By Peyton Lee
Jacob Collier has given an early Christmas present to harmony fanatics and seasonal music lovers alike. On Nov. 20, Collier dropped his rendition of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” on YouTube and music-streaming services.
Collier is often described as a modern Mozart. Though only 26 years old, he possesses one of the world’s greatest harmonic minds and two of the world’s greatest musical ears. His list of musical talents is unparalleled: from piano to Harpejji, production to composition, you name the skill and Jacob Collier is probably proficient, if not masterful, at it. Through a combination of these ridiculous skills and his energizing personality, Collier has amassed a large fanbase. His current project is a massive album in four volumes called “Djesse,” which is a culmination of Collier’s musical ideas, worlds and circle of collaborators. Volumes one through three are released, with volume four expected sometime early next year.
But fans need not wait for more of Jacob. Like most of his music, “The Christmas Song” features a dazzling display of vocal, harmonic and production acrobatics. The track features mostly a cappella, with Collier singing every part. In this way, the song has a similar sound to “Moon River,” a Grammy-winning arrangement of his from “Djesse Vol. 2.” Collier pulls no stops, however, shooting higher into his vocal range than in “Moon River” and even breaking his own personal record for number of simultaneous a cappella voices. The song features a smooth melodica solo in the middle that bridges the first half to the second, but no other instruments are used in any obvious way.
Collier’s infamous use of microtonal harmony is on full display here as well. The practice, which involves using notes in between semitones (the smallest interval on a piano), is often seen as experimental and not having a place in popular music. But Collier, ever the theoretician and welcomer of challenge, believes that with the right voice leading and a little bit of creativity, you can make any harmony work. He commonly employs just intonation, in which certain notes in a chord are detuned so their wavelengths all match. Collier also uses microtonal melodic runs, a favorite exercise of his that splits an interval into a non-semitonal number of even divisions. He continues venturing only briefly into microtonal keys until he employs his ultimate technique — cross-terrain modulation — to culminate in the glorious B-half-flat major, a key non-existent on the piano. Pivoting chords around detuned voices, Collier raises the tuning system of the entire song, opening and lightening the sound to match the magnificent climax of the arrangement.
Importantly, “The Christmas Song” still feels like a Christmas song, even after all the ridiculous reharmonization. Collier has mastered the harmonic version of the iceberg illusion: While the music extends to extraordinary technical depths, on the surface it remains sonorous and accessible to the average ear. Other notable musical nuggets that contribute to the holiday feeling include the high dominant pedals that bookend the track and the extensive use of “vocal pyramids,” in which a cappella chords are built as an arpeggio. In both cases, Collier uses technique to inform tone, focusing the sound to create an overall embracing and festive atmosphere.
The accompanying music video for Collier’s arrangement is also a delight. Co-directed by Collier and Matt Celia, the video peruses a photo album filled with Polaroids from all over the world, each with its own Jacob Collier singing a part in the harmony. At the climax, nearly a hundred Jacobs dot the ornaments of a forest of Christmas trees, all singing in glorious unison. Astute viewers will pick up on the video’s many Easter eggs, including various unique Jacobs sprinkled throughout the video. Look out for summer Jacob, wizard Jacob, scuba Jacob and the handful of Jacob photos involving animal humor.
All in all, Collier’s arrangement of “The Christmas Song” is yet another excellent demonstration of what distinguishes him. Though complex, the arrangement comes off as charming; though the season is cold, the song has an undeniable warmth. As an arranger, Collier is constantly thinking about how the music makes his listeners feel. With that in mind, and the integrity of the original song maintained, Collier then frees himself to decorate in whatever Jacob-ian way he likes. This process was certainly successful in “The Christmas Song”; clearly, a turkey and some mistletoe aren’t the only ones that are helping make this season bright.
Contact Peyton M. Lee at peytonl7 ‘at’ stanford.edu.