Tag: rhythm

Swinging the Machine

feature 58-38Bandleader and crimefighter Swing Sisson encounters a critic in Feature Comics #58 (July 1942).

Deems Taylor—composer, critic, narrator of Fantasia, well-known classical music personality of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s—didn’t much care for jazz, a dislike he took pains to present as airy unconcern. In his book The Well-Tempered Listener, Taylor examined the practice of “swinging the classics,” making jazz band versions of classical chestnuts. This sort of thing had apparently exercised enough indignation that the president of the Bach Society of New Jersey, Taylor reported, sent a letter to the FCC proposing penalties for radio stations that broadcast such numbers. Taylor gave that suggestion a sympathetic shrug:

If you’re going to suspend the license of a broadcasting station for permitting Bach to be played in swing time, what are you going to do to a station for permitting swing music to be played at all? (You might offer the owner of the station his choice of either listening to nothing but swing for, say, twelve hours, or else spending a month in jail.) You can’t legislate against bad taste.

Taylor’s solution was musical rope-a-dope, completely certain that the unaltered classical repertoire would win out. “I believe in letting people hear these swing monstrosities because I believe that it’s the best method of getting rid of them,” he concluded. “A real work of art is a good deal tougher than we assume that it is.”

Jazz has been taking it on the chin lately, prompted by some questionable bits of “satire” that seemed to give tacit permission for a lot of people to assert insecurity as vindication. Jazz is boring. It’s insular. Nobody really likes it. People only listen to it so other people will think they’re cool. And so forth. As someone whose purview is mainly classical and modernist music, I can only say: pull up a chair and have a drink, we’ve already got a tab going.

The only slice of this commentary worth engaging with was John Halle’s broadside against the current state of jazz vis-à-vis progressive politics, mainly because it replaced the shallow context of a consumerist apologia with the rather more interesting context of a radical critique. (Halle’s thesis: “It’s been years since jazz had any claim to a counter-cultural, outsider, adversarial status, or communicated a revolutionary or even mildly reformist mindset.”) But at the core of the article was an assumption about score and performance that is a cousin of Taylor’s. Here’s the crucial passage:

A nadir of obliviousness was reached by the legendary tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson through the inclusion of the standard “Without a Song” in a sequence of classic recordings paying tribute to the then-dominant Black Power movement. Some of the titles of the albums are “Power to the People,” “In Pursuit of Blackness,” “If You’re not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem,” and “Black is the Color.” So it is more than a little disturbing, in this context, to encounter [in the lyrics of “Without a Song”] the vile Jim Crow racism of the second phrase: “A darky’s born/ but he’s no good no how / without a song.”

As many have pointed out, there’s some slippery cause-and-effect in this paragraph. The album on which Henderson recorded “Without a Song”—1967’s The Kicker—actually predates the more politically centered albums Halle mentions by a couple of years. And Henderson probably knew the song from versions where the lyrics were changed (most notably Billy Eckstine’s suave 1945 recording) or not even there (as with Sonny Rollins’s version on his 1962 album The Bridge).

But the passage also argues a kind of one-way street between intent and performance. The implication is that, no matter Henderson’s intention, the performance is politically regressive because of the original lyrics. The assumption is that the composer’s (or lyricist’s) intent remains paramount, that even a thoroughly transformative performance is still just a reiteration of that intent. To echo Taylor, even a poor work of art, it seems, is a good deal tougher than we assume that it is. There is another possibility, though: the possibility that, no matter Henderson’s intention (or Eckstine’s, or Rollins’s), the performance can offset the lyrics, simply by virtue of who is doing the performing—and how.

