«Volume 18, Number 4, December 2012 Copyright © 2012 Society for Music Theory Tonal Pairing and the Relative-Key Paradox in the Music of Elliott ...»
Volume 18, Number 4, December 2012
Copyright © 2012 Society for Music Theory
Tonal Pairing and the Relative-Key Paradox in the Music of
Elliott Smith *
NOTE: The examples for the (text-only) PDF version of this item are available online at:
KEYWORDS: Elliott Smith, tonal pairing, relative keys, paradox, popular music
ABSTRACT: This article provides an introduction to American singer-songwriter Elliott Smith (1969–2003) by exploring his musical, lyrical, and personal predilection for ambiguity, contradiction, and paradox. Drawing upon Robert Bailey’s (1977,
1985) concept of tonal pairing and Candace Brower’s (2008) notion of pitch-space paradoxes, the article investigates the way in which these features manifest in selected songs from Smith’s catalogue, focusing in particular on his penchant for pairing relative keys and the use of paradoxical and/or contradictory themes in his lyrics. It then closes by advocating for further study of Smith’s music and the crucial role that contradiction and paradox plays in his approach to tonal structure.
Received November 2012  In an interview for the National Public Radio program All Things Considered (June 13, 2006), classical pianist Christopher O’Riley describes the American singer-songwriter Elliott Smith’s (1969–2003) song “Speed Trials” (Smith 1997)
One of the things... in the lyrics and in the music, [there] is an ambiguity in Elliott’s music, and in particular in “Speed Trials.” You don’t really have a sense of whether it’s a happy song or a sad song. I mean if, for instance, I play the opening, as he did [plays Example 1a], you don’t really know, it could be in E minor [plays Example 1b]... in which case it would be quite sad, or it might be in C major [plays Example 1c]... you really don’t know, and he doesn’t really give it up for quite a while.... (1) O’Riley thus attributes the song’s ambiguous mood to the phenomenon of tonal pairing, which applies to music based “not on one stable sonority, but on the tension between two tonal centers” (Kinderman 1980, 106). (2) As O’Riley aptly demonstrates at the piano, the lack of a chordal accompaniment—and thus tonal context—in the guitar “tattoo” renders it in C major. (3) plausibly construed as either in E minor or 1 of 11  O’Riley also indicates that the pairing of C major and E minor in “Speed Trials” extends beyond just this introductory figure. As seen in the rhythmic reduction displayed in Example 2, the verse begins with a modified form of the tattoo that features a root-position C major chord on the opening strong beat. This in itself would seem to establish C major as tonic;
however, the motion from the preceding B-E dyad that closes the tattoo instead implies deceptive motion to VI in E minor.
After three iterations of this figure, a cadential gesture featuring harmonic motion from A major to an implied Gsus4 chord occurs, indicating that C major is in fact the governing tonic after all.
 C major’s tonic status is not truly confirmed, however, until the chorus, which features a metrically accented root-position C major harmony (preceded by the dominant sonority that closes the verse) and a clear, well-defined progression to its dominant, G. Nevertheless, E minor still maintains a shadowy yet palpable presence throughout. As also seen in Example 2, the vocals quickly proceed in stepwise fashion to a high E, which is sustained through the subsequent motion to II and IV in a protracted articulation of the titular lyric. This generates a prominent harmonic dissonance of a ninth and seventh, respectively. C, on the other hand, is treated merely as a passing tone in the ensuing descent to B. The outro proceeds in similar fashion, presenting a melodically varied and twice-reharmonized version of this material that continues to emphasize the high E while remaining harmonically grounded in C major until the song fades out.
