I often suffer from a common malady amongst composers, the illusion that complexity can make a weak idea stronger. Or perhaps make up for a deficiency in structure. Maybe it stems from the thinking that if you impress someone’s ear with something complex, they will be so wowed by your sophistication that they’ll figure that the music MUST be good. If they don’t like the music, surely that’s THEIR deficiency.
From now on, whenever I start to feel like I’m adding crunchy harmonies or complex rhythms to dress up a goat (not that there’s anything wrong with goats… or dressing them), I’m going to take a few minutes to listen to Hem’s magnificently sparse masterpiece, Half Acre. It is, I dare say, a perfect thing.
Is that NOT perfect? (If you don’t think so, you can feel just free to skip to some other blog.)
So… what’s going on here? I took some time to identify the key elements that make up this piece, focusing on the core of the song, the melodic and harmonic gestures that make this piece work.
The piece is quite sparse and made of of a few static elements. First there’s an ostinato figure on a distant piano that continues for the entirety of the song (taking a couple of beats of rest at a few cadential breaths).
Pretty clear C tonality, major or minor is unclear.
Then the harmonic backbone comes in underneath the ostinato:
Expansive open fifths with a fast, fast, slow harmonic rhythm, landing squarely on a C tonality in the second half of each measure, clearly C major with the A and E naturals. There’s no attempt at any sort of voice leading, just sound, sound, sound.
At the same time, a mandolin comes in with an easy, lilting line in a pentatonic C, avoiding F and B. (I’d argue that this isn’t really a core structural element but it does add to the character of the piece):
And finally the real melody begins with the utterly gorgeous voice of Sally Ellyson.
It’s sparse and gorgeous, wringing expression from a reach to the sixth scale degree (A to G) and then a fall from either the major third or the blues third (E to C or Eb to C). Note the change in harmony and harmonic rhythm in the last two measures. The pace of the harmonic changes is slowed by half and we hear the seventh scale degree for the first time, a flatted seventh in the backbone, the characteristic modal sound of much folk music. These two measures are both a cadential pause and a foreshadowing of musical material to come.
At this point the stage is set for what I think is the real magic of the piece, the transition into the B section, the material that takes this from a pretty little song to something unspeakably beautiful. It starts with a restatement of the A section, same ostinato same harmonic backbone, but when it gets to those last two measures, where before we took a cadential pause, the melody breaks out into new heights:
Gah! It gets me every frickin time. It’s magic! What makes this work? There’s the big seventh leap to a whole other register of her voice (stunning in any register), and this is the first time the melody has that flatted seventh (Bb) which was only teased at in the initial statement of the A section. But for me, the thing that really makes a difference is the slowing down of that harmonic rhythm. The open fifths in the bass are held for every two beats now as opposed to changing each beat, which makes the whole thing open up and feel vast and expansive.
Some melodic details worth pointing out, the G in ‘every’ in the first measure is the first real accented dissonance in the entire piece and it feels like so much heartache, landing right on beat three, emphasizing the slowed down chord changes. The B section consists of the same two measure melody repeated three times. And on that third time there’s a variation, a reach up to the appoggiatura D on ‘night’, which is the climax of this section (and the song). Then there’s another cadential breath, which parallels the last two measures of the initial A statement.
It’s worth noting that melodically, everything in this song moves by either leap or by whole step. The only time we see half steps at all is the slide from the bluesy Eb to D on the way to C and that’s more of a gesture than a melodic idea. In the melody, there are NO leading tones and NO ascending half steps. Nowhere. Not once. There is, however, one pseudo leading tone harmonically, the A in the bass that finishes each two bar phrase and leads into the Bb that starts each phrase that keeps the motion going throughout the section.
That’s the core of the song. There are certainly many other observations that could be made about the orchestration of the piece, the Es in the cello that sail through every other measure of the B section (1:10), the magical addition of the celeste with the piano playing the fifths an octave higher during the final verse (2:17), the beautiful descending piano scale that brings us into the final B section(2:46). But these are more production/arrangement decisions and not so much compositional ideas. The guts of this piece are a pure exercise in restraint, proportion, and making the right moments count. Certainly something worth considering when trying to write music that people respond to.