* * *

Here’s an interesting thing. Take two weights, connect them with a string, then run the string over a pulley, like this—
You can intuitively guess what will happen: if both weights have the same mass, they’ll just hang there, but if one has more mass, it’ll pull the other through the pulley. This seems trivial, but it’s not, not entirely—which is why the Rev. George Atwood, a tutor at Cambridge’s Trinity College, invented this apparatus in the late 1700s, the better to teach principles of classical mechanics. Playing around with Atwood’s machine, students could measure and learn about rates of acceleration, string tension, inertial forces, and the like. One thing that you can determine with Atwood’s machine is that, in the case of unequal masses (and assuming the pulleys are frictionless), the acceleration on both weights is constant and uniform. In other words, if the masses are equal, the system is at equilibrium, but if the masses are unequal, it’s a runaway system, the weights flying through the pulley, ever faster, until they run out of string or vertical space.

But if you take the two weights, run the string over two pulleys, and start the smaller weight swinging back and forth, like this—
—some unexpected things start to happen. The swinging weight, via centrifugal force—more pedantically, via the apparent force that results from interpreting a rotating reference frame as an inertial frame (somebody would have left a comment)—counteracts some of the gravitational pull on the larger mass. Which means that the Swinging Atwood’s Machine (as it was dubbed by Nicholas Tufillaro, the physicist who first started playing around with such systems back in the 1980s) can end up doing some very counterintuitive things. Even if the masses are unequal, the system can still reach an equilibrium, the smaller mass locking into periodic and sometimes seriously funky orbits:

TufillaroFig4(From Nicholas B. Tufillaro, Tyler A. Abbott, and David J. Griffiths, “Swinging Atwood’s Machine,” Am. J. Phys. 52 (10), October 1984)

To summarize: if you have two unequal masses that are inextricably bound to each other, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the larger mass always dominates the system. The smaller can still counterbalance the larger. It just needs to swing.

* * *

LennysMahler6Leonard Bernstein’s score of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, from the New York Philharmonic’s digital archives.

It’s only a metaphor, of course. Then again, most writing and talking about music ends up, before too long, at metaphors. “Swing” itself, musically speaking, is a pretty vague concept. It has to do with rhythm, but it has to do with so much more than rhythm: it considers the flow of musical experience through the lenses of momentum and vitality. In its most poetic sense, the metaphor is ecumenical. Those old “Mahler Grooves” bumper stickers could be at once a cheeky incongruity and a recognition that, in its own way, and in a good performance, Mahler could indeed groove, that the symphonies could swing in the grandest sense. But even in the term’s more technical sense—that calibration of the ratio between stressed and unstressed notes—“swing” hearkens all the way back to the old Baroque inégale: a variance, a perturbation, a dance of emphasis and de-emphasis that pulls the music forward.

All performance is a matter of emphasis and de-emphasis; it is, on one level, about choice. And, thanks to music’s singular strangeness—grammar and eloquence forever in search of content and meaning—that choice can extend far beyond technical choices on the part of the musicians. Take the case of classical music’s great Beleth, Richard Wagner, who embodied the human possibilities of greatness and ugliness to an exceptionally intense degree. Because his medium was music, performing and listening to Wagner’s work is an opportunity to choose the greatness over the ugliness. When Rollins and Henderson perform “Without a Song,” it is an opportunity to choose the charm and potential of the melody over the reflexive stereotyping of the lyrics. From an optimistic vantage, this ongoing process of choice might be thought of as practice, training players and audience to imagine a better world, the better to achieve it. A pessimist could point out (quite rightly) that such training is taking an awfully long time to translate into concrete change.

We live in a machine. Its gears are money and power. Inequality—greed, racism, misogyny, discrimination—remain institutionalized and persistent. The music this article has been talking about is, culturally speaking, on the margins, however luxurious; maybe to expect these musics, old or new, to alter the fabric of society, however incrementally, is excessively idealistic. (Confession: in that regard, I am an idealist.) But just in their performance, in jazz’s constant reinvention and classical’s constant re-creation, they mount a defense. In swinging, they swing the machine. They mitigate their lesser mass. They, perhaps, prevent the whole system from running away to a catastrophic end. Or, at least, they keep us from being pulled helplessly through the machine.
In a letter published in the February 1941 issue of the Music Educators Journal, a woman named Rosamond Tanner took Deems Taylor to task over his disdain for swing. On the contrary, Tanner insisted, swing versions of the classics were a great way to introduce children to the repertoire: “When the classics are expressed in a form that is understandable and typical of our present day trends and interests, then they are loved and understood, and their themes are not forgotten.” Actually, this is not really that far from Taylor’s position; the end goal is still to eventually encounter the classics in their original form. But Tanner at least emphasized experiencing the classics in performance as much as simply knowing them, instilling in a hypothetical listener the desire “to go to a concert because he knows that concert holds something personal for him—a bond of understanding between him and the music.”

