I've finally been able to make my usual rounds 'round my usual corner of the information superhighway in an effort to get caught up. Damn, there's been some great material posted lately. In case you missed it the first time:
Dave Douglas kicks things off with a must-read post about the collision of musical worlds:
The perception of time is vastly different. I don't really mean "swing" versus "straight eighth" feels, although that is an important area that has been addressed thoroughly. I mean it in two other ways: one is the perception of elapsed time (minutes and seconds), the other is the amount of flexibility in relation to a pulse, and the sense of responsibility to uphold that relationship. If that sounds abstract or complicated, it shouldn't.
In the first case: an improviser has a different experience than someone who is reading bars and beats. The perception of the passing of time is radically different, even if they end up in the same place. There is a magic, an alchemy, that occurs with seasoned improvisers that bends the passage of time in all kinds of ways, speeding it up, slowing it down. On the other hand, great contemporary classical players have a subtle and ingrained sense of time because they are asked to follow scores with harrowing specificity. There is great richness in the imaginative blending of these two skills.
In the second case, ensembles (in each country, each city, each string quartet...) have their own relationship to an objective pulse (metronome). How much behind or in front of the beat the band plays becomes responsible for their identity. That may seem obvious -- a simple rehearsal would straighten out any differences. But there's something else in this, and that is our assumptions about "responsibility." I tend to feel that in any great ensemble, each player bears equal responsibility to maintain the beat -- not let it sag or rush. But there are as many ideas about this as there are musicians. Vive la difference. Jazz players often rely on the drummer, whereas classical players rely on the conductor. These days most pop musicians rely on the computer. I'm not saying there's a best way. What I'm saying is that a friction arises when you bring the groups together, and there is an exciting heat in that.
Obviously, this is an issue of great concern for us in Pulse both because the musicians involved habitually operate in very different spheres (classical, pop, jazz, Broadway, avant-garde, "other") and therefore have very different ideas/assumptions about where to place the time, and even about how much agreement is required. This is even more of a
challenge exciting friction because Pulse doesn't have a traditional drum set player to lay down the law, so to speak. I will have more to say about this in a few days' time over on the Pulse blog.
Douglas's post reminded me of something Kyle Gann wrote a while back on classical and postclassical approaches to time, meter, and rhythm. This passage should give you some idea of the kind of rhythmic issues we "pro-collision" musicians often have to grapple with, especially when collaborating with classically-trained musicians with little or no experience outside that world:
During Bard's Janacek festival a couple of years ago, I became rather impressed with that composer's textural and tonal originality, especially upon realizing that I had always thought of him as a 20th-century composer and he was actually born in 1854. So awhile later, browsing at Patelson's in New York, I ran across the sheet music to Janacek's On an Overgrown Path […] and picked it up. […] So at an odd moment I finally decided to listen to the new ECM recording of the piece with András Schiff while following the score. It's a lovely recording - except that Schiff can't handle the 5/8 meters that come up in a couple of movements. […]
This wouldn't merit mentioning if it weren't so common. Classical musicians are taught early in life that a measure is a rhythmic unit, divided into two or three parts, and if divided into more, then divded according to a symmetrical heirarchy: 2 groups of 2, 2 groups of 3, 3 groups of 3, and so on - or not and so on, because that's about it. Of course, quite early in the 20th century - On an Overgrown Path is a hundred years old - composers opened up a new conception of meter, as a quantity of equal or even unequal units. Musicians accustomed to playing composers as long-dead as Stravinsky and Copland are used to negotiating 5/8 and 7/8 meter, but it's surprising how many professional musicians have never added the new paradigm to their repertoire. They recognize it and think they know how to do it, but when they start to play, their body-need for a regular beat, like Schiff's, overrules their visual cognition.
Gann has a followup post that talks about rhythmic issues in totalist music ("totalism" is, roughly, a movement of pro-collision, musically omniverous postminimalist composers):
In particular, totalism was, almost centrally, concerned with using conventional musical notation as a language with which to generate a feelable and performable rhythmic complexity. Some of the simple polyrhythms (usually 3-against-2 or 4-against-3) embedded in Steve Reich’s and Charlemagne Palestine’s music, as well as the irregular phrase rhythms found in Phil Glass’s early work, suggested that minimalism’s stasis might support even greater rhythmic complexity. Of course, the previous few decades had been awash in rhythmic complexity, but mostly of a conceptually abstract kind: the polyrhythms of Elliott Carter, Stockhausen, et al usually avoided articulating a steady beat for any period long enough to register tempo contrasts. Inspired by minimalism, rock, and world music, the totalists wanted a music of steady beats that allowed the listener to focus on tempo contrasts in a sustained way. Nancarrow’s player piano music offered a model, but his music generally wasn’t performable, nor was his emphasis often on sustained steady beats. What the totalists wanted was a new kind of ensemble performance that retained minimalism’s clear, doubled lines and motoric rhythm, but also offered a perception-stretching simultaneity of rhythmic layers, usually within the confines of comfortable live performance.
These are related issues, I think. There's a difference between being able to accurately execute Elliott Carter's thorny time signatures and complex metric modulations, and being able to feel them in relation to some underlying pulse. These are, in fact, two almost completely different skills, as composer Art Jarvinen alludes to in his comments on Gann's blog:
Almost the whole group had a couple of advantages over most conventional players such as orchestra section players. We had played a LOT of Reich, as well as Michael Gordon, Andriessen, etc. We cut our teeth on music made from these sorts of schemes. And of extreme importance I would add, is that most of us played in rock/jazz/pop bands, and understood groove as a collective thing, not just accuracy within one's own part. The one time we had some difficulty getting the piece to work was when we broke in a new keyboardist. Fabulous player, but zero pop music experience. Even played "accurately" the groove wasn't happening. So we had a sectional with just bass and keyboard, with clarinetist Jim Rohrig coaching the keyboardist on feel, not counting. It all came together again pretty quickly after that.
"Feel, not counting." Something that is so completely, intuitively obvious so as to go without saying to virtually every jazz and pop musician on the planet, but, as Jarvinen discovered, there a lot of very accomplished classically-trained musicians who are capable of playing highly complex rhythms with incredible accuracy but absolutely no feel for what they're playing.
This, in turn, reminds me of this small diatribe from Do The Math:
The whole-scale hijacking of Piazzolla by classical musicians around 5-10 years ago was an aesthetic scandal of gigantic proportions. Kremer wasn't the worst offender at that time, and we really will forgive him anything, but his young pianist that night at Carnegie was beyond belief. You can't learn folkloric rhythm in a conservatory--not yet, anyway.
One of the many pleasures of Pulse is working with string players like Christian Howes and Sarah Bernstein, who combine conservatory chops with a deep real-world grasp of rhythms folkloric, euphoric, and otherwise. They are -- like us -- colliders by nature.