The Grand Staircase to the Source of Music and Life: King Crimson, “VROOOM” (1995)


A lot of music runs like a train on a track.  That linear-path feeling is produced by measures with four beats.  A two-beat by itself doesn’t really move forward:  it feels like rising up, or maybe hopping once in place.  When we’re given a four-beat pattern, though, so long as nothing causes a hitch we don’t feel a mere extension of  hopping, we feel a train is underway (choo-choo-choo-choo!).  And that’s fine, because we want to take in all the attractions of a nice musical trip.  The linear motion matches the itinerary of our experience and the apparent flow of time itself.

What about a three-beat pattern?  I want to bring the question of what a threebeat can make us feel kinesthetically together with the question of where we can go in our world besides on a train-like trip.

Kinesthetically, the three-beat feeling is circular.  If you’re dancing a waltz, you make circles on the floor.  (I’ve seen it done.)   If you’re sketching a piece’s rhythm with your hand in the air, you make circles to follow triplets.  (This I do.)  The three overrides the feeling of two—that there is division, this-and-that, and alternation, this-or-that—by introducing the wonderful complication of the third (oh, and also. . . !).  And it overthrows the linear regime of four by offering another way to complete a cycle of movement besides chaining twos together choo-choo-fashion.  We do sense a completion of movement even though we’re prevented from running off down the track of fours, so we have to bring the line of beats back around to itself.  We circle.  But circling is not hopping.  Circling is something in between hopping and linear travel, an interesting mixture of going somewhere and not leaving.

So where do we go, that is still here?  Where could three-beat music take us?

A particularly grand three (actually a pattern of two threes overlaid with three twos) starts the third movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony:

da….DA….da……DAAAAA….dadadada.DA….da….da

……….1…….2…….3…….1…….2…….3…….1…….2…….3

Mozart’s 40th, 3rd Movement start

The effect I feel is of a great circular staircase uncoiling (if I think of it rising) or coming into view as a path leading down.  Up or down to what?  One could imagine anything, but if we hold a focus on the circularity of the path and how we’re not changing our GPS location on the earth’s surface, we have to think we’re moving toward the top or bottom of a vertical axis—in other words, the attic or the basement of the world.

Usually the stately Mozart threes give me the impression of winding down toward the bottom of what I suspect must be the Well from which music and life both spring forth, the subterranean source.  Of course one can never go all the way there—yet how marvelous that one can hold the marble banister and descend a certain number of these gleaming steps!  As Mozart leads me downward into the Well, I come to hear moving tectonic plates, as it were—overlapping slabs of loud violin parts, in the manner of a fugue—but also lovely quiet cells of retreat with the woodwinds speaking low.

Shouldn’t there be a great staircase in rock too?  The greatest one I know is carved out by King Crimson in “VROOOM” (no choo-choo!).

“VROOOM” 1

It consists of six threes of notes—a descending progression of triplets, each of which is a descent:  E E-flat A-flat, E-flat C F, B B-flat E-flat, B-flat G C, G-flat F B-flat, and F D G, or if you want to see how the pitches descend (notice how this chart looks a bit like some maps of Dante’s circles of hell):

E
…E-flat……E-flat –
………………….C
…………………………….B
……………………………….B-flat…..B-flat
……A-flat
………………………………………………..G
………………………………………………………..G-flat
……………………..F………………………………….F……… F
……………………………………E-flat
………………………………………………………………………….D
……………………………………………………C
………………………………………………………………B-flat
……………………………………………………………………………..G

This is gone through just once at the beginning, almost arrogantly concise, to take you down, and then three times at the end, to take you back up more laboriously so you’ll know you really went down.  After the short introduction you’re confronted abruptly with what is audible down in the Well, something utterly rock, a raucous yet disciplined (i.e. King Crimsonish) riff reminiscent of the Peter Gunn theme.  It ought to be trainlike, but here it’s more like a rocket blasting off right in front of our faces, since the great circling staircase has turned all motion to the vertical axis.

“VROOOM” 2

When the track ends, the THRAK album offers you the option of taking the freight elevator down instead of the grand staircase in a follow-up track of heavily descending chords called “Coda:  Marine 475.”  Well, the coda is fine; but the staircase suggested much more.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Time and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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