A few years later, Rosamond Tanner, an Eastman-educated organist and a veteran provider of background music for New York City cocktail lounges, was hired for an unusual gig: she became the house organist for the 86th Street branch of the Manhattan Savings Bank, performing for a few hours every day from a balcony overlooking the banking floor. With most banks—including the other branches of the Manhattan Savings Bank—having already adopted piped-in Muzak, Tanner’s job was quirky enough to gain her a mention in “The Talk of the Town” section of the April 24, 1948, issue of The New Yorker. Tanner was hardly a subversive. She was pleased to report how many more accounts the branch had brought in since she had started playing. But give her credit: she could see the machine, and she could see the effect performance could have on it. “I’m a lot more than an entertainer,” she told the magazine. “I’m supposed most of all to offset all the cold-blooded marble and iron bars downstairs.”
*Homepage featured image courtesy Petras Gagilas via Flickr

Rhythm and Restlessness

Modernist composers had some funny ideas about rhythm. Olivier Messiaen insisted that a regular pulse was actually the enemy of rhythm, since rhythm relied on differences in duration. Karlheinz Stockhausen, too, was more interested in the irregular—while he admitted that he liked to dance to music with a regular pulse, this compulsion was too “basic” for his own music.
This is all fine in theory, but in practice it can be quite difficult to write music without a regular pulse that still creates a distinct rhythmic feeling. It’s easier to find counterexamples, like Morton Feldman’s shifting meters that create an impression of floating outside of time, or the dizzyingly intricate rhythms of composers like Conlon Nancarrow or Brian Ferneyhough. While the performer must internalize these complex rhythms to an extent, for the listener these intricacies often go by too fast to be perceived. In effect, rhythm turns into texture.

Between these two extremes—sparse ambience and dense texture—are the rhythms we can typically make sense of, and this is the territory that most music explores. But I’m sometimes sympathetic to the modernist mission, the manifest destiny that wants to find new lands. What is the furthest we can go, in either direction, without entering completely inhospitable terrain? I’m especially interested in music that exists on one of these boundaries, but the problem is typically that it’s not a good place to rest. It’s a place you cruise by on the way from one area to another.

To make this a little less abstract, let’s think about the 4 against 3 polyrhythm, one of the most common polyrhythms, the one that gives so many intermediate piano students so much trouble. This should be a perfect example of a musical idea caught perfectly between two worlds. But written another way, it becomes almost trivial:
rhythm sample
Repeat this more than a couple times and it starts to sound conventional (“dum dah-dum dah duh-dum”). The restless, in-between character of it is lost. Messiaen’s argument starts to make a little sense. And this happens with polyrhythms that have larger periodicities, too (7 against 8, 11 against 13, etc.). To preserve that restless feeling, we need both a pulse and something that’s constantly undermining the pulse. And that other thing has to be in a constant state of flux as well. Compare this demonstration of Henry Cowell’s Rhythmicon, which uses static polyrhythms:

As opposed to this piece by the Claudia Quintet, with its hiccups and surprising turns:

Or even this recent David Bowie song, with vocal lines in various meters hovering over a near-constant 4/4 drum pattern:

Not surprisingly, many examples of this rely on deceptive drum beats that seem to obfuscate the “true” underlying meter. But I don’t think this is the only way to achieve this effect, and I’d like to see it attempted in chamber music more often.


