"Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues," my solo talk at this year's New Yorker Festival, is based on the second chapter of my new book, Listen to This. With the help of a slightly demented iTunes playlist, I'll trace a couple of recurring motifs, riffs, and bass lines across nearly a millennium of music. One is a dance form called the chaconne, which has traveled from one extreme of human expression to another. It began as a bawdy, subversive Spanish dance of the early seventeenth century — Juan Arañés's "Un sarao de la chacona" tells of an African heathen dancing with a Gypsy and a blind man poking at girls with a stick — and, after about a hundred years, it had evolved into Bach's shiveringly dark Ciaccona for solo violin:
I'll also talk about a series of four descending notes that is often associated with lament. It's an echo, probably, of human sobbing or sighing. Listen in sequence to an old Romanian lament, John Dowland's Elizabethan song "Flow My Tears" (which later gave its name to a novel by Philip K. Dick), Claudio Monteverdi's Lamento della Ninfa, and Nina Simone's scalding version of "Strange Fruit":
If you add two more notes to the pattern, it becomes chromatic (consecutive white and black notes at the piano):
Deployed ominously in the bass, this downward-trudging figure has persisted across centuries of musical history. Here it is in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, the "Crucifixus" of Bach's B-Minor Mass (manuscript pictured), and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony:
The device became à la mode again in pop music of the 1960s, for unknown reasons. I've made a montage of "Chim Chim Cher-ee" (from "Mary Poppins"), the Beatles' "Michelle," the Eagles' "Hotel California," and Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man," with more or less the same bass line appearing in each:
Eventually, I'll get to Led Zeppelin, but I don't want to give too much away in advance. I'll give the lecture several more times this fall: at Town Hall Seattle, on Oct. 12; at Berkeley's Cal Performances, on Oct. 14; at Sacramento's California Lectures, on Oct. 18; at the Los Angeles Public Library, on Oct. 19; at UCSB Arts & Lectures, on Oct. 20; at the Cleveland Museum of Art, on Oct. 29; and at the British Library Conference Centre, in London, on Nov. 30.
"Chacona": From the album "Villancicos y Danzas Criollas"; Alia Vox 9834. Dowland: Andreas Scholl, Andreas Martin; Harmonia Mundi 901603. Monteverdi: Bernarda Fink, René Jacobs, Concerto Vocale; Harmonia Mundi 901736.37. Purcell: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque; Harmonia Mundi 907110. Bach's Ciaccona: Gidon Kremer, ECM 506502. Bach's Mass in B Minor: Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent; Harmonia Mundi 5901614.15. Beethoven: Osmo Vänskä, Minnesota Orchestra; BIS 1616.