Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Buildup

There are few feelings of exhilaration like that of a well-executed musical buildup leading to a climax. A powerful technique in music, but one that is extremely difficult to master and execute. For one, the pacing has to be just right such that you don't lose the listener along the way. Secondly, the payoff has to be worth the effort – you don’t want to take the listener on a ride to leave them unsatisfied with the result. Finally, as a performer, it's important to maintain a constant gradation in the increments of volume or energy to keep a linear build versus a staggering one. This is considerably tougher than it sounds. In this article, I want to highlight a few examples of this in a couple of styles of music to demonstrate this musical technique and also bring forth a few great pieces of music.

First, let’s start with classical, and pick perhaps the most emblematic of all buildups: Maurice Ravel’s thrilling "Boléro". Premiered in 1928, this piece was meant as a dance piece suitable for ballet. I've always thought about this piece as a traveling carnival, slowly entering a town over the horizon and moving towards a final party in the city square. Either way, it is centered mostly around a rhythmic motive as delivered repetitively by the snare drum. "Bum ba-ba-ba-bum ba-ba-ba bum bum Bum, ba-ba-ba-bum ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba (repeat)". This pattern is introduced alone by the drum, and instrument by instrument the orchestra adds on with the hypnotic melodies for the next 13 minutes. This rhythm provides the backdrop for the pacing of the piece. Second on our checklist is the payoff. Gradually increasing in volume and orchestral participation, the piece finally hits its climax in the last several bars (last minute of the piece) when the piece switches from C major to E major, driving to the final coda and ending. After so much time invested in the buildup, this climax is a complete release of energy – the perfect payoff. The final item to examine is the volume and intensity increments along the way. Very easy to see in this piece – notice how the volume increases ever so slightly upon each variation, from pppp to ffff and every dynamic in between. Ravel wrote it and orchestrated it perfectly.

The second piece I want to choose is one that may not be as recognizable, certainly in the sense of popularity, but is an astounding listen nonetheless. Fast forward all the way to the year 2000 (obviously moving away from classical music) and to the Canadian band Godspeed You! Black Emperor (punctuated that way). This band is in the genre called post-rock, which I won't discuss in detail here (nor is it that important to the context) and produces generally longer, more "symphonic", instrumental pieces. They do so still using traditional rock instrumentation – guitars, bass(es), drum(s), and accent those with strings, horns, and other similar instruments. This is all very evident on the 2000 album "Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven" (typically long post-rock song title, too). The opening track, entitled "Storm", is broken down into subsections, and the first 6:15 shares its title with the album. It is this first 6:15 that I wish to focus on. The piece starts with a lone guitar, introducing the 9-note thematic progression, quickly followed by the introduction of the horns. While this theme is repeated over and over, slowly other guitars, basses, strings, and drums are added, until the piece overflows with energy and has nowhere left to go (the climax). Along the way, notice the bass "pulse" entering at around 2:30, leading to the drums' military-style entrance at 3:11. Another fascinating element is the dichotomy between the descending note pattern of the guitar (main theme) against the ascending notes of the basses, from 3:11 to the end. One seems to be going down to the earth, while the other seems to be ascending to the heavens ("...like antennas to heaven"). This is most noticeable in the final stretch, from 4:32 to the end. When we finally reach the climax, the payoff, we are exhausted – having taken this six-minute journey from emptiness to chaos. This piece certainly passes all of our items on the "buildup checklist".

Finally, I want to jump backwards to 1902 for my final selection. I have discussed this piece several times, in several contexts, which is not surprising in that it is one of my favorite pieces in all of music. The 4th movement of Ian Sibelius' 2nd Symphony contains one of the most impressive buildups, leading to what I consider to be one of the biggest payoffs in all of music, the final coda of the symphony. The movement opens up with a small buildup from the ending of the 3rd movement and into the 4th, landing on the 7 note main theme of the movement. The main theme is iterated upon, followed by the second theme entering from the strings. After this, we get a glimpse of the themes that will lead to the ultimate buildup of the piece. This 3rd theme begins with a swirling string loop in the violas and cellos. The hypnotic minor-key themes are introduced by the woodwinds and the strings respond, introducing the rhythmic bah'-BUM pattern (the melodic theme can be written as bah'-BUM, bah-bah-bah'BUM, bah-bah-bah'BUM, bah-bah-BUM). As we emerge from this first iteration of the 3rd theme, we eventually return to the main theme (recapitulation), and the cycle of themes begin again. When the 3rd theme appears again, in the same way (violas and cellos beginning the string loop), we begin the final buildup sequence. The melody is repeated several more times, always over the bah'BUM rhythm, and each time more intense than the previous one, flutes adding to the violas and cellos, and syncopated trumpets providing the backdrop of energy. The theme returns to major, followed quickly by a brief interlude with the strings ascending a scale with tremolos while the cellos provide pizzicatos descending to nothing, followed by the final payoff – the trumpets blaring triumphantly over the orchestra, as if declaring victory over all that is evil, the light coming through the clouds. With the tympanis and lower strings providing the rhythmic "bah' BUM" accents below, the piece comes to its final climax, and the audience is left holding its breath in awe.

Upon close examination of these three examples, and the countless others, there are a few trends that result in such effective buildups. Of course, the obvious increase in volume, instrumentation, and energy are present. A second attribute becomes equally noticeable – the use of repetition to create a hypnotic effect and allow for the buildup to truly manifest. In all of these examples, a form of repetition exists – be it the snare drum and repetitive melody of Ravel, the 9-note theme for Godspeed, or the swirling strings and rhythmic accents of Sibelius. It is this use of repetition that provides the true pacing which intrigues the listener, pulls him in and engages him to stay around for the climax. As I mentioned earlier, it's necessary to capture the listener and not lose him along the way towards the payoff.

Well, there you have it. An explanation and examples of the buildup. There are of course countless more examples, but hopefully in listening to the above you'll be able to better identify these pieces and the techniques that make them work. Now, back to Sibelius!


Post a Comment

<< Home