Title: White Rabbit Title: Saeta
Artist: Jefferson Airplane Artist: Miles Davis
Year: 1967 Year: 1960
Album: Surrealistic Pillow Album: Sketches of Spain
"White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane has such a unique structure for a pop song that it's worth examining not just the composition itself, but the influences that led to its creation. Rarely do we experience a song that is essentially one long crescendo, beginning from nothing and rising in a straight line dynamically with no discernable arc. The most obvious comparison, as informed by the rhythmic ostinato present throughout the entirety of the piece, is to Ravel's Bolero, classical music's equivalent, which has the same dynamic structure (albeit across eight minutes instead of two-and-a-half) but surprisingly less of the pseudo-Phrygian tonality so strongly associated with Spanish music.
In interviews, songwriter Grace Slick makes mention of a "bolero" that influenced her writing as the one "used by Miles Davis and Gil Evans on their 1960 album Sketches of Spain." She is most assuredly referring to the song "Saeta," which is not a bolero but has tonal and rhythmic characteristics similar to Slick's composition, including the aforementioned Phrygian tonality (marked by a semitone at the beginning of the scale—in this case F#-G), a melismatic style of performance (heard in Slick's singing and in the bassoon that opens "Saeta"), and a similar rhythmic cadence in the snare drums of each track. "Saeta" sets its melodies over a sustained drone whereas "White Rabbit" utilizes a chord progression more suited to popular music.
For the sake of knowledge (and that's what we're all here for, right?), saeta is a form of religious song from the southern region of Spain which serves as the basis for the cante flamenco, performed by the singer in Flamenco music. Emanating from a region that was ruled by an Islamic empire for over half a millenium before falling under Christian rule, the songs seem obviously influenced by the intonation found in Muslim prayer. While I am certainly not an expert on the subject, I came to this realization while attending a remarkable flamenco performance in Seville immediately after witnessing the ever-strong Moorish influence on the surrounding areas. The most startling (and beautiful!) evidence of this influence can be found in the grand mosque/cathedral (yes, I know that is a weird word combo) in the town of Córdoba.
What's left to say about "White Rabbit"? I'm not going to get into all the Alice in Wonderland stuff, even though I do think it is interesting and creative for the time period. Slick's voice is perfectly suited for this style and song, capable of great power or delicateness when necessary. To me, the most shocking thing about the song is how short it is, which probably says more about the time period than anything as record companies were caught in-between the age of three-minute singles on 45RPMs and the dawn of album-oriented rock just on the horizon.