 Although O’Riley does not elaborate on the lyrical content of “Speed Trials,” the happy/sad ambiguity that he asserts based on the pairing of C major and E minor does indeed resonate with the various musically ambiguous elements of the song. (4) In verse one, the singer describes a cathedral with stained-glass windows that are black, and high notes that are sweet yet destructive. The chorus begins with the image of a smile, but one that the singer carefully qualifies by emphasizing its brevity and relative insignificance. The subject appears happy to be running, but is limited by the fact that he/she can only do so while standing in place. In verse two, the singer further elaborates on the subject’s various character flaws, which seem to be largely self-imposed, leaving it unclear whether he/she deserves the listener’s empathy or contempt. The situation remains unresolved in the outro, where the protagonist breaks free—now running “all over the place”—but still only musters “just a brief smile.”  As O’Riley also suggests, the lyrical and tonal ambiguity that characterizes “Speed Trials” is a characteristic feature of Smith’s music. The purpose of this article is to flesh out this claim by investigating Smith’s use of tonal pairing as a vehicle for expressing ambiguity, contradiction, and/or paradox in his music. Following a brief discussion of pertinent biographical details, the article makes note of Smith’s preference for pairing relative keys, and invokes Candace Brower’s (2008) conception of this tonal relationship as the musical analogue to the visual paradox of figure-ground reversal. It then discusses how relative-key pairing expresses contradiction and paradox in three songs by Smith, and ultimately argues that this musical phenomenon forms a vital aspect of their expressive meaning.
Elliott Smith: Paradox in the Flesh
 Steven Paul “Elliott” Smith’s musical career emerged from the “indie” rock scene that flourished in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s. Smith first gained a following as a founding member of the Portland, Oregon-based hard rock band Heatmiser before emerging as a somewhat soft-spoken solo artist. He released his debut album Roman Candle (1994) on the Cavity Search label before being signed by the now-iconic label Kill Rock Stars, for which he recorded his self-titled follow-up (1995), as well as the subsequent Either/Or (1997). Smith achieved significant mainstream success when his music was featured in Gus van Sant’s 1997 film Good Will Hunting, and his song “Miss Misery” received an Academy Award nomination for best original song. Although it did not win, the exposure helped Smith garner a contract with the major label DreamWorks, for which he recorded two more albums, XO (1998) and Figure 8 (2000). Smith subsequently left DreamWorks, and nearly completed his sixth solo album, From a Basement on the Hill (2004), before his death on October 21, 2003 from an apparent suicide.
 Smith spent his childhood and early adolescence living with his mother and stepfather in the Dallas, Texas suburb of Duncanville. When he was fourteen, Smith relocated to Portland, Oregon to live with his biological father, citing family problems that likely stemmed from a strained (and allegedly abusive) relationship with his stepfather (Nugent 2004, 23–24;
2 of 11 Spin, December 2004). Smith seems to have never fully reconciled his formative experiences in these starkly contrasting locales. Several years after his move to Portland, he had a large tattoo of the state of Texas installed on his left arm, later explaining, “I didn’t get it because I like Texas, kinda the opposite. But I won’t forget about it although I'm tempted to ‘cause I don't like it there” (Comes with a Smile, Winter 1998–99).
 In fact, Smith’s taste in body art consistently belied a fascination with contradiction and paradox. His only other permanent tattoo was an illustration of a bull named Ferdinand, the main character in a children’s book by Munro Leaf (1936). In the story, Ferdinand is the strongest bull in his pasture, but has no interest in fighting, and instead spends all his time smelling flowers under a cork tree. Reflecting upon the significance of Ferdinand for Smith, his close friend E.V. Day stated: “[i]t’s like... he’s this big bull who doesn’t want to fight and would rather sit down and smell the flowers and wishes he wasn’t this big bull. He’s small but he’s so big in his art and in his music. His music is orchestral and so this little man, this little beautiful man made this huge romantic music” (Nugent 2004, 61).
