IASPM-US/POP Conference Preview: Raymond Knapp

by justindburton on March 6, 2012

In the coming weeks, we will be previewing several papers that will be read at the 2012 IASPM-US/POP Conference in New York. This preview is courtesy of Raymond Knapp, whose paper “The Sound of Broadway’s Mean Streets” is scheduled for the Broadway Bound session, 2:!5-3:45 on Friday, March 23 in KC 808.

Although Broadway musicals have become increasingly adept at accommodating tourists, they have always played first to the home crowd of New Yorkers and suburbanites. Even with shows that take place long ago or far away, the sounds chosen to evoke these remote settings have catered more to local expectations than to a concern for historical or ethnographic accuracy. But Broadway has also provided its local audiences with a different kind of mirror, reflecting their city more directly, and often aiming more to disquiet than to gratify.

I will today consider briefly some of these musical cityscapes across the middle of the “golden age” and beyond, including the comic underworld of Guys and Dolls, the upbeat cynicism of Wonderful Town, the incipient violence of West Side Story, and the alienated sophistication of Company. After sketching some of the traditional strategies used in these diverse representations, I focus particularly on the scores of West Side Story and Company to show how their edgy critiques inspired their composers to explore similarly edgy musical idioms that blend familiar Broadway musical practices with an assortment of musical modernisms.

I begin with Guys and Dolls not because it confronts audiences with the grim realities of crime and vice on New York streets—it doesn’t—but because, despite its sugar-coating of gangsterism, compulsive gambling, and the sleazy realities of striptease and prostitution, it is in its way, street-wise. More important for my purposes, the show carries forward three familiar musical devices by which Broadway musicals can signal troubling realities, devices that would be exploited more pointedly in later, edgier shows, and that we might well term “emblems of edginess.”

Although Guys and Dolls pulls its punches about the violence and exploitation that underwrite even its rather tame version of Damon Runyon’s Times Square, there is one arena where it does try to be a bit more daring: its blending of religious tropes with musical idioms more native to its unsavory setting. This aspect of the show flows from the story’s central premise of bringing Sky Masterson, a high-rolling gambler, together in love and marriage with Sarah Brown, a “mission doll,” in a plot that involves Sarah instigating a drunken bar brawl and Sky saving her Mission in a high-stakes crap shoot. It is mainly within a nexus of songs that involve this marriage of secular and sacred that Guys and Dolls deploys its three “emblems of edginess,” one of which also forms the climax of the show’s title song.

So, what are these “emblems of edginess”? First, there’s the repeated melodic figure, often set off from the basic pulse so as to create a kind of “broken-record” effect. As an extension of more straightforward syncopations, this device establishes the “hook” in many Broadway “rhythm songs,” and can be employed as well within other song types. Second, there’s the “stinger chord”—a sharply attacked, usually dissonant chord, typically involving the brass. And third, there’s a more composerly technique, dubbed “bitonality” by music theorists, that is a recurring feature of modernist harmonic practices. Bitonality tends to go unrecognized by most listeners even though it has some important history on Broadway, occurring in such songs as Rodgers and Hart’s “Funny Valentine” and Cole Porter’s “So in Love,” each of which uses the pull between two different keys to express an affective disjuncture.

[wpaudio url=”http://iaspm-us.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Knapp-Example-11.mp3″ text=”Audio Example 1: Broken record figure from The Oldest Established” dl=”0″]

Figure 1: Broken record figure from "The Oldest Established"

The “broken-record” figure appears fairly often in Guys and Dolls, most definitively in two songs. In “The Oldest Established,” it sets the street-wise gamblers’ musical idiom in the chorus, which ends with an elaborately churchy “Amen” cadence. [Figure 1] As may be seen, “Nathan” is set to a repeated syncopated motive, three eighth-notes long within 2/4 time. [Audio Example 1] And in “Guys and Dolls,” the device disrupts the last line by briefly trapping the final two syllables within repeating dotted-quarters in cut time, setting up a more emphatic conclusion. [Figure and Audio Example 2] In each song, the device captures both the compulsive nature of the gamblers who sing it and the cocky Runyonesque ethos that sustains them.

[wpaudio url=”http://iaspm-us.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/KnappExample2.mp3″ text=”Audio Example 2: Broken record figure in Guys and Dolls” dl=”0″]

Figure 2: Broken record figure in "Guys and Dolls"

The most prominent stinger chords in the show occur within the two most elaborate religious blends. In “Luck Be a Lady”—Sky’s sewer prayer to “Lady Luck”—each of the verse’s three phrases is launched with a stinger. The first consists of four notes of the whole-tone scale, including an augmented triad; the second is a half-diminished-seventh chord with added major seventh; and the third is a dominant-seventh chord. [Figure and Audio Example 3] “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” uses nearly the same set of chords, but in a different order: the whole-tone stinger comes between the first two strophes; the dominant-seventh chord stinger between the next two strophes; and the major-seventh dissonance as a heavenly rebuke during the third strophe. [Figure and Audio Example 4]

[wpaudio url=”http://iaspm-us.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Knapp-Example-3.mp3″ text=”Audio Example 3: Stinger in Luck Be a Lady” dl=”0″]

Example 3: Stinger in "Luck Be a Lady"

[wpaudio url=”http://iaspm-us.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Knapp-Example-4.mp3″ text=”Audio Example 4: Stinger in Sit Down, You’re Rockin the Boat” dl=”0″]

Example 4: Stinger in "Sit Down, You're Rockin the Boat"

The show’s main flirtation with bitonality comes in “Luck Be a Lady,” which in its final bars pits the gamblers’ D major against Sky’s D-flat major. The song uses the familiar device of moving harmonically upwards by half-step in successive phrases. Thus, the song’s chorus, which will repeat intact with vocal support from the gamblers, consists of four phrases, moving from D-flat, to D, to E-flat, and back to D-flat. During the second go-round, when Sky is joined by the gamblers, they compulsively push Sky upwards toward the next chromatic step during three of the four phrases, insisting on D while Sky is still in D-flat, and E-flat when he is still in D, yielding only at the end. [Audio Example 5]

[wpaudio url=”http://iaspm-us.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Knapp-Example-5.mp3″ text=”Audio Example 5: Bitonality in Luck Be a Lady” dl=”0″]

More generally, these three “emblems of edginess” have a variety of applications. Broken-record effects may evoke problematic grooves such as the compulsive gambling in Guys and Dolls. Alternatively, they may appear as an analog for other modes of life-performance, or suggest a variety of problematic repetitions, “found sound objects” that impinge on us negatively, as the repeated grooves of a broken record do. Stinger chords may provide a kind of threatening emphasis or remind us of unpleasant realities; repeated often enough, they increase the general dissonance level and indicate a more pervasive harshness. And bitonality can highlight dramatic conflicts of various kinds, whether between people, within a single conflicted individual, or between individuals and the world they live in, signaling alienation.

(to be continued …)

Raymond Knapp came to UCLA in 1989, with degrees from Harvard (BA cum laude in music), Radford (MA in composition), and Duke (PhD in musicology). He has authored four books and co-edited a fifth: Brahms and the Challenge of the Symphony (1997), Symphonic Metamorphoses: Subjectivity and Alienation in Mahler’s Re-Cycled Songs (2003), The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity (2005; winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism), The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity (2006), and Musicological Identities: Essays in Honor of Susan McClary (2008, with UCLA alumni Steven Baur and Jacqueline Warwick). His current projects include a book that considers Haydn and American popular music in the context of German Idealism, and a book co-edited with Stacy Wolf and UCLA’s Mitchell Morris (forthcoming from Oxford).

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