Saturday, November 21, 2009

George Russell and Tonal Gravity

    I've been reading a book by jazz composer George Russell called "The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization."  It is a brilliant concept which I would recommend to anyone studying jazz improvisation.  Apparently Miles Davis derived his modal jazz concept for the album "Kind of Blue" after talking with Russell about his Lydian Chromatic Concept.

    I won't explain it in detail, as you should buy the book yourself, but the basis of the concept is this:

    Western music is based on the building block of the interval of a perfect 5th.  It is only logical, then, to base a musical system on a scale that resembles a ladder of consecutive fifths, i. e. the Lydian Scale.  If you arrange the Lydian scale in 5ths from the tonic, you get 7 consecutive fifths, however, when you try to do the same with the Ionian (major) scale, you get 6 consecutive 5ths, and have to skip to the complete opposite  side of the cycle of fifths to get the natural 4.  Now we need to understand that the tonic of a 5th is always the bottom note, that is the top note has a gravitational pull to the tonic note, meaning that a stack of fifths has a gravitational pull all the way down to the tonic.  The tonic of a 4th is always the top note in the same manner.   Let's compare the major and lydian scales:

major scale with tonic C:  C  D  E  F  G  A  B

lydian scale with tonic C:  C  D  E  F#  G  A  B

    The major scale has a 4th between the notes C and F, giving it a dual nature of two possible tonics for the scale.  It is in a state of resolving  to either C or F as a result of its dual, diatonic nature.  The lydian scale, on the other hand, doesn't have that perfect 4th interval between its first and fourth degrees, giving it a final, resolved sound to the only possible tonic: C.  The lydian scale can be said to be at unity with itself.  This means that the lydian scale represents, as Russell calls it, "a unified field of tonal gravity."

    This is just the fundamental framework from which Russell builds his concept, and unfortunately all I have time to get into at the moment.  I may get more in depth with it in later posts, it depends on where my studies take me.  In the mean time, I suggest getting the book if you are interested to find out about it for yourself.  It's pretty pricey at 130 bucks, but it is, I think, a worthy investment if you have the money and the time to go through it.  Think of it this way:  it is an alternative theory of music, not based on european classical music, but based on jazz; a reorganization of the western tonal system.

Click here to go to George Russell's website

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