An Outlandish As-If: The Rock and Pop Passacaglia
In this essay I observe the repeating harmonic patterns of much popular song over the past sixty years through the lens of passacaglia. Although I draw distinctions and similarities with aspects of classical practice, my emphasis is on the popular tradition. The analytical portion of the essay finishes with a comparative analysis of the song Witchi Tai To, which leads to the conclusion that, across the more than fifty examples I take, three principles can be observed and related to passacaglia practice: the unchallenged cyclical nature of repeating patterns; the frequent presence of downward leading bass lines; and the possibility of reaching for a climactic point, often through textural density. I then move to a more speculative, interpretive approach which grounds these patterns in three of Mark Johnson’s embodied schemata, concluding that, if the sonata principle offers a music of becoming, the passacaglia principle offers a music of being.