Tag Archive: inspiration


No Other Name

Finally got around to recording one of my own songs:

This is a simple little chorus that has been a blessing to me in my personal devotion time. I pray that it will be a blessing to you as well.

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#10893: Mike Farris

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It was one of those happy accidents so common on YouTube (and Wikipedia, for that matter). I was procrastinating from the dissertation writing, putting together a playlist to keep me inspired, and I happened to see a guy in a fedora and sunglasses. The title of the song was “Ain’t No Grave.” Being raised in an atmosphere that embraces the marriage of many forms of gospel music, I was intrigued.

As I obsessively clicked on video after video (mostly live performances, which rocketed me to fandom ever faster), I listened enraptured to the mix of everything I love in music, coupled with a fascination for the type of artist who would put together an album like Salvation in Lights. A man who struggled with personal trials and vices, saved by God and music, Farris is indeed a rare talent.

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The voice was everything I dreamed gospel could be. I was transported back to a time I never actually knew in a haze of Etta, Ella, Louis, Nina, Madeleine, to a place where my musical loves live in a perpetual jam session that spans age, class, race and generations. And even better? It was gospel. It was the marriage of everything I love about blues to the passion of my heart.

And why gospel? It is a music that understands the pain of blues. It’s been there. It’s sat in the doldrums, covered in sackcloth and ashes, and, rather than scream in anguish, has simply sought balance in the harmony of hurt, lyric and melody to form a sound that bewilders and bewitches simultaneously in its deceptively simple chord progressions and melodic interchanges.

The thing about gospel is that it gets all of this. It will see your heartache and raise you hope. It is a music that has lived the life, experienced the hurt, and found triumph. It’s not a candy-coated Christianity. It’s a music that is filled with the same trials, the same power to feel, but takes it beyond agony and lifts its listener to serenity, to the power of salvation.

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And so, in the music of Mike Farris, I found a kaleidoscopic harmony of everything I love about music . . . plus a guy who rocks a fedora. Need I say more? Maybe I should just let him sing it.

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It is a chord of mystery and enchantment.  Awe-inspiring, yes, but there is a not-so-subtle dissonance that characterizes the Tristan chord.  It is filled with a seemingly-perpetual unresolved tension that captivates its listener in the most literal sense: it leaves us spellbound – unable to draw our ears and emotions away from it – as we take in each tone and long for it resolution.

German composer Richard Wagner (whom pop culture has made famous by using his Ride of the Valkyries for a recurring Bugs Bunny theme) made extensive use of the chord in the opera Tristan und Isolde, using it as a leitmotif for Tristan.

While the use of unresolved tones (and even the use of a chord that consists almost entirely of augmented intervals) was not unique to Wagner, the composer made brilliant use of suspension in a way that surpassed those before him.  The general practice in using a suspended chord is to provide a resolution, and to provide it quickly.  Otherwise it’s just mean.  It is perhaps the most obvious way to convey tension musically.  There is just something about a suspended chord that is completely unsettling.  Until that blessed moment when resolution comes, it is positively maddening.  Think of the “amen” at the end of traditional hymns and imagine, instead of playing that final note, just holding out the one right before it for an undetermined period . . . exasperating, isn’t it? I’ll wait while you finish pulling out your hair.

Wagner’s use of the chord is unusual, for one, because it pretty much takes full advantage of the element of surprise.  It is full of tones that would not normally be found in the given key.  The most creative aspect, though, is simply its duration and resolution.  He draws out the suspension for maximum effect and then, when he finally decides to resolve it, he uses a passing tone to do so.

The nature of the passing tone shows how enticing this little melodic treasure truly is.  The whole purpose of the passing tone is to get us somewhere else.  It’s basically that little restaurant you stop at on a road trip to make the journey a little less arduous, but you don’t plan on setting down roots there.  It’s just a place to hang out until you get where you’re really going.  A passing tone is often a little note that provides some color and sets up the next tone.  So, when he decides not to give us that resolution for which we are pretty much salivating by this point . . . and then suddenly gives it to us in a passing tone . . . that leads into another suspended chord filled with tension . . . the major musical destinations in the piece are exceedingly complex and wildly unsettling.  Maddening!

There is something about the Tristan chord that still intrigues us to this day.  But – while I absolutely love opera – I am going to bring the discussion of the chord within Wagner’s masterpiece to a close here.  My next blog will focus on the chord itself: this breathtaking series of augmented intervals known, in other circles, as the half-diminished seventh chord.  I plan to discuss the chord in as much of its entirety as I can manage: its components, how to create it, why it works, examples throughout music and how to incorporate it into your own playing.

The half-diminished seventh chord is a strange place to start, I am aware, but it worked for Wagner, so I thought I would give it a try.  If anyone is interested on something on a much more basic level, please stay tuned.  I plan to write about simpler chords and concepts as well.  If you have any requests, please let me know!

Until next time, I leave you with a farewell, adieu and goodb-