This post takes a look at "Movement and Location", the opening track from the album "Who's Feeling Young Now?". You can find the transcription (all 13 pages!) at the bottom of the post.
More than most Punch Brothers songs, "Movement and Location" clearly establishes specific roles for each of the instrument members and retains those roles for the length of the song. The roles are:
The bass plays a steady quarter note pulse while the acoustic guitar doubles the rhythm with a pitch often a fifth or tenth above.
The violin plays tremolos in various registers, acting like a drone, and occasionally plays a transitional melody.
The banjo plays a similar function as the violin but instead of a single note tremolo, the banjo plays a fast three-note figuration.
The mandolin primarily functions as a percussion instrument, imitating a drumset/beatbox. The only section where the mandolin is played traditionally is in the transitions between verses.
Layers and Layers
One of the more interesting aspects of this tune is how different musical patterns are layered and arranged. The opening begins with an attention-grabbing attack by the mandolin, violin, and banjo. After four measures, the bass and guitar enter with a quarter-note-driven melody. What I find fascinating about this introduction is that while some of the patterns played by individual instruments fit within a traditional even-bar phrase, others clearly do not. For example, and as best as I can tell, Noam Pikelny plays a three-note pattern (E-E-D) that completes a full rotation every three measures - thus creating a feeling of ambiguity since the percussive mandolin part is segmented into two-bar phrases.
The bass/guitar line also works under a unique phrase structure. The first three bars of the bass/guitar line are played twice, creating two three-bar phrases. The third phrase begins the same as the first two before deviating on the third measure and creating a four-bar phrase. What makes the introduction truly astounding is that the bass/guitar line enters on measure four, smack dab in the middle of the banjo phrase, instantly creating dissonance between the phrasing of the banjo and the phrasing of the bass/guitar. Below shows the introduction and how the different three and four-bar phrases (shown with green and red boxes) overlap and eventually line-up at measure 19.
Verse 1 contains the exact same banjo and bass/guitar phrasing as the introduction but layers the vocal line on top, which follows its own four-bar phrase pattern. In many ways, this song is a study in how to construct a song using as few musical elements as possible. Interest is thus created by virtue of each musical element (banjo, bass/guitar, vocal) simply having a unique phrase structure. Like a line of cars with their turn signals on, each part acts like a blinking light, operating at its own pace yet every so often lining up momentarily with the other parts (or lights).
Mandolin goes off the rails
Another interesting moment is found in the transition where Chris Thile appears to forget how to play in time with the rest of the group. This, of course, is not true. While the bass/guitar play the same progression from the intro, the mandolin accompanies the progression with a rhythmically destabilizing riff. As can be seen from the excerpt below, the mandolin's two measure long rhythmic pattern does not initially line-up with the underlying harmonic progression (compare
the mandolin rhythm of the two Em7-C-G^ progressions). Interestingly, this unusual transition (which happens twice) is the only place where the mandolin is not used simply as the ensemble's percussion instrument.
One way of explaining this irregularity between rhythm and harmonic phrasing is to consider it as an isorhythm. Most famously used in motets during the Renaissance, isorhythms are a repeated rhythmic pattern, called the talea, placed over a different repeating pattern of pitches, called the color. Entire pieces were built on this technique, called isorhythmic motets, and is actually an early example of chance music since once the system is created (the talea and color), the piece basically writes itself. "Movement and Location" is certainly not built on a single isorhythm but it does appear that isorhythms played a role in the composition of the song.
A foreshadowed modulation
This song is built almost exclusively on a repeated chord progression first seen in mm. 5-22. While firmly in E natural minor, two chords jump out as unusual - FM7 and Dm. If we were to use Roman numerals, we would label them as a flat-II (or Neapolitan) and vii. Both chords are non-diatonic, or outside of the key. Despite its outside of the key identity, the FM7 is approached very smoothly by a C major triad functioning as a V/FM - a secondary dominant!
Fast-forward to Verse 3 and we see that the verse extends beyond the original phrase lengths of the previous verses and ends by modulating to F major! The non-diatonic F major chord from earlier has now become the home key for the piece, temporarily at least. This type of long range harmonic forecasting is exciting to find and can be found in other Punch Brothers songs as well (you can read more about this topic on my post about My Oh My).
One last thing
Looking at the contour of the vocal line, it's interesting to observe how each verse climaxes on an increasingly higher pitch. Verse 1 reaches to an F4 on the word "location", Verse 2 reaches to an A4 on the word "battle", and the final verse climaxes all the way up on a D5 (!) on the word "battle". This methodical vocal assent builds more tension with each new high note especially since none of those pitches just mentioned (F, A, and D) fit within our tonic triad (E-G-B) - tonic triad notes are usually more stable than other notes in the key.
And speaking of the vocal line, I believe this is the first Punch Brothers song that I've transcribed that does not contain any vocal harmony. This is worth noting since in addition to their bluegrass instrumentation, their close, Beach Boy-esque harmonies have become a quintessential part of their overall sound.
Here is the complete lead-sheet transcription: Movement and Location.