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My idea of what a polytonal chord looks like
My idea of what a polytonal chord looks like

Prokofiev’s March from the Love for Three Oranges strictly speaking doesn’t end at the end of its first 16 counts, but it has all the gestures of a perfect cadence even if the chords are ‘wrong’.

I’d played this dozens of times for class and got away with it until one day in Berlin, during a pirouette exercise, the dancer Yoko Ichino finished her pirouette (which ended facing the piano) in perfect time with the final chord of my phrase with its odd chords.

So far so good. But being Yoko, it was not enough just to be in time with the music, she decided to be in harmony with it, too, so to speak: with all the studied grace, timing and refinement of the ballerina that she is, pulled a face on the final beat that was somewhere between mock-sadness and surprise, in keeping with the cadence-that-isn’t-a-cadence.

Once she had seen that it had made me laugh, she delivered a whole series of appropriately composed ‘chord faces’ at various cadence points in whatever music I was playing (while doing the exercise perfectly, of course), each one funnier than the last.

In an instant, I saw how closely the idea of ‘closing’ in balletic terms is linked to musical closure in the form of cadences.  And call me childish, but the game of putting a face to a chord (which we call ‘name that chord’) has made me laugh ever since, and it’s helped pass many an idle moment in studios.

Like a lot of comedy, it’s funny because beneath the immediate comic surface (and creating it) is a whole sea of propositions about something else: perception, semiotics, gesture, meaning, aesthetic response and language, to make a start.  By coincidence, one of my fellow students at the IoE shared this short clip of Leonard Bernstein’s lecture series ‘The Unanswered Question‘, where he illustrates a similar thing in a few phrases of a Beethoven sonata, but using words. The next time I see Yoko, I’m determined to ask her to embody my favourite chord from ‘Paysandu’ from Milhaud’s Saudades do Brasil. A three-layer cake of E major and G7 on top of a second inversion of C# major. Eat that!

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist