Before I get too much farther into Messiaen’s modes, I’d like to take some space here to explain the methods I generally use to get new, different-sounding material under my fingers. First off, the idea of playing in time.
While the method I’m describing here is by no means revolutionary. It’s different from how I was taught about rhythm, and I have found it to be effective.
When I am focusing on time/rhythm, I think it’s best to do so using something simple, like a major scale, so I’m not bogging myself down with trying to figure out what notes to play.
I keep my metronome at the same tempo for this entire process. Something in the adagio or andante neighborhood. Instead of thinking of this method as a way to play faster and faster, I think of it as trying to find as many different ways of interacting with a single tempo as possible.
Instead of using terms like “eighth notes,” I refer to the number of notes that will occur within two beats of the metronome. For example, what would normally be called “eighth notes,” I refer to as, “four notes for every two beats.”
I’ll listen to the metronome for a minute, counting the beats in sets of two (1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, etc. . . .).
I’ll start with the scale, four notes for every two beats:
Next, five notes for every two beats:
Six notes for every two beats:
Then with seven, eight, nine, and ten notes for every two beats. It’s a great way to develop an objective understanding of where your sense of rhythm is in proportion to the metronome. Theoretically, The metronome and the note I’m playing either line up together (playing a not on the beat), or opposite (metronome hits in the middle of the note I’m playing). But more than anything, I just want to make sure that I’m playing the correct number of notes from two-beat period to two-beat period, and that the notes are even.
Beyond this, it can be fun to start on a note other than the downbeat. Rest for the first eighth note, and begin the scale on the second, or third, etc. . .
As I work my way through these exercises, I’ll find my attention drifting away from the actual notes I’m playing, and instead focusing on where I are in relation to the tempo. Time takes precedence over note choice. I’ll recognize on a daily basis that, if you want to communicate effectively, I’ll have to do it with a solid, mature relationship with the beat.
I’ve always been incontrollably drawn to composers and improvisers who have managed to deconstruct music down to its most basic building blocks and reassemble them into something that is truly new. Olivier Messiaen was such a composer. His work features a language containing, among other things, elements of tweaked Hindustani rhythms, symmetrical scales, a deep appreciation of spirituality, and an embracing of the new and unexplored.
This post is to be the first in a series focusing on Messiaen’s Modes of Limited Transposition. I’ll be focusing on two of the modes in particular, for reasons that I hope will become evident as time goes on. But first, a brief primer on what these modes are, peppered with my own commentary.
The term “limited transposition” refers to the fact that the intervallic relationships of the notes of these modes will repeat themselves – yielding the same “mode” over and over again – after a few transpositions. The number of transpositions depends upon which mode is being used. Mode 1, for example, is built entirely upon whole-step relationships, and is referred to outside of Messiaen’s world as the “whole tone scale”:
The mode consists of six pitches, exactly half of the twelve notes available to us from our basic harmonic and melodic pallet. Because of their symmetrical whole-step relationship, this mode will yield the six pitches over and over again, independent of which note you start on:
If we transpose any of these modes by half-step, this will result in the other six pitches:
So, it can be said that the number of transpositions for this mode is limited to two.
From a conceptual standpoint, and from where I stand, a limit of two transpositions can be thought of in the same way as a limit of twelve transpositions for the chromatic scale, or for any of the more common major or minor scales. For this reason, I’m not a fan of using the term “limited transposition”. While it serves to set these modes apart from traditional tonality, and also allows Messiaen to put his own stamp on his harmonic language, all scales and modes, symmetrical and otherwise, are limited by some number of transpositions.
Messiaen’s list of which symmetrical modes are included and which are not is arbitrary, and based largely upon his own likes and dislikes. The use of symmetrical modes did not originate with Messiaen, and can be found within the works of previous composers, more notably Debussy’s use of the whole tone scale (Messiaen’s Mode 1) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s use of the octatonic scale (Messiaen’s Mode 2). In addition, symmetrical modes are not specific to classical music. Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and many others make significant use of Mode 1 and Mode 2. There are volumes written on these two modes in particular. It is my intention in these articles to focus instead on two others, with an exploration of how they may be used both in composition and improvisation, with examples. Check back later for more.
“For me, what was happening, inside this incredibly beautiful and haunting melody, was that inside your improvisation you were also being a composer. It’s a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful tune.” –Helga Davis (principle performer, Einstein on the Beach)
“It was everything we love about jazz. A beautiful melody, something you can hold on to.” –Alicia Olatuja (jazz vocalist, NPR commentator)
“You have the greatest lines.” –Steve Pageot (producer, Aretha Franklin, Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J)