Updated: Dec 10, 2019
This next entry takes a look at "Between First and A" from the album "The Phosphorescent Blues." I was not terribly familiar with this track before I began transcribing it, but as I've gotten more and more into this song, I would now say that it's one of my favorites. As always, the full transcription of the song can be found at the bottom of the page.
Even for Punch Brothers standards, this song is a bit unorthodox. The first thing to mention is that the song doesn't really use a verse/chorus type structure at all. The song is structured more around two important themes and within those themes, small melodic motives are tasked with binding the song together. What makes these themes and melodic motives even more interesting is that these melodic gestures are often outside the traditional major/minor system of tonality!
Evidence of this can be seen in the very opening of the song. The track opens with Chris Thile singing a cappella the song's primary melodic motive. This melody sounds like something lifted from a Debussy or Scriabin melody (coincidentally, both composers are performed on this album) rather than a bluegrass melody. The fascinating thing is that the melody is tonally ambiguous - the first phrase ends on two descending thirds (F#-D# and D-Bb). One would never guess after the first phrase that the key of this song is G major. The consequent phrase doesn't actually help either as the C# in m. 4 again sits squarely out of the key. So how do these two phrases work? As can be seen in the example below, except for the last note, the second phrase (T10) is an exact transposition of the first phrase (T0).
This is not a coincidence and clearly shows Punch Brothers' compositional understanding. When these two phrases are harmonized later on in m. 10, a pedal G in the bass helps smooth-out the acrobatically chromatic harmonic progression of G-B-Gm-A-Am-G.
This primary motive is not the only motive that wanders away from diatonic major or minor keys. The second most prevalent motive, a mandolin hook comprised of gradually descending arpeggios, presides firmly in the mode of G lydian (notice the C#, or raised 4th scale degree).
The final interesting melodic gesture (mm. 39-40) I'd like to point out comes at the end of what I call Theme A . Thile sings an ascending melody that seems strikingly chromatic even for this song. The melody, packed with G major outliers like E-flat, F natural, D-flat, and B-flat, is actually built on a fairly common jazz mode: fourth mode of the melodic minor scale. Below you can see the melody and how it fits perfectly within the mode.
The question, of course, is why use this mode? While I can only speculate, it is important to note that this rising melody resolves to a dominant chord (D/F#) and that the fourth mode of melodic minor makes strong use of pitches E-flat, C#, and A - all of which have burning desires to resolve to D. At least that's my guess...
As I investigated this piece more and more, it became apparent that this song is driven by an almost classical sense of melodic development. The song includes numerous instrumental interludes where the melodies are passed conversationally throughout the ensemble.
The most interesting example of this melodic development appears in mm. 87-93. Just before this section, the song makes a dramatic turn towards E minor, a move that seems to derail the momentum of the song and put at risk any hope of resolution. As if trying to rebuild the song from scratch, the instruments gradually enter back in. The bass and fiddle initially work together in a call-and-response manner to play Theme B and soon are joined by the mandolin playing its lydian arpeggios from Theme A. This is the first time the two main themes of the song actually work together, seemingly providing the hope needed to end this song in an optimistic light.
One last thing - as I've come to expect at this point, "Between First and A" modulates from Theme A (G major) to Theme B (E-flat major) - another thirds relationship. The modulation is not achieved by a common chord or by a direct motion but through a progression that at first blush seems illogical. However, when just the voice-leading is considered (i.e. how far the voices need to move to get to the next chord) the modulation is quite smooth. Here it is below:
Here's the complete lead-sheet transcription: Between First and A