Friday, April 29, 2005

Techie Talk

3 against 4. 2 against 5. Polyrhythms, yes. But dissonant? Today, when informed by a resolute young chorister that four sixteenths against an eighth note triplet "won't work--it's a clash," I had to smile. Rhythmic dissonance? Cross-rhythms? Rhythms that just plain make me cross? Where does one make the distinction? Is it rhythmic dissonance if I cringe at the thought of practicing, of hearing Dr. Beat shout her militant counts, knowing how cranky I'll be when I finally emerge from the practice room?

3 against 5. That's the rhythmic dissonance in my life right now. Ouch. I've yet to satisfyingly solve the spacious opening of "Natural Music" (oh, the irony is not lost) where the micromanaged subdivisions of a seemingly unheard 4/4 meter for some reason turn my hands into dumb stumps. Would these "waves lapping against a shore" come more easily if notated in broad, over-the-bar-line threes and fives? I doubt it. If I faced that notation, I'd probably pencil in the rhythm as it would appear in 4/4. Just for kicks. But, tomorrow. I'll figure it out. I hope. The composer hears it next week.

Techie talk. I warned you. And to whomever thinks that at quarter note=44 this is easy: do you really hear the two separate lines, the three against the five, or are you just cheating it into 4/4?


I am reminded, too, of the measured proportions of a cross-section of a seashell. There is, simply and obvious and like the tide, the beautiful shape of the thing, yet the beauty is governed by a scientific ratio. One does not have to understand the math to appreciate the object. Notation often works this way. I will fret and practice, and fret and count, and attempt to control things strictly, but in the end I try to let the music, more free than it appears. I appreciate intricate (even confounding) notation because it involves me--my mental energies--in a particular way. Many composers (these days) might just write "play like waves on the ocean, lapping against the shore" and draw some squigglies over the staves. Players may find that liberating, composers may hear it as a way to avoid habits of pulse and counting, but I see it as a short cut. Unsatisfying. As a performer I'm just not as involved; they are words, and words I comprehend too easily. (Though I love the combination of traditional notation and quirky or poetic musical markings a la Satie! But that is another post.) Ultimately, a more "strict" notation serves the purpose of "naturalizing" music just as well the freehand scribblings, perhaps even better!

By Blogger Heather, at 8:36 AM  

If you look at the scores of Morton Feldman, you see a lot of odd rhythmic spellings. Some seem to make very little sense. E.g. the rhythmic difference between groups of dotted notes and an almost imperceptibly similar grouping of 4:3 in 3/8. I think the reason why he did this sort of slight of hand was (1) to make the performers tense, and (2) to make the score look sophisticated (a wink to Stockhausen and Boulez, perhaps?). But some of his rhythmic spellings are fascinating. You just have to stop and figure them out. Yet they look so simple.

--Richard Friedman

By Blogger Heather, at 8:36 AM  

The composer is pleased. Do I hear it as two lines of 3 v. 5? No; in fact, I disrupt that feeling by having the horns enter squarely on 1 of the 4/4 bars 2, 4, and 5. In my years at UC San Diego I was fascinated by tide tables, the little ripples on bigger waves on even bigger waves, so I think of it a single complex wavy line. When I first came up with the idea, it was at the piano, and I was semi-counting, semi-faking. When I first notated it, I wrote it in 10/16, with the basic (duple) beat being 5 16ths long. It is probably easier to do X against Y if at least X or Y is the basic beat, grouping the common pulse. So when I notated it and went back to the piano to test it out, I was reading 10/16. It still looks rather unpleasant that way, so I put it in 4/4, not wanting to terrify singers. I put many 4/4 on-the-beat quarter notes and half-notes in the vocal parts, and left the rhythmic complexity to be danced by the harpist & pianist. Which you did.

--David Meckler

By Blogger Heather, at 8:37 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home