TIME, RHYTHM, ETC.
The only meters known to ancient
European art music were those divisible into twos and threes; that is,
in modern terms, 2/4 and 3/4 bars, or their equivalents with the units
doubled (half-notes) or halved (eighth-notes) in value.
. . .
It is astonishing how helpless
orchestral musicians were, not so long ago, when presented with such
rhythms (5/8, 9/8). They had become so accustomed to
hand-organ-[hurdy-gurdy]-like symmetrical rhythms that they found they
could not grasp these rhythms at all, which were so unfamiliar to them,
yet so very natural.
Communicable ways (spoken, written) of thinking about time in music are
like photographs of sculptures, single (simple) vantage points of
complex phenomena that indicate existence, but have no capacity to
define it. Anything verbally theorized about musical time will be
as inadequate as a photo of Picasso’s goat is to anyone who has
petted it. You can’t land on fraction.
Because of this time is the most undertheorized aspect of music.
An unfortunate result of this is that intellectual western music has
tended to simplify and/or ignore it. This prejudice has extended
into popular / populist music.
A few conceptual ideas seem worth thinking about.
The simplest perception of time in music is it’s pulse, the foot
tapping, hand clapping, head nodding beat that provides a continuum
from which other aspects of time take their form.
These pulses can be perceived and/or organized most simply in two different ways from two different viewpoints.
Divided Whole / Additive: Whether units of rhythm are conceived as the
subdivisions of a whole (beats within bars) or as accumulations of
Line / Cycle: Whether rhythm is experienced as a unidirectional
continuity (like a river), i.e., horizontal, or a repetitive continuity
(like the waves and tides of the ocean), i.e., vertical.
The common western perception of rhythm, in pop, jazz, and composed
music is based on the linear division of pulse, grouped into (usually
symmetrical) measures. Within the measure units are subdivided into
fractions (generally halves, halves of halves, halves of quarters,
thirds of halves, etc.) of the counts that comprise the measure.
This approach is almost exclusively linear (reflecting the obvious two
dimensional bias of written music).
In other cultures (notably eastern european horos, middle-eastern oud
music, and indian raga) pulses are additively grouped into
Western theorists have marginalized the concept of meter in music to
the degree that there is no common terminology for it. Owing to
this, the best available terms need to be borrowed from poetry.
These would be feet and groups of feet, a foot being a simple group of
pulses (a single pulse is meterless, analogous to a point in
geometry). Simplistically feet are either twos or threes (fours
being pairs of twos). Western music basically stops thinking
about meter at this point, the vast majority of it is in 4/4 (paired
twos), 3/4, or 6/8 (paired threes). Exceptions to this are so
unusual as to be anomalous. These symmetrical meters tend
to emphasize an almost exclusively linear perception of time which
makes meter a passive element, a template for subdivisions.
Beyond these simple (essentially dismissive) approaches to meter lie a
universe of possibilities. Simplest among these is the compound
meter 2–3 or 3-2 (5/4 or 5/8 in western terminology). The
asymmetrical character of this begins to reintroduce the cyclical
perception of time. An enormous preponderance of western
musicians will find this (very simple) meter "difficult". I
believe this stems from the endlessly reinforced habit of playing in
and listening to music in 4/4 rather than anything unnatural about it
(listen, for instance, to the upshore rush and downshore recession of a
wave at the beach –the two parts of the single cycle are not equal).
Developing upon this one can construct meters of multiple feet such as
2-3-2 (7/8), 3-3-3-2 or 2-3-3-3 (11/8), etc. (This methodology is
the basis of the primarily cyclic indian perception of
Further expanding upon this one can construct meters of compound
multiple feet such as 5 (2-3) – 5 (2-3) – 7 (2-2-3) (17/8), or 5-5-5-4
(19/8) into any imaginable (and perceivable by the player) permutation.
None of this has to necessarily eliminate the western methodology of
subdividing pulses in halves, thirds, halves of halves, etc. An
enormous amount of creative genius (Charlie Parker, Elvin Jones, et al)
has gone into generating variety within the context of linear time.
Musical time need not be exclusively linear or cyclic. Ideally it
is the interaction between them: pulses grouping into meters and
divided into syncopations. Functionally, rhythm serves either to relax
or tense (through ergonomics) the flux and flow of the music, generally
blending the two. Evenness and regularity, both of tempo and meter,
tends to relax the character of the generated continuum while oddness
and fluctuation generates tension.
The continuum of rhythm among a group of players is collective and
inclusionary. Their breathings, the responses of their hearts, the
speed of their responses, the precision of their muscle control will
all be different in essence and variable from moment to moment. The
forms their consensus takes may tend either toward the homogenous or
the heterogeneous, expressing unity, conflict, exchange, resolution,
etc. (all the varieties of group interaction).
Because rhythm is ergonomic it has different constructive parameters
when different kinds of instruments are used. A wind instrument’s unit
of rhythm is the breath, while a struck instrument’s unit of rhythm may
be as long as an entire performance or as short as a single beat. An
instrument articulated by a single hand (strummed or thumb plucked) has
an inherently different set of parameters than one articulated by two
hands (drummed upon) or one articulated by a bow (back and forth), or
one articulated by two, three, four, five, eight, or ten fingers. The
point isn’t to enumerate and define these (create a taxonomy), but to
be conscious of them and allow them to generate rhythm instead of
compelling them to play to parameters derived from other ergonomic
bases. The idea in classical music has been to assign rhythms and
meters regardless of the ergonomics of the instruments, a practice that
has demanded a high level of skill from the performers (not always,
Stravinsky, while composing L’Histoire de Soldat, learned all the
instruments and wrote the parts accordingly). There is nothing wrong
with skill, but requiring it on an a priori basis denies participation
to a whole class of willing and (to some degree) able musicians.
