the petrushka chord

there it is: C major and F major triads played together – all by itself a potentially uncomfortable bit of business for those averse to unresolved relationships. the sound of tension, uncertainty, questions not answers… pointing over there, and also over there, and if there, then maybe nowhere? and wtf!

the moment this sound presented itself – enter nijinski’s trickster puppet, paris 1911, could serve as the birth of 20 century western dissonance, in the popular sense. musical rebellion, hits madison ave. itself, a mathematical exploit of the chromatic scale… still related to “standard” diatonic harmony but firmly and unabashedly tense. it wasn’t the first time these intervals were played together. and to be honest, the sound probably isn’t experienced as all that dissonant today. a bit piquant… but within range for most. age might factor in a bit, as well as culture, but “western” music has corrupted everything at this point. the concept “dissonance” has become a part of the modern musical fabric: tension, and in large amounts, fury.

and technically speaking, there is also a direct relationship between this harmony and the “tritone scale”:  C, D♭, E,  F♯,  G,  B♭… and there are three “natural” arrangements, which repeat. start from C, C♯, and D. why would this matter? well, for many today accustomed primarily to pop, and dance music, it might not be so obvious how it ended up as a fundamental component of contemporary music. it’s not an obvious arrangement. coltrane’s explorations of it in the early 60’s most certainly led to the “coltrane changes”, of “countdown” and “giant steps“. and yet, because of the math it isn’t at all difficult to make a case that there is a red thread connecting the late 19th century romantic movement to 60s jazz… not to mention lady gaga, through the petrushka chord. i am sure some music academic has dissected all this better than i ever will. but i have a point i want to make.

wikipedia says that stravinski was influenced by ravel and he by franz litzt before… undoubtedly by some “folk music” before that (“gypsy music” and indigenous/aboriginal music – although politically incorrect to name it as such today, this music has influenced so many of the pre-modernist european composers as well as many of the mid century hardcore modernists…). in any case, petrushka was both a clever bit of punk, and mathematical composition at the same time. marketing-wise, it connected diaghilev’s “Ballets Russes” to the european cutting edge, and russian folklore. it caused a bit of “scandal”: the sound. it added to stravinski’s brand. lore has it that people walked out of the premiere as well as threw fruit at the stage. i am not at all sure how true that is? they also really liked it. and it remains today a beloved bit of kit.

performances of the ballet today are generally recreations as much as possible of the 1911 art production. the music is more likely performed today as the 1947 rewrite… that is remarkable longevity, that is. give it up for scandal and dissonance (d4?C€ t4i5 m355 4rΘurd)!

so, it’s not strange at all that dissonance gets some of us losing our cool, throwing shit in public, and yet others contemplating the finer implications of the word “beauty”. there is usually very little indifference involved. love it or hate it, but rarely unmoved. some of us are bound to get bored if things resolve predictably all the time… others bust a blood vessel if the tiniest thread is out of place.

all i know is that music affords some manner of dealing with conflict that has no equal for us as a species. if all the audience did was yell and throw a few tomatoes, you have to admit the composer got off light. a hundred years later he’s still a hero. the way people lose their cool over picadillos these days is meant to be terrifying. forget actual complaint or injury! all media and communication itself has been transformed by conflict. images have become weaponized… used by all sides. and most everything you read is propaganda for someone, agenda or misinformation, to the point that a generation seems to feel that authenticity of any kind has become nearly impossible. but sounds? they still feel abstract enough to remain nonthreatening, even if totally fucking annoying to some, or many.

yes, musical sounds do seem to resist most efforts to be made precisely utilitarian, or to  function politically. there are some exceptions, but mainly not. it has never been an efficient method of direct messaging. okay, maybe as a part of an ad campaign, sure. nazi marches might even qualify? but we know the sounds are just to fluff the sale. if it isn’t fun, if it isn’t a little stupid, it isn’t pop. and dissonance in this context has to be fun… it can be angry, at the same time. but it has to be fun for a great number of people if only to be sold.

punk is an interesting variation. in my view, punk has been around for a long time, just tucked away in closets, rural backwaters and the salon/speakeasy. the 70’s version of it (it came out in magazines) which had both an american and a british form, was reaction and a counter-exploitation to the music industry and to the extraordinary ascendance of money as the primary cultural value. the new york form was both intellectual and street, and its angry noise found a home in disaffected urban youth. the british version came out of the fashion and music business directly, and switched “ugly”, “tacky”, “kitsch”, “impolite”, “original”, and “street” to the highest possible value. anti-glam. social dissonance had found a best friend in musical terms.

“noise” was added to the vocabulary of “dissonance” in the late 70’s and through the 80’s. “noise music”, a term coined around 1980, in response to “industrial music”, i believe, was a straightforward expression of punk attitude, that can be traced back to Stravinsky. but it took on an electronic life of it’s own…

and the meaning of dissonance has surely changed many times since 1911? new things often take on a life of their own. the petruschka chord was so clearly a mischievous contrary display meant to get a rise out of the reactionary, stuffy academic cultural elite, but it betrayed more anger and brilliant invention than intended? his tongue stuck out, but people listened. we are probably a bit bored with all that these days? it’s not so easy to get someone’s attention that way. every 10 seconds there’s some new mischievous contrary display… “the wrecking ball” (had to get a miley cyrus citation in there somehow). blunt truth is actually a lot more novel and hard to sell. “avant garde” is a discount perfume.