I generally feel a sense of self-righteous satisfaction when scientific research (the kind with reproducible results) once again reveals evidence supporting my personal non-peer-reviewed theories and beliefs about music functioning as a fabric to weave and tailor the wardrobes of our lives with. So, I was happy to read about the research from Finland that proves that we are able to respond to music before we are born. Although the idea has been tossed around for quite a while, the study echoes one conducted in France nearly three years earlier that, while using different methods, came to the same conclusion: human beings are capable of apprehending and remembering music while in the womb. The concept that memories of our watery symbiotic prenatal sonic environment are transported into the world of air-breathing individuation lends support to a theory I have about the practice of regulating the temporal experience by dividing it into a series of motoric units. These units, be they global (hours, minutes, seconds) or local (whole note, half note, quarter note), are as arbitrary a way to measure time as equal temperament is to measure an octave.

Given that our gestational sonic environment is unarguably rich, the predominant sound heard is the uneven rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat with a ratio that approximates the Golden Mean. (The ratio varies, though, depending on one’s general health, state of mind, and level of physical activity.) The tempo of a heartbeat for an adult at rest ranges between 60 and 100 beats per minute and, moreover, the volume levels of the two beats making up the rhythmic pattern are different. The heartbeat that an unborn human hears when its mother is healthy, relaxed, and in a good frame of mind sounds very similar to the drumming patterns that accompany Native American round or “friendship” dances. In Native American music, evenly spaced drum pulses are mostly used in competitive or “fancy” dances. They sound similar to the heartbeat of someone engaged in intense physical activity.

My theory goes that we unconsciously equate irregular rhythms with security, safety, and community, especially rhythms that resemble the human heartbeat, such as the Charleston rhythm of jazz or the bombo – ponche bass line heard in the tresillo-style tumbao of Latin music. These rhythms, I believe, were in common use in America before the arrival of European colonists. Modern American music, though, is primarily the result of Eurocentric philosophy, technology, and pedagogy, and its largely tacit hegemonic foundation of super-cultural fathers currently supports the idea that these rhythmic elements were imported to the New World as part of the African Diaspora. This would suggest that jazz, which is officially America’s indigenous art form and born out of a push for inclusion of African Americans in mainstream American culture, is non-inclusive of the indigenous New World cultures that predate by millennia the trans-Atlantic colonization of the Western Hemisphere. But the push has been an obvious success, despite the inability of so many melanin-challenged brothers and sisters to accept that white supremacy is very near the root of our nation’s woes, and there are many who believe that African-American inclusion will lead to an egalitarian culture recognizing a broader base of diversity. So hope stays alive while artists like Vijay Iyer, Fred Ho, Jennifer Leitham, Fred Hersch, Cynthia Hilts, Joris Teepe, Cecil Taylor, Bobby Sanabria, Joanne Brackeen, Arturo O’Farrill, and Wayne Wallace exemplify how, no matter how one negotiates the Great American Culture Machine, diversity is key.

As a side note, I would like to think that the Kaheri Quartet, who celebrated the release of their first CD last month, is part of this trend, especially since—along with guitarist Omar Tamez, pianist Angelica Sanchez, and drummer Satoshi Takeishi—I’m a member of it and we plan to record our second CD in a few weeks. Kaheri’s music is about improvisation, both structured and not. While it’s not a new concept, what is unique to the group is the addition of non-African elements to the mix. While it is truthfully said that all human experience can be traced to Africa, its musicological influence in Kaheri is filtered through several layers of diasporic timelines that include the pre-European indigenous elements that inform Tamez’s playing. Sanchez is well-known on the new music scene, especially for her collaborations with saxophonist Tony Malaby and drummer Tom Rainey. Takeishi is from Mito, Japan, but spent years working in Columbia, South America, on projects that combined elements of folk, jazz, and classical music.

