The "Rite of Spring chord" and some variations

Since shifting most of my attention from guitar to piano, I've been enjoying (among other things) the ability to play two kinds of chord: those with lots of notes and those with notes that are close together. In this post we look at a family of 7- and 8-note voicings (guitarists may be able to apply these by dropping some notes or, of course, by playing with someone else).

The "Rite of Spring" chord is an E major triad (E-G#-B) with an Eb7 on top (Eb-G-Bb-Db). I'm interested in chord like this that combine a triad with a seventh chord, and for now I'll always refer to the triad as the "lower structure" and the seventh as the "upper structure", though of course you can play their notes in any registers you want.

This is extremely dissonant, in part because of all the semitones that appear between a note in the lower structure and one in the upper structure. Yet despite the "dominant seventh" chord on top, it doesn't sound like it "wants to resolve" anywhere. You can resolve it if you want, but it isn't very satisfactory because the bass movement is all wrong for a V-I. And if you flip the structures around (E triad on top, Eb7 underneath) it resolves OK but that's unsurprising because the E triad is the b9, 11 and #5; a fairly normal altered dominant sound (these days the natural 11 isn't quite as taboo as the textbooks used to insist).

So I prefer to hear this as a chord of rest or stasis, and that's very useful in an atonal context, or wherever one wants to suspend tonal gravity without sacrificing interesting harmonic content.

If we think atonally, the lower structure "triad" is just three notes, and we can try upper structures that come from shifting a semitone above or below any one of them. That's six possibilities:

  1. Semitone below the root: Eb7/E, the Rite of Spring chord
  2. Semitone above the root: F7/E
  3. Semitone below the third: G7/E
  4. Semitone above the third: A7/E
  5. Semitone below the fifth: Bb7/E
  6. Semitone above the fifth: C7/E

If you play these, you'll probably agree that the "semitone below" options (1, 3 and 5) all have a family resemblance, as do the "semitone above" ones (2, 4 and 6).

Looking at the "semitone below" ones first, you have Eb7 (Eb-G-Bb-Db), G7 (G-B-D-F) and Bb7 (Bb-D-F-Ab). They all share at least one note in common but they're quite different sounds, especially Bb7/E which to my ear sounds much more like a Bb7 chord than it deserves to. Probably again that's because the E triad contains just the b7, b9 and #11, which aren't very alarming.

Overall, my sense of this family of chords is that they're a bit like "lydian dominants" in jazz harmony: they still sound like dom 7 chord but they're reluctant to take a functional role. They can certainly stand alone as a chord of rest but the dom 7 flavour is retained.

Going a semitone above instead produces, to my ears, something very different. Much of the difference probably comes from the fact that the 1 and b7 of the upper structure is "enclosing" one of the notes in the lower structure, creating a cluster of three notes separated by semitones, which wasn't present in the other set. Because of this, you can quite freely play the upper structure as either a dom7 or a m7 and get distinctive variations that still keep that family resemblance.

I can hardly hear these as dominant chords at all, unless I voice them in a very deliberate way. They sound much more like whole-tone or octatonic diminished language; veiled, mysterious, floating chords that could go anywhere or nowhere. All very Scriabinesque.