BlogJacob deGroot-Maggetti

Oliver Schroer – Bright Eyes

Bright Eyes is the fourteenth, final track of Oliver Schroer’s 1993 album Jigzup. While transcribing it, three things caught my attention: the interaction between instrumentation and form, the trumpet melody, and the variations Schroer introduces to the melody on successive repetitions of the tune. Several excerpts are notated below; I encourage you to listen to the entire track and check out my full transcription.

Personnel

Form and Instrumentation

Bright Eyes has two main sections, A and B, each lasting 16 measures. Each time through the tune, the A section is repeated, leading to an AAB form. This form is repeated four full times over the course of the track.

Section Melody Countermelody Chords
A A Banjo, Mandolin, Guitar
B Banjo, Mandolin, Guitar
A A Fiddle x2 Piano
B Fiddle x2 Piano
A A Fiddle x2 Voice Piano
B Fiddle x2 Piano, Guitar
A’ A’ Trumpet Piano, Guitar
B B Fiddle x2, Dulcimer Piano, Guitar
A Fiddle, Guitar Piano
A Fiddle x2, Dulcimer Voice Piano, Guitar
A Fiddle x2, Dulcimer Voice, Trumpet Piano, Guitar
Bright Eyes
(I want to respect copyright laws by not posting the entire track, but to hear the piece’s form, you really need to hear a long stretch of it. This audio example fades in during the end of the first B section, and fades out in the middle of the final A – see the full transcription.)

The track exhibits a general trend toward increased intensity and increased complexity, but this increase is not steady throughout: frequently, a new A section tends to involve a thicker texture, with new instruments being added, with the music returning to a simpler, more familiar texture in the B sections. The basic AAB pattern is modified to create balance between these contrasting sections.

The first time through the tune, the banjo, mandolin and guitar play the melody in heterophony—mostly in unison, but with each instrument adding its own variations—without any supporting chords. The melody is played on the fiddle the second time through the tune, with a chordal accompaniment played by the piano. The third time through the tune, a vocal countermelody is added to the A sections, further increasing the level of activity. With the arrival of the B section, the countermelody drops out as an acoustic guitar joins the piano in adding chordal support.

With the beginning of the fourth time through the tune, the fiddle drops out and is replaced by the trumpet. Rather than playing the melody of the tune, the trumpet instead plays a new melody over the chords of the A section. The new trumpet melody represents an increase in complexity, with a five-against-three polyrhythm which is discussed in more detail below. With the arrival of the B section, the texture thickens, with the fiddle re-entering, doubled on the hammered dulcimer. The B section is repeated an additional time, likely to counterbalance the polyrhythmic trumpet part before the return of the A section.

The musical texture thins considerably with the arrival of the fifth group of A sections, with a solo fiddle (recorded a single time, rather than once in each of the two stereo channels) accompanied by chords in the piano and guitar. The second repetition of the A section involves a sudden jump in musical intensity: the dynamic level rises, the hammered dulcimer doubles the melody in the fiddle, and the vocal countermelody is re-introduced. The A section is repeated a third time to close out the tune, with the trumpet joining in on the countermelody and the voice adding a new variation to this countermelody.

It’s worth noting how the changes in texture accelerate as the tune goes on: we hear three 16-measure sections (AAB) of plucked-string heterophony, three sections (AAB) of fiddle and piano, and two sections of vocal countermelody before a slight reduction in texture brings the tune’s third repetition to a close (AAB). The new, trumpet-centred texture is heard in only two sections (AA), followed by two sections of fiddle-and-dulcimer texture (BB). With the arrival of the following A section, we are led to expect two 16-measure sections of this stripped-down texture, but we only get one: the vocal countermelody makes an abrupt entrance as the fiddle and dulcimer launch into a new variation on the melody. Finally, we only hear a single section of this new texture before the trumpet enters to close out the tune. In this way, the arrangement of Bright Eyes is crafted, through a combination of textural variation and formal modification, to set up the tune’s final, celebratory sections.

Trumpet Melody

One of the most striking features of Bright Eyes is the trumpet melody heard in the tune’s fourth repetition. In it, David Travers Smith smoothly drapes five evenly-spaced notes across the three beats of each of the tune’s measures, creating a 5-against-3 polyrhythm. We can recognize a recurring 5-note motif with a distinctive contour: in its most common form, it involves a large initial descending leap, two smaller leaps upwards, an upward step, and a downward step connecting it to the first note of the following bar. This motif and its variants account for over half of the notes in the trumpet melody.

Transcription of the trumpet melody in Bright Eyes
Bright Eyes, trumpet melody

Melodic Variation

Throughout many of the tunes on Jigzup, we can hear that Schroer has methodically worked out a series of variations to be played throughout the tune. In the figure below, I’ve compared all 9 repetitions of the A section, plotting the most common variant of each measure in the central staff and adding variants above and below in small notes. The variants are labelled with the sections in which they occur (for example, the label 2A1 indicates that it’s the first repetition of the A section, the second time through the tune). Some variations, such as those found in the fourth full measure of the section, are minor, involving the addition or omission of a note on an unstressed beat, while others, such as the opening of the 5A2 and 5A3 sections, differ dramatically from the normative version.

Comparison between the A-sections of Bright Eyes
Comparison between the A-sections of Bright Eyes

From this comparison, allow me to make two observations. First, Schroer never actually plays the “regular” version of the tune: each repetition of the tune differs from the composite version I’ve sketched out in at least one of its measures. Thus, as far as we can tell, there is no default version of the tune in Schroer’s conception, but rather a collection of melodic patterns which can be freely substituted for one another. Second, each A section appears to break down into two 8-measure sections, each of which can be further divided into two 4-measure sections. The first half of each group of 8 bars features a high degree of variation. In contrast, the second half of the grouping is played almost verbatim in each repetition of the tune. It’s worth noting that even the countermelodies heard in the tune’s third and fifth repetitions follow this pattern, beginning as true countermelodies before converging on the main melody in each A-section’s final measures (see the full transcription). In this way, Schroer’s variations accentuate the interest and variety created by the arrival of a new section: in the same way that the successive repetitions of the entire tune introduce new timbres and textures before leading to a more familiar concluding section, the opening of each A section introduces new melodic material before settling into a more familiar, predictable conclusion.

Hidden Message?

At the very end of the track, a full 45 seconds after the final chord has been sounded, there are 1.5 seconds of speech. It’s likely nonsense syllables, but it sounds consistent with German phonology. If anyone has any insights about whether it means anything (or comments on anything else in the track), don’t hesitate to let me know!

A secret message at the end of the track?

Update: Thanks to the sharp ears of Jon Wild, it seems that these are indeed words – "warte warte nur ein Weilch-(en)" or "wait, wait just a while". On one level, it appears to be a joke (along the lines of "wait, wait, don't turn off the micropho-"), but some googling reveals it to be a reference to a popular German song from the 1920s of that title by Ina Broscow and Rudolf Scherfling. The song was later fitted with new lyrics about serial killer Fritz Haarmann. Weird.

Update 2: It turns out the message is only truncated on the CD version of the track – I downloaded the .mp3 from Borealis Records, and the track ends a moment later than in the track I was using. The entire message is indeed "warte warte nur ein Weilchen". Must be some quirk of the process used to transfer the music to CD.

Check out my recording of Bright Eyes, which includes many elements of Schroer's original arrangement.

Posted: Feb 08, 2021. Last updated: Apr 15, 2021.