The international aspect of Kaheri is one that mirrors how jazz studies has become international as well, and the publicly funded Jazzinstitut Darmstadt offers a service that scans through the headlines of leading newspapers for jazz-related news items. One story that caught my eye was an interview with saxophonist Dave Rempis. A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Rempis has made Chicago, Illinois, his home for the last 15 years. Like Tamez, Rempis is an organizer as well as a performer and improviser. He performs as part of a group, The Vandermark 5, that takes a unique approach to alternative groove-based jazz. Rempis’s playing is high energy and steeped in the aesthetic of post-Albert Ayler avant-garde and free-jazz movements. In his interview, he is asked the question that I feel is at the heart of this post: “Do you ever think of social progress and playing music in the same breath?” His answer, although coming from the right place, reflects a problem with how jazz as an American art form is perceived and/or taught in America:

The history of jazz and social progress are deeply intertwined on every level, from the first racially mixed groups that Benny Goodman led and made no compromises with, to Max Roach’s groundbreaking Freedom Now Suite, and up through current times, whether it be in regards to the various wars this country has undertaken in recent years, or to social movements such as gay rights. On a less explicit level, jazz is inherently a music that allows for meaningful personal expression without necessarily sacrificing group integrity, and the balance of those things between the musicians offers a model for possibilities within the society at large.

As was mentioned in a previous post, the racially diverse groups led by Benny Goodman were formed at the behest of his agent, John Hammond; Goodman’s participation was a compromise. Besides, the push to include subaltern musicians in “mainstream” society went back at least to James Reese Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra playing at Carnegie Hall in 1912, twenty-six years before Goodman. (Notice that his first name is abbreviated to “Jas.” on the poster.) If one wants to suggest a “great white hope” for integration in the jazz age, probably credit should be given to Vernon and Irene Castle, the ballroom dancing stars who popularized the fox trot and employed Europe’s “Society Orchestra” to accompany them in the same year. Another problem is to use the We Insist! (subtitled Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite) (Candid Records, 1960) as an endpoint for jazz as a force for social change. John Coltrane recorded “Alabama,” dedicated to the victims of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama, in 1963 and New Thing At Newport (Impulse!, 1965) mostly featured the politically outspoken music of Archie Shepp. Saxophonist Joe Henderson’s Milestone release, If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem, was recorded at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach in 1970. Jim Pepper’s first recording as a leader, Pepper’s Pow Wow (Embryo, 1971), includes two Peter La Farge tunes, “Senecas (As Long as the Grass Shall Grow)” and “Drums,” both about the mistreatment of Native Americans, as well as the traditional, “Nommie Nommie (When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder),” a tongue-in-cheek version of the Methodist spiritual. Mingus alumni and trumpet virtuoso Jack Walrath recorded his A Plea For Sanity in 1983 for Stash Records, and the work of Fred Ho (Deadly She-Wolf Assassin At Armageddon!, Innova Records, 2010) has never been disassociated with his political activism. In short, jazz is still very much part of the push for social change.

The music/social commentary connection isn’t limited to contemporary African-American musical forms either. Part of the Mozart effect could be the inclusion of the political views suggested in The Magic Flute or Zaide. Of course Dimitri Shostakovich is another figure from European art music who managed to include social commentary in his music. In America, Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and John Corigliano have all used music to promote social commentary, but these are and were individuals whose vision was tp use their talents to create great music and see it performed. To the Great American Culture Machine, music is still mainly seen as a pastime marketed primarily to sexually frustrated adolescents with enough money to buy new releases. My concern is that the new research mentioned earlier won’t lead to the creation of a consumer class via pre-natal indoctrination. While this suggestion might be nothing more than the result of a fatalistic imagination working overtime, there are social issues that need to be addressed with louder voices more now than ever.

To be continued…

No Expectations

Music is all about playing with our expectations—as listeners, participants, and creators. One of the most striking things to be gleaned from studying the great melodies in music is how many of them employ the same rhythmic profile for each measure, with one or perhaps two affecting variations. It’s this regularity that serves to ground the listener in an expected rhythmic pattern, an expectation that is then turned upside-down (or at the very least, nudged in an unforeseen direction).