 As a student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, Smith developed a keen interest in the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard, a central feature of which is the unwavering commitment to ethical and existential paradoxes. (5) The title of Smith’s third album, Either/Or, is an overt reference to Kierkegaard’s renowned book of the same name. In fact, all of Smith’s subsequent album titles rather explicitly invoke contradiction and/or paradox in some way. He consistently cited the abbreviation for “kisses and hugs” as the significance behind XO, yet also demonstrated an awareness of its oppositional connotations, admitting that he almost changed the title because “it was too much like Either/Or, like too opposite.” (6) The title of his next album, Figure 8, is less indicative of opposition, but was inspired by the paradoxical image of “a skater going in this endless twisted circle that doesn't have any real endpoint” (The Boston Herald, May 11, 2000). Finally, the posthumous From a Basement on the Hill (2004)—which refers to producer David McConnell’s basement studio on a hilltop in Malibu, California, where much of the album was recorded (Under the Radar, March 20, 2003)—demonstrates Smith’s acute awareness of contradictory images and scenarios.
Tonal Pairing and the Relative Key Paradox in Elliott Smith’s Music
 Whereas “Speed Trials” pairs keys with different signatures, the majority of Smith’s music featuring tonal pairing instead involves relative keys. Interestingly, Candace Brower (2008) has shown how a fundamental paradox lies embedded within this key relationship. Relative keys are capable of manifesting the musical analogue to the visual phenomenon of figure-ground reversal, which is responsible for such familiar optical illusions as the Necker cube, Duck-Rabbit, and Face-Vase illustrations.
Modulation between relative keys produces the corresponding aural effect because major and natural minor share the same pitch class collection, but assign greater prominence to contrasting subsets thereof. Thus, in A minor, triads built on A, E, and D come to the fore as tonic, dominant, and subdominant, respectively, whereas triads built on C, G, and F recede to the background, and vice versa for C major.
 The opening four measures of Johannes Brahms’s Intermezzo, op. 119, no. 1 serves as Brower’s (2008, 89) analytical case study of this phenomenon (see Example 3). As Brower observes, “[its] continuous cycling through the diatonic collection locates us firmly within the key space of D major/B minor. Yet figure-ground ambiguity causes the ear to flip back and forth between these two keys, which are counterposed in almost perfect balance” (88). Brower goes on to discuss the way the various ambiguities in the surface level rhythmic, metric, and pitch groupings—as indicated by the analytical annotations in Example 3—work in tandem to induce this “flipping” between the two keys. (7)  It is important to note that, although figure-ground reversal paradox is an intrinsic theoretical property of the relative-key relationship, it is the presence of ambivalent or ambiguous tonal behaviors that facilitates its musical manifestation. In tonal compositional practice, the relative major tends to be the more stable of the two keys, and it exerts a stronger pull than its minor-key counterpart. As such, modulation from i to III is both more commonplace and more convincing than modulation from I to vi. This tendency must be counteracted in order to achieve the tonal equilibrium necessary to produce the flipping effect.
 The ambivalent and ambiguous tonal behaviors needed to bring about this kind of tonal equilibrium form the bedrock 3 of 11
of the concept of tonal pairing. Consider Christopher Lewis’s (1984, 6) list of possible manifestations of tonal pairing:
1. Juxtaposition of musical fragments implying the two tonics in succession or alternation
2. Mixture of the two tonalities, exploiting ambiguous and common harmonic functions
Each of these techniques uses tonal ambivalence or ambiguity to promote the sense of equality between the paired keys.
Indeed, the figure-ground reversal effect at work in Example 3 can be readily attributed to the first two items on this list.
 To be sure, however, the musical means by which a modern-day songwriter invokes the relative-key paradox will likely diverge from those of a nineteenth-century composer due to the distinct—though hardly mutually exclusive—harmonic worlds they inhabit. In pop-rock music, for instance, IV tends to be used with greater frequency than V, and IV–I appears more often than V–I (Temperley 2011); pop-rock harmony also commonly employs progressions of a distinctly modal and/or pentatonic disposition that fall outside standard common-practice tonal usage (Everett 2004, 2008, 2009; Biamonte 2010). However, none of Lewis’s manifestation-types hinge upon dominant-tonic polarity or a rigid adherence to conventional tonal syntax, and they are thus equally applicable to both harmonic practices. Indeed, each of the three songs by Smith examined below induces the relative-key paradox using some or all of these techniques in ways that both converge with and diverge from common-practice harmonic procedures.