[Smt-talk] Figured Bass In The Modern World

Paul Siskind siskinpa at potsdam.edu
Mon Dec 15 07:06:56 PST 2014

Hello Ms. Doyle:  I was somewhat surprised by the vehemence of your
response to Carson Farley, in terms its premises, its theoretical
assertions, and its tone.

Some specific responses and general thoughts....

> Saying that suspensions and pedal points are voice leading is like
> saying that the letters "s" and "p" are language.

- Yes, the letters "s" and "p" ARE language, i.e. they are component parts
of what constitutes a language. Systems of symbolic representation (e.g.
phonetic versus pictoral), aural phonemes, parts of speech, grammar,
syntax, etc. all have "meaning" and/or "function" within the totality of a
language.  Their function/meaning operates at different hierachical
levels.  The same can be said about the "grammar/syntax" of any specific
type of music, i.e. there are component parts that can be understood to
function and have "meaning" at different hierachical levels. 
Voice-leading, suspensions, pedal points, chords, Schenkerian ursatz,
etc., are all component parts within the grammar of the specific style of
Common-Practice tonal music; whether they function at a low or high level
within the hierarchy doesn't detract from their function/meaning within
the totality of the language.

- Also, I don't understand your assertion that suspensions aren't an
aspect of voice-leading.  Sure, they don't encapsulate an understanding
the entirety of the concept of voice-leading; however, they most certainly
are an exemplar of an aspect of a voice-leading phenomenon that's rooted
(and theoretically explicated) within the context of a specific historical
musical language.

> In jazz performance, voice leading is left up to the improviser.

- No, this is not true.  There ARE principles of voice-leading within the
grammar of jazz harmony; some are similar to common-practice tonality, and
some are different.

- However, composers and performers in either style have never been
slavishly bound to follow any set of generally "accepted" principles; if
so, musical style would never have evolved/progressed.  (i.e. Think about
the innovations of Monteverdi and Thelonious Monk.)

- Also, voice-leading is not the same thing as "voicing."  The voicing of
chords is indeed "left up to the improviser" in both practices (figured
base and jazz).

> Jazz chord notation conveys virtually NO voice leading.

- The exact same thing can be said about the NOTATION of figured bass,
i.e. there is nothing inherent within the numbers that indicate whether a
specific voice (as represented by a number) is going to move up or down
(except, perhaps for a 7th above a bass).  Even though KNOWING that a
certain voice is "supposed to" move up or down IS part of the totality of
the grammatical system, there's nothing inherent in the symbology of a
little Arabic number that indicates that; rather, one superimposes that
meaning onto the symbol because one makes certain assumptions driven by
the context of the grammatical system in operation.

For example:  If we look at bass note D with a figure of 6/4, does the
number 6 indicate that that note (a B) is going to move up or down?  Hmmm;
there's nothing particular about that symbol to answer that question. 
However, if we put that chord in the context of the key of G, AND it's
followed by another D with a 7 above it, AND we assume that we're
interpreting that pair of symbols within the specific grammar of
Common-Practice tonality, then we superimpose a meaning onto that symbol
of 6 as wanting to move downward in a cadential pattern.  However, if the
D6/4 is in the key of C, and its preceded by a bass C without any numbers
above it, and followed by a bass E with a ^ above it, then the 6th above
the D wants to move upwards, as part of a passing 6/4 motion.  Hmm, that's
confusing; how can the same simple symbol indicate that it wants to move
downwards in one situation, yet it wants to move upwards in another
situation?  Thus, figured-bass notation in and of itself does not convey
voice-leading; it's only if one superimposes grammatical conventions
(within a stylistic context) that the numerical symbols take on a specific
"meaning" of voice-leading.

> I teach... figured bass to jazz composers and arrangers...because they
know they need it.

- Wow, that's a pretty vehement and broad assertion.  But having worked as
a jazz composer/arranger (who also uses figured bass when I teach
common-practice tonal theory), I honestly can't think of a single instance
when I "needed" to use/know figured bass in my jazz work.  Can you
elaborate on what aspects of figured bass a jazz composer/arranger "needs"
to know?

> If you choose to live in
> ignorance and call your state enlightenment, fine.

- Oh, OK, now I understand.  Musicians who work in different musical
fields (and thus utilize different musical grammatical systems and need
different tool sets in order to be successful) live in a state of
ignorance and false enlightenment.  Silly me; I used to think that Charlie
Parker and Ravi Shankar were enlightened musicians; thanks for setting me

> But please stop trying
> to abolish something valuable for the rest of contemporary practice that
> you may know nothing about.

- Perhaps I'm as equally unenlightened as Carson (after all, as some of my
colleagues often remind me, I'm just a composer, and not a true scholar);
but I also don't view an understanding of figured bass to be critically
"valuable" to many current music practitioners who don't plan to be
specialists in the narrow historical practice of performing continuo. 
Sure, there are valuable/useful things to be learned from knowing the
figured bass practice. But aren't there also equally valuable/useful
things to be learned from learning how to improvise rhythmic diminutions
in North Indian style? And how Toshiko Akiyoshi gets her signature sound
by voicing chords in her big band charts in 4ths rather than 3rds?  And
how Eric Whitacre employed technology to pull together thousands of
individual singers from around the world to perform one of his choral
pieces?  Aren't these things part of what makes up "contemporary practice"
of music in 2014?

All Carson is questioning is why figured bass should be considered MORE
valuable to the training of today's musicians than the wondrous plethora
of potential musical skills and knowledge.  We certainly can't include it
all in a college/conservatory curriculum; just because he raises the
question as to whether we, as a profession, should reconsider our
priorities does not call for insulting him as "choosing to live in a state
of ignorance."  In fact, I think that the very fact that he raises the
question evidences a certain level of enlightenment.

...Paul Siskind

Dr. Paul A. Siskind                        Home:
Professor of Composition and Theory        Sweet Child Music
The Crane School of Music, SUNY-Potsdam    69 N. Main Street
Potsdam, NY  13676                         Norwood, NY  13668
(315) 267-3241                             (315) 353-2389

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