Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Funk: repetition and the 'cut'

The following extracts are from an article by Matthew P. Brown in which he applies the ideas of James Snead - set out in his 1981 essay 'Repetition as a figure in black culture' – to funk. I am not convinced about setting up a simple polarity between ‘Western’ and ‘African’ musics. What is true of the Western classical tradition is not necessarily true of some of the folk musics in the West where supposedly African elements of repetition and variation can also be found. But I like his exploration of how the distinction between linear progression and repetition impacts on the dance-floor.

Black cultural expression is organised around two central principles, repetition and the ‘cut’:

'In black culture, the thing (the ritual, the dance, the beat) is 'there for you to pick it up when you come back to get it.' If there is a goal (Zweck) in such a culture, it is always deferred; it continually 'cuts' back to the start, in the musical meaning of 'cut' as an abrupt, seemingly unmotivated break (an accidental da capo) with a series already in progress and a willed return to a prior series'. (Snead, 1981)

…Snead supports his conception with a series of examples from literature, folklore and the Church; but it is African-American music that might best exemplify the principles of repetition and montage in black culture. The call-and-response character of gospel and go-go, the repetition within the blues form, the cuts to improvisation within jazz performances - all exploit cyclicality and announce disruptions as fundamental expressive tools. These idioms achieve their musical communication primarily through rhythmic and vocal conver­sation. On the other hand, the Western tradition concentrates on harmonic, tonal or melodic development. For example, a Mozart symphony seeks resolution within a certain key and around a certain tonic. The melodic progression of a Beatles ballad is organized around the song's tonic and the supporting chordal patterns. With harmony and melody predominant, shifts in a Western piece of music are experienced as motivated. This sort of trajectory is de-emphasized in the African-American tradition. Interplay between rhythmic patterns are predominant, and a shift occurs at the point when those patterns are rearranged. The montage form is heard, on a small scale, in the traded phrases of bluesman Robert Johnson and his guitar. On a grander scale, it occurs in the abrupt shifts of meter and tone in African drumming. Both reflect a montage technique that avows rupture. Western styles, however, are goal-oriented, seeking resolution through structured deviation; their shifts are covered over by harmonic progression.

This opposition cannot be taken too far, especially when studying African-American musical idioms like jazz or the blues. Jazz is generally considered a marriage of African rhythms and European harmony. Be-bop and John Coltrane show a tremendous interest in thematic development­ – it’s what makes 'My Favorite Things' bloom. The conventional chordal patterns of the blues (I, IV and V within a key) propose and satisfy certain expectations for the listener. The pop/rock song, derived of course from r&b, has a similar harmonic definition, and a quite familiar structure: verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus, evident in any 1960s Motown song. There is an underriding telos to all of these forms.

But funk music, especially the style originating with James Brown, looks for no such resolution. To refine the concepts of repetition and the 'cut', and to near a sense of funk's radical design, we can recall the method of an unfaltering Brown classic, 'Cold Sweat' ('1967). Its initial tempo begins with a single stretched horn blast, a fluid bass, drums, percussion and voice, all patterning a rhythm that revolves around several relational beats. Once this groove is established, there is a sharp break, and a new tempo is set up with new horn and vocal patterns. Another cut occurs when we hear punchy horns and Brown's delivery of the song title: 'I break out' - bemp, bemp, bemp, bemp - 'in a cold sweat!' - bemp, bemp, bemp, tonktonk, BREAAAH. And we then return to the initial groove. The song's pattern is A-B-A-B-A, with cuts as the markers of transition.

These cuts are often announced and recognizable and they can introduce a new key or tempo, or simply a solo that is layered on top of the earlier beat. Other familiar Brown cuts are 'take it to the bridge' or 'Maceo' (signalling the JBs' sax player); but they can be instrumental as well, descending bass lines or snaky percussive accents. A more recent example of the articulated cut occurs in Prince's 'Kiss' (1986), again around the exhausted squeak of the song's title and the shimmying guitar that accompanies it. In Trouble Funk's 'Drop the Bomb' (1982), a synthesizer's reproduction of an air raid serves as the cue. There may be no such marker to signal the cut, as is the case with Prince's 'Sign 0' the Times' (1987). In any event, we hear sudden, unmotivated shifts, often announced (though not necessarily) and then the reiteration of a tempo and groove heard once before. Not surprisingly, a funk work-out's stopping point is arbitrary. In Brown's case, twenty-minute sessions would be tailored to three minutes for record marketability. Every instrument, the voice included, is used for percussive ends; melody and harmony are present only in the interplay of drummed instruments, and never teleologically conceived in the composition.

So funk music, at the structural level, engages in a critique of progress as it inheres in Western music. The polyrhythms of the music push the listener not forward, but inward, toward a beat he or she chooses, and outward, toward a beat he or she shares. Of course, it is great dance music, which surely empowers the psychological force of Chuck Brown's or Bootsy Collins’s performances. The music's design can be seen as architectural, a three-dimensional space within which performer and listener work. Rather than attending to the vertical, linear drive of melodic or harmonic development, the listener is asked to inhabit this space (the dance-floor, the song's world). It is expansive and social, intensely democratic. It asks us to move here, and not go there. Black music's circularity and flow – what Jones calls a 'plane of evolution, a direction coming and going' - is oriented to a local awareness of space, or what Jones then names 'Total Environment' (Leroy Jones, The changing same, 1966).

Source: Matthew P. Brown, Funk Music as Genre: Black Aesthetics, Apocalyptic Thinking and Urban Protest in Post-1965 African-American Pop, Cultural Studies, 8 (3), October 1994.

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