Birds of Fire is the title track on The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s 1973 album, Birds of Fire.
The tune is an instrumental track written by The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s guitarist John McLaughlin. Birds of Fire can be divided into the following sections:
0:00 – 0:17 – Gong
0:18 – 0:41 – Intro Guitar (two-bar riff which essentially underpins the entire tune)
0:42 – 1:04 – Violin and Bass riff
1:05 – 1:25 – Main riff
1:26 – 2:17 – Guitar solo
2:18 – 2:47 – Main riff w/slight variation
2:48 – 3:01 – Interlude
3:02 – 3:11 – Violin and Bass riff
3:12 – 4:09 – Synthesizer solo
4:10 – 4:38 – Main riff w/slight variation
4:39 – 4:50 – Interlude
4:51 – 5:47 – Violin and Bass riff
Throughout Birds of Fire the main time signature is 18/8, the only exception occurs during the interludes where there is a single bar of 13/8. The intro guitar riff rhythmically divides the time signature into three groups of five eighth notes and one group of three. The 5-5-5-3 eighth note division is, however, counteracted by the violin and bass riff and the main riff (see below).
The intro guitar riff, which uses the same chord shape moved between the fourth and sixth frets, is used as an ostinato throughout most of the tune, apart from the interlude sections
Analysing these chord shapes individually, taking their lowest notes as their root notes, would produce the following altered chords
While these chord labels may explain the relationship of the notes to the low G sharp and A sharp notes they don’t explain the relationship of these notes and chords to the melodic material which follows. To understand this connection we need to hear the repeated open high E string within these bars as a pedal which centres the tune around ‘E’; this pedal is reinforced by E played on the low E string at the end of each bar; the note B is similarly repeated. Rather than deriving his chords, scales and melodic material from a single key, such as E major or E minor, McLaughlin chooses ‘E’ as a tonal centre and colours this using a variety of scales and modes which share ‘E’ as their root note (the various scales and modes will be discussed as they occur in the tune). This is one aspect of the technique known as pitch axis whereby melodic material and chords are organised around a central pitch.
The chords can now be relabelled with E as their root notes
When viewed collectively, hearing E as the tonal centre, the notes found in the two-bar intro guitar riff are derived from the E Mixolydian flat 6 scale; Mixolydian flat 6 is the fifth mode of the A melodic minor scale.
The only note not included in E Mixolydian flat 6 is the A sharp in the second bar. A sharp is a tritone from E and can be heard enharmonically as the flattened fifth of the E dominant seventh chord – see above
It can also be heard as a ‘blue’ note included in the E blues scale; this scale will be used later in the tune.
By simply moving an E dominant seventh shape up by major seconds, but retaining the upper B and E notes, McLaughlin is able to create extensions to the basic E dominant seventh chord.
At 0:42 the violin and bass riff adds two more notes to the intro guitar riff’s ‘note pool’. Over the E9 flat 13/G sharp chord, the addition of a D sharp creates the E Harmonic Major scale. Note: this scale still retains the flat 6 of the Mixolydian flat 6 scale (C); a note which will be featured during the guitar solo
Over the E7 flat 5/A sharp chord, the addition of an E sharp creates a flat ninth sound.
The violin and bass riff divides the 18/8 time signature in ways which counteract the underlying 5-5-5-3 eighth-note divisions of the two-bar ostinato.
The tune’s main riff begins at 1:05 and uses notes which are almost exclusively derived from the E minor pentatonic scale, the only exception is the G sharp in the first bar – G sharp is the third of the underlying E dominant seventh chords.
The G natural of the E minor pentatonic scale sounds as a sharp ninth when heard over the underlying E dominant seventh harmony.
The guitar solo, beginning at 1:26, uses notes derived almost exclusively from the E natural minor scale.
McLaughlin, however, generally plays the notes of E minor, not as part of the seven-note natural minor scale, but rather as part of three minor pentatonic scales, E minor, A minor and B minor, the root notes of which begin on the root, fourth and fifth degrees of the E natural minor scale.
Collectively, the notes of these three minor pentatonic scales contain all of the notes of the E natural minor scale. Utilising the three pentatonic scales in this way allows McLaughlin to be guided by the five-note groupings which these scales contain. For example, beginning at 1:32, McLaughlin plays five-note groups which are taken respectively from the A minor, B minor and E minor pentatonic scales
In the final bar of this example is the first of many minor third bends which McLaughlin uses in his solo. Often, as here, the bend is up to the note C, or later in the solo, up to B flat. Throughout the solo, B flat is generally introduced either as part of a bend, or as part of a phrase using the E blues scale. Beginning at 1:41, is a descending phrase which uses the E blues scale; the D sharp in this example can be heard as a chromatic passing note between the notes E and D.
At 1:56 is another instance where the E blues scale is explicitly used
By specifically targeting the notes C and B flat throughout his solo, McLaughlin connects his solo to the notes of the underlying two-bar ostinato: the C connects with the flat 6 of the Mixolydian flat 6, E harmonic major scales and the flat 13 of the E9 flat 13 chord, while the B flat enharmonically connects to the A sharp of the ostinato’s second chord, E7 flat 5/ A sharp.
The main riff returns after the guitar solo (2:18) and includes some variations, notably the triplet run beginning at 2:46
The final two quarter note beats of this run include notes derived from one of the Lydian Dominant pentatonic scales: here, the A sharp (B flat) can be heard as the sharpened fourth of the Lydian mode.
The triplet run leads into the interlude, beginning at 2:48, the chords of which are again dominant sevenths separated by major seconds. Just as the intro guitar riff’s chords are inversions of an E dominant seventh chord with open B and E strings, the interlude’s chords can be heard as inversions of the final B dominant seventh chord with C in the bass.
The B dominant seventh chord can also be heard as the dominant of ‘E’, although, because of the C note in the bass, its ‘resolution’ to E does not occur directly; this move resembles a V – VI interrupted cadence.
Throughout the interlude, the note C is avoided in McLaughlin’s melody, he only introduces it briefly as a bent note over the B/C harmony. The exclusion of C from the melody again allows the interlude to be coloured with different ‘E’-based scales and modes. Over the interlude’s first two B chords, with D sharp and C sharp in the bass, the melody uses notes of the E harmonic minor scale, excluding C
while over the B/C harmony the notes outline E harmonic major.
As with much of Birds of Fire the interlude’s melodic and harmonic content is cleverly manipulated to create the desired sound world while still retaining a connection to the rest of the tune through the use of the C note in the bass.
After the interlude the violin and bass riff returns and leads to the synthesiser solo, beginning at 3:12.
The main riff with variations returns at 4:10 and leads to the interlude, this is again followed by the violin and bass riff which brings the tune to its conclusion.
Techniques and concepts used in Birds of Fire
- Odd time signatures
- Rhythmic division into odd-note groups
- Pitch axis
- Creating chordal extensions by moving dominant chords by fixed intervals
- Using minor pentatonic scales whose root notes are on the root, fourth and fifth degrees of a minor scale