jazz it's more subtle than this (the MJQ, for example, were famous for their use of counterpoint). What's great about 'Space is the Place' is that the separate parts of the tune stay separate, drifting in and out in a manner that will be familiar to fans of dub reggae or electronic music. If it wasn't recorded in 1972 you would swear that it was sequenced.
Those looking for a more detailed description of this important musical phenomenon would be well advised to read this article on Wikipedia.