Just as these moments of listening delight flow (and acquire their specialness) from a well-established sense of the quotidian, the existence of certain primitive patterns in our brains likewise provides a framework within which intuitive forms of communication (surely, the original “music” before the coded articulations of language were added) might flourish. To see what I mean, check out this video of improvisational genius Bobby McFerrin leading an unrehearsed jam on the pentatonic scale with a little help from the audience:

This is one of those moments that make me very glad to be alive—and the quip from the neuroscientist at the end of the video is priceless. The pentatonic scale (in some form) is part of the folk tradition of cultures around the globe, and there may even be a case to be made that certain intervals and patterns are part of the human neural blueprint. But even if McFerrin is playing with something merely familiar to the audience, rather than hard-wired, he’s found a way to tap into and empathize with the audience’s expectations—enabling some kind of near-telepathy in which McFerrin used body movement and his considerable charisma to project his intentions to a large mass of people.

As a composer, I find this more than a little distressing since I’ve grown so accustomed to the proposition that expectations can inhibit free listening and free thinking. While there’s surely something to this, it can be equally disconcerting to be adrift with no expectations; this is the history of the 20th century, in which the old common tongue was lost until a new language of recorded commercial music took over around mid-century. At this writing, the expectations derived from TV scoring, video games, and two-minute pop songs appear to be the new black.

So while I try to be wary of expectations, I’ve come to see how their complete absence creates a world devoid of a common tongue, unable to foster the kind of communication necessary for true interaction. In composing, having some expectations of what I am looking for—and what I will accept as a solution—can provide a chance for the unexpected to occur. When we can play with expectations, without being dominated or frightened by them, the greatest potential of reaching out to other expectation-prone beings like ourselves is achieved.

Percussion In Our Midst!

Last weekend I was in Minneapolis for a premiere, in which I gave a somewhat slapdash and intermittently relevant concert talk which still ended up being a lot of fun (and all the more so as I finally got to meet fellow NewMusicBox blogger Colin Holter in the flesh!). One audience question in particular threw me off balance, as loaded questions and statements-disguised-as-questions so often do. Only half-jokingly, someone asked: “How to you manage to compose contemporary music without percussion?”

After laughing off his question and answering with a comment about the percussive sounds already included in the piece’s writing for traditional instruments, I took my seat immediately came to a harrowing realization: oh crap, I *did* include percussion in my piece! I had completely forgotten the inclusion of a rain stick and wind chimes, perhaps because these auxiliary instruments are so inherently un-rhythmic, and more like color washes.

This situation provided for some amusement when I took to the stage and exclaimed, “Woops! Guess it’s not possible to compose a piece of contemporary music without percussion!” But I wish that I had been granted a little more time for going off-topic, because the gentleman’s question—and my hilariously garbled response—brought up an important point.

The reason so much contemporary music involves percussion is probably because percussion represents the intersection of several trends in new music: rhythmic music derived from rock and primitivism, the closely-related influence of minimalism, and on the other hand percussion’s ability to satisfy timbre-hungry composers more interested in gesture and color than rhythm per se; and as any music fan knows, percussion is also one of the most visceral and visually appealing families of instruments to watch during a performance. Couple this with the fact that complex rhythm patterns and organizing ostinati feature prominently into much non-western music that only began to be taken seriously by “classical” composers half a century ago, and it’s easy to see why so much contemporary music—of diverging styles and schools—is involved in a love affair with percussion. Bang on a Can (and countless imitators with percussive monikers) use percussion as part of the ensemble-namesake, partly to emphasize the importance of rhythm and percussion for the group.

Percussion has become such a ubiquitous presence on the new music scene that (as the above experience attests) it can be easy to forget it’s even there! Given the recent explosion of timbral interest in recorded popular music from Gil Evans to the Beatles and onward, the bar for interesting timbres and percussive excitement has been raised for concert music as well—and as far as I can tell, the trend isn’t reversing anytime soon.