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Gaining "Familiarity" with Bach

Updated: Dec 10, 2019


This is the first of three posts on "Familiarity", the epic first track from Phosphorescent Blues. As always, the transcription can be found at the bottom of the page. The song has a clear three part structure and this post will deal with the first part (up to 1'14" on the track).

The musical texture of the first part primarily consists of rapid arpeggios played by Chris Thile on the mandolin. The other members of the band eventually join in but it is the perpetual motion of the mandolin line that drives this entire section. The repeated arpeggios are a clear reference to Baroque-style preludes by J.S. Bach. This shouldn't be surprising considering Thile's numerous classical recording projects (like this one or that one). A parallel to Thile's opening line is found in Bach's Prelude no. 1 in C major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. Below on the left are the first two measures of "Familiarity" while on the right are the first two measures of Bach's prelude. While in different keys, both consist of two-beat arpeggio patterns beginning on the root and ascending to the tenth (third) above. While Thile descends from the highest note the way he came, Bach repeats the previous three notes in the same ascending order.

If you listen to the video on the right of Bach's prelude, you will also note that just as in "Familiarity" the bass note (or lowest note in the arpeggio) often stays the same while the upper notes change to a different chord. A sustained note in the bass below changing chords above is called a pedal point and is an effective way to create tension and drive the music to an eventual resolution.

Turning to the harmony, the song begins in D major and moves to E major before eventually landing in C# major. As we've seen before, the second modulation (from E to C#) is between chromatic mediants - a favorite device by the Punch Brothers. What I would like to look at, however, is the whole-step modulation from D to E. The first section resides comfortably in D major until suddenly shifting on the word "friends" to a Cm7 chord. Cm7 does not live in the land of D major and thus begins an unorthodox progression to our eventual arrival in E major. Below is an analysis of the progression with Roman numerals in the key of E major, to which we finally arrive in measure 22 (note the enharmonic spellings like C and B#).

An important truth in composition is that smooth voice-leading, especially between the soprano and bass, can make even the most unusual chord progression sound convincing. This is indeed the case with this Punch Brothers progression. The example below shows just the outer voices (the highest and lowest) of the mandolin arpeggios up to measure 22. Notice that the voices move entirely step-wise and in either contrary or oblique motion. Perfect intervals (octaves and fifths) are carefully approached either by contrary or oblique motion and suspensions (6-5 and 4-3) are even implied in mm. 15 and 16. The arrival to the unison in m. 17 is downright Fuxian! - click here if you don't get the reference.

A couple other things:

  • The arpeggio finally breaks out of its up-and-down pattern on the line "as you explode out of our phones." The lyrical "explosion" is matched by a musical climax where the band, finally at full-strength, reaches the highest note of the piece so far: an A#6.

  • Chris Thile's vocal range in this first part is uncharacteristically low. The range is Ab2 to D#4 but the melody does not reach higher than a G#3 until the very last line: "A man among amens." The melody seems much better suited for a baritone rather than the looping tenor falsetto we hear most often from Thile. If we think of this tune as just the first movement of a larger three part work, the lower vocal line, with its static, almost drone-like melody, certainly gives the melody somewhere to go later on in the piece and also serves as a nice contrast to the skittish mandolin arpeggios.

Here's the lead-sheet of Familiarity: Part I. Stay tuned for my next post where I dig into the second and longest section of "Familiarity" - wish me luck!

#chromaticmediant #modulation #ChrisThile #PhosphorescentBlues #PunchBrothers #JSBach #PreludeinC #voiceleading #Familiarity

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