so, do dissonant sounds still convey some uncomfortable truth? popular music has been always appropriated by religious and political agenda… but it is generally deep colon shit in that form, super fuggettable (a vegetable) and mainly a marketing tool for mega churches. no truth there. and yet, someone buys christian rock?! in general america seems to prefer drinking song melodies, or gospel lite, to sing protest lyrics along with. europe is a bit more martial in that regard: they like their marches over there. but it isn’t a big difference. doesn’t seem to matter if it’s on the right or the left… somewhat surprisingly, ISIS makes electronica based party raves (to go with all that captagon and beheading). so does shining path.

hell yeah it’s fucking weird!

most of us use pop to escape conflict. i do gotta say that dance electronica probably isn’t really helping ISIS’ cause among their fan base. a lot of young people only listen to dance music, but ISIS shit just isn’t nasty enough. and it’s always a bunch of fingerwagging deep throated guys. and so serious! even i can tune that shit out, although it would wear me out fairly soon. the absence of any actual dissonance here is telling to the absence of anything of lasting or abiding value at all.

i remember an incident with my friend herb. at a party he put on a kickass record of steve jordan… the tex-mex shaman of flash squeezebox (that’s accordion for the euros). what a fucking sound! not just one petrushka chord but hundreds of them. at a party. i really love that guy. however. within milliseconds, a number of party gals ran over to the turntable and started yelling,”take that shit off”. was it relevant that it was women who freaked out over the sounds? i don’t know. but they really had a hard time with psychedelic accordion music that night. put a stop to that right there!! all your base are belong to us.

i thought it was remarkable and a bit sad. why not at least just check the shit out? new sounds! so what if you don’t like it…? you’ll get your “things that make you go hmmm…” in 20 minutes or so. your world will be a little bigger: been there, done that.

but they couldn’t bear it. worse than fingernails on a chalkboard.

so now we get to the heart of the matter: what is going on there? what the fuck is that, actually? because i can also have that reaction. to gear. hifi gear can drive me out of a room, just like the mad accordion drove them crazy.

i identify with those women. not when it comes to steve jorden! but i can’t count the number of “high end” systems that have pushed me to act. turned the shit off. chased me out of the room. i seem to have a major problem with the sound of “hifi”. whatever it is, it’s also physical! not just a head job: predjudice. there is something of an initial discomfort that rapidly descends into fight or flight… i gotta get out of there. the thing is, i can feel that on “high end” recordings too! not only the audiophile stuff. or the disposable pulp kids nod off to… that horrible fucking “ultraamasterd” dire straightjackets fucking crap and “jizz at the motherfucking pimp shop”… anything ever done by donald fagen. and if i never hear diana krall again it will be way too soon. i don’t care how “well” it’s been recorded! is that what recording is supposed to do? the combination of jazz rock fusion with audiophilia should be a capital crime. but recorded ala´audiophile – please bring back the fucking rack! cut that mixing hand off!

that sounds a bit like ISIS talking. i am a bad man.

nope, not going there. let it suffice that whatever it is that those bastards do to music when they record it is just sick and sad. if you like that shit, just stop reading right now. unbookmark me and step the fuck off! never darken my door again! get out. the door is open and the street is wide! and fuck you too! all your kids and ancestors….

what is going on there? is it simply a matter of (psychotically bad) taste, or some kind of unbearable timbre? a built in horror chord….

lets talk about harmonics a bit.

here is what i look for in an FFT plot from a preamp or amp meant to reproduce music:



well, this is about as fabulous as it gets for tubed gear… because of the hot cathode and limited gain, noise and distortion create a hard limit that is difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. still, there isn’t much harmonic distortion in this case (this is a tubed line input amp for a mixer). but crucially, for me, the harmonic content falls away with order. that is, most of the distortion is 2nd order (the octave) and the 3rd (the 5th, slightly flattened) which is mildly dissonant in it’s interval to the fundamental (roughly C6 – G7), which is 10dB less, and so on. the odd order components are so far down in the mud below everything as to not matter.

actually, C6 is 1047 Hz (not 1000 Hz). and G7 is 3136 Hz… (not 3141 Hz). the slight flatness of the G, in this case, lends a particular rock and roll edge to things. this interval is in fact, a great deal of the sound of american rock and roll. 3rd harmonic distortion does not do so well with massed orchestral violins, however. and as for the others, it gets downright nasty as one climbs up through the odd order harmonics… i think the 7th and 9th are particularly noticeable in small amounts.

well, how can you experiment with this for yourself? so glad you asked! if you have a mac, and it came with garage band, you’re in luck. all you need is two tracks… load a simple synth with a sine wave oscillator in one channel and a square wave oscillator in the other… now, you can record some short tracks with varying amounts of sq wave mixed in with your sine. try using C3 (131 Hz) for the sine, and record it at 1 VRMS (our 0dB level). then you can copy it a few times, and then record the sq wave track with -20dB (0.1 VRMS) at 390 Hz (G4). now you have all the odds and you have 10% distortion. record another track with 0.01 VRMS (-40dB), and another with 0.001 VRMS… (-60dB). you can make one bounce with pure sine. and then the rest with 10%, 1% and 0.1% odd order distortion… what do you hear?

going to stop here and post some design in the next few days.

i will add a note on how to generate test tones with varying amounts of odd order harmonics, soon.