Deriving meters from the natural inclinations of the players of the
instruments is a more inclusive and confidence-generating approach.
Because it tends to marginalize and devalue this aspect of music, I
personally find rhythm derived from, dominated by, or generated by
machines to be boring (and, as a result, music that uses such rhythms).
Of the traditionally identified elements of music, rhythm is the least
theorized and defined. This is because it is essentially mysterious,
laden with the tensions and idiosyncrasies that develop in any
individual’s performance and/or interpretation of it. This is not to
say music involving drum machines, etc. is invalid in any way, only
that it doesn’t interest me as much music that doesn’t. The idea of the
template or benchmark (standard) to which people compare and judge
themselves and others seems limiting and uncreative to me, making music
more like a test than an opportunity to express. Many of those who make
music that employs such devises say they are expressing the predicament
of being human in an increasingly depersonalized world, examining the
avenues opened and closed by the rise of increasingly complex
technologies. This is a completely legitimate field of investigation,
but, analogously, the pervasiveness of money in modern society doesn’t
make it an interesting subject of conversation to me.
Exact repetition is essentially inhuman. In a sense it is a dumbed down
version of our instinctive desire to repeat and re-examine. But we
don’t really want perfect repetitions. The real desire of repetition
(this is what Reich understood so well) is to find the differences
embedded in similarity --as we distinguish ourselves from each other by
personality rather than race. The mechanistic thinking that considers a
beat-box superior to a drummer is exclusionary and vaguely fascistic.
Unvaried looping is a product of this same mindset.
Get it on the good foot!
One of the things that has most engaged me with this project is the sense of starting from scratch.
Over the years, playing conventional instruments, influenced by jazz
and post-Schoenberg euromusic, I’d developed an aversion to eight-note
scales. Making wind instruments (with inherent seven and eight-note
scales owing to the number of fingers we have) re-introduced me to
This simplification of tonal resources compelled me to re-examine
rhythm ("when one door is closed many more is open"). The symmetry of
common western signatures 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, etc. has persisted owing to
the ability of chromatic music to create variation through harmonic
complexity and modulation. With less sophisticated instruments this
isn’t (as) possible. Most "World" music tends to be rooted in a single
key. These keys are often more interesting than those of the western
system, but they still lack the capacity to generate contrast through
modulation. As a result the musics of these cultures tend to take
rhythm less for granted. Western musics ("classical", jazz, and pop)
have almost universally adopted the same methodology of formalizing
rhythm into soothing symmetries and confining creativity to
explorations of the chromatic (symmetrical) tonal system. With that
avenue closed or partially closed by the limited (asymmetrical) range
of simpler wind instruments, it is only natural to examine asymmetrical
meters to use with them.
After a lifetime of immersion in western music (in which asymmetrical
meters are exceptional) I found the assumption of metrical symmetry
difficult to overcome at first. To clear my mind from the habit of it I
walked, humming in five, seven, nine, eleven, etc. beat cycles,
shifting with each grouping the lead (good) foot. Not only did this
relieve the nearly instinctive relapse into 4/4 and its subdivision
into 6/8, but it also proved to be good for my lower back.
The exploration of odd meters has led me to be more mindful of smaller
components of the phrases I make, to consider the functions of single
beats and metric feet more than I would in the generality of 4/4. This
isn't necessarily better, but it has freed me from the assumption (and
performance habits) of 4/4 regularity and taught me to look for
different ways of establishing fluidity.
Another aspect of using odd meters is the impact of their groupings on
intermediate formal structures. Common western music tends almost
exclusively to group its four beat measures into four measure phrases
and those phrases into binary groups as well imposing a sense of
eveness on the whole of the music (the blues, with three four-bar
groupings, is the exception to this). Odd meters don't do this as
much as they don't intrisically suggest binary eveness as a template
for music in general. The beneficial (elective) aspects of binary
phrasing (such as call-and-response, question-and-answer) are freely
available to the musicians without the constrictive (psychological)
expectation that all phrase groupings will adhere somehow to binaural
construction (verse-chorus and it's AABA subset).
In addition the odd meters (and their groupings) allow and encourage a
sense of phrase shape and length less dependent on speed (subdivision
of note values) reminiscent of the melodic innovations (in 4/4) of
Thelonious Monk, who adopted a contrary approach to the prevailing
16th-note methodology of bebop.
"There once was a word used –swing. Swing went in one direction, it was
linear, and everything had to be played with an obvious pulse and
that’s very restrictive. But I use the term ‘rotary perception’. If you
get a mental picture of the beat existing within a circle you’re more
free to improvise. People used to think the notes had to fall on the
center of the beats in the bar intervals like a metronome, with three
or four men in the rhythm section accenting the same pulse. That’s like
parade music or dance music. But imagine a circle surrounding each beat
–each guy can play his notes anywhere in that circle and it gives him
the feeling he has more space. The notes fall anywhere inside the
circle but the original feeling for the beat isn’t changed."
Martin Clayton Time in Indian Music
Joep Bor The Raga Guide
Reinhard Flatischer The Forgotten Power of Rythym
"If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution." -Emma Goldman
"Music atrophies when it gets to far from dance." -Ezra Pound