I agree with the comment in the first post on this subject, that rhythm and a deliberately ambiguity between 3/4 and 4/4 time may be part of what Dylan is talking about. Some of the problem is that he seems to glide — at least in the way he talks about it — between pitch and rhythm as the topic. Some of it, which is the part that I emphasised in my previous post, makes sense as a descripion of a formulaic system of composition, where a set of generic rules can be applied in a variety of situations and produce the goods.
This has been described in the field of literature by Albert Lord and Milman Perry, who studied the formulaic composition of epic poetry in the Balkans, and compared it, as a (then, at least) living tradition, with the Homeric epics, and found the same fundamental traits. The conclusion that the Iliad and the Odyssey are written-out versions of improvised poetry, while upsetting some notions about the Genius who laid the foundation for Western Literature, is hardly surprising, since Homeros was supposed to have lived before the development of writing.
But apart from that, the Lord/Perry studies have been important for the development of a framework for studies of formulaicism in general. This has been taken up by the musicologist Leo Treitler who has applied some of it (but with major qualifications) to the medieval repertory of plainchant.
Anyway, I’m rambling; stop me. [Stop!][Ok, thanks].
The other side would be the rhythmic aspect, which is also clearly part of what he’s talking about. It makes sense, judging from his singing style in the late 80s and early 90s, that he has had considerations about various ways to circle around the various rhythmical strata in a song.
It reminds me of Levon Helm’s comment in the video about the making of “The Brown Album”, about people thinking that it must be difficult to sing lead and play drums at the same time. But for him, he says, it’s the other way around, because he can sing ‘around’ what he plays (or vice versa).
But in either case, there is no easy connection between what Dylan says he does, and what one can hear him doing. Especially when he gets concrete. When he says:
It’s a highly controlled system of playing and relates to the notes of a scale, how they combine numerically, how they form melodies out of triplets and are axiomatic to the rhythm and the chord changes.
–there are a number of possible interpretations, but also a quagmire of possible mistakes, on Dylan’s part and on the reader’s. One is fairly easily taken care of:
- “triplets” is a rhythmical term, denoting the subdivision of a beat in three instead of two units. What he probably has in mind, is triads, the units of three tones separated by major and minor thirds, which have been the foundation of Western harmony since the fifteenth century, and which is usually called “chords”.
But other points are less clear-cut:
- “How [the notes of a scale] combine numerically” — is this a reference to the esoteric tradition of harmony-of-the-spheres which goes back to the Pythagoreans, or simply a way of saying that there are certain patterns in the scale?
- “How [the notes of the scale] form melodies out of triplets” (i.e. triads). Is this a reference to the triadic nature of melody in the western tradition, where certain melodic tones get a particular emphasis because of their structural importance in the triads? In functional harmony, a certain sounding chord is described according to which function it fulfills, which means that the same chord can mean different things depending on the context (see the “D” in different versions of Girl of the North Country), or a chord can be called a G chord without even containing the tone G. (I know I have an example of that in one of the tabs, but I can’t remember where). As I’ve argued in some of my articles in the “Self-Ordained Professors” section, the skillful handling of these features can be observed in Dylan’s music, but I still doubt that that is what Lonnie told him.
- “axiomatic to rhythm and chord changes”. Yes, again: the relationship between rhythm and harmony is close, even though they are different phenomena. The pivot is “structural importance”, which is decided in the interrelations between triad and rhythm: a structural tone is one which is placed on a strong beat, but in some situations, a weak beat may become strong because it is inhabited by a structural tone.
This is fairly straightforward, but Dylan actually makes a much wider claim when he says that the notes of the scale are “axomatic to rhythm and chord changes”. “Axiomatic” would imply that the notes of the scale are the fundamental building blocks upon which the system is defined, without themselves needing any definition within the system. This would mean that rhythm is inconceivable without a structured pitch hierarchy, which — as a general statement — is pure bullshit. He may be thinking only of his own system, but for an artist working in a tradition based so heavily on rhythm, this becomes a strange statement, to say the least.
Is this what Dylan means, then, or does he actually mean “triplets” when he says “triplets”, and hints at some direct, mystical connection between harmony and triple rhythm? If that’s what Lonnie told him, he lied…