Sunday, September 2, 2007

anecdotes rhythmiques

Several past posts by Kyle Gann (also here) reminded me about how much I've given up rhythmically to make my pieces playable by the performers available to me and how much I've allowed myself to be constrained by what others thought. I have to say that reading his blog in general has both shamed and inspired me and so I'm going to repeat and extend my comments here.

I was in an art rock band in the early 80s where a few of the tunes had multiple riffs of different, usually relatively prime, lengths played by different instruments. In fact, one number consisted only of a set of ostinati, one per part, and was titled 4.7 x 10^6 (pronounced 4.7 million), which referred to the approximate overall period of the whole mess in beats. I didn't use the technique that much in my own music, even though I may have wanted to, mostly - and I'm a little embarrassed to admit this - because I had read the annotation of example 35 in Messiaen's Technique de mon language musical where he describes "Our first essay in polyrhythm, the simplest, the most childish, will be the superposition of two rhythms of unequal length, repeated until the return of the combination of departure." The added emphasis is my own. There was something about that 'childish' comment that put me off the whole thing. Ach Gott in Himmel why do I listen to other people?

I was working for Yamaha back in the late 80s when the Finale notation program came out. Both Guy Garnett and I tried it and both had problems with the very first things we tried, and both for the same reason - its inability to handle partial tuplets, i.e., a tuplet which doesn't last for the entire length of time implied by its denominator, e.g., a single triplet quarter note. I was using such things in my postminimalist numbers and he was using them in his Stefan Wolpe inspired tunes. However, I didn't learn the obvious lesson from this: using this program is evil and will simplify the music you write. And so it goes...

I used to write a lot of meters with fractional bits, e.g., 4 1/2 beats of 4, which was clearly the correct notation. The music was supposed to sound like a little bit was dropped off the end - of a normal 5/4 measure in the above case - but I couldn't get conductors to beat it that way, even though it seemed really straightforward to me. They all wanted to make it 2/8 + 2/8 + 2/8 + 3/8, which is of course the same length but hardly the same feel. I think the hiccuping rhythms in the Concord Sonata may have been the first thing to make me think about using such things, but didn't Led Zeppelin take these kind of rhythms to the masses in the 70s? In what universe do classical players grow up? And why have I allowed them to browbeat me into their way of thinking?

I first started writing electronic music in the late 70s. I built with my own hands a small MIDI interface for a North Star S-100 bus computer as well as an 8-bit D/A and I wrote both a small polyrhythmically-oriented score description language to MIDI converter and a MUSIC-N like programming language for it in UCSB Pascal. It was unbearably slow to run but it allowed me to do the rhythmic experiments I wanted to do at the time, mostly high-order tuplety things and pieces with multiple simultaneous tempi. But I quickly learned (as did so many others) that simple and complex rhythms alike sound quite bad when played perfectly. I found myself very quickly editing all the microrhythms by hand, moving events a few milliseconds this way and that. I did gain some intuition about what seemed to work, and I did see that such small changes - as really any performer knows either intuitively or consciously - make all the difference in the world. After a while I tired of all this detail work and went back to having people play the music, which is easier but I suppose a way of avoiding a commitment or responsibility.

But my new opera, Mordake, is an electronic piece and thus unconstrained by some of the limitations I have lived with for a while. Also, I've gained a certain self-awareness over my personal half century that will hopefully allow me to forage for myself without worrying about phantoms peering over my shoulder. So I look forward to Nancarrow-like improbabilities, irrational tempi, manipulations and retrogrades and unplayable parts of all kinds. Amen.
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