Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Recently I have been developing a compositional device that allows for players to improvise off two different meters as they please. The idea first came to me when I started to hear how Tim Berne creates a mix between formal notation, improvising off that formal notation and freely improvising (or soloing). My idea is to extend basic cross rhythms so that the ‘over the top’ pulse is more recognisable than the underlying pulse. The tune I am working on at the moment is called ‘Princess’ and is based on 4 over the top of 7. So we can all play four on seven, it’s just 7/4 time sig with 16th notes grouped in 7. But I have extended this 7/4 bar by adding a further 7 16th notes. That means we have 5 over the top of 35 16th notes. Or we could have two bars of 4/4 and a bar of 3/16, or a whole bunch of different combinations of bars. The underlying bar lines that I decided upon for the composition was a bar of 4/4, a bar of 7/8 and a bar of 5/16 (that all adds up to 35). The reason I chose this is because the increase in time divisions (4,8,16) adds to the release of the cross rhythm on ‘one’. Over the top of these three bars I still maintain the groups of 16th notes in 7. A very simple way of playing the pattern is to just think of it as 5/4 with some straight up septuplets.

Of course, because this piece is for piano, bass, drums, alto sax, tenor sax and trumpet I have to balance the weight of the players playing in each ‘pulse’. The underlying 3 bar pattern (which doesn’t actually contain an obviously coherent meter between them all) is strongly outlined by motivic content – particularly in the bass parts. The saxes then sit between the lower part and the ‘over the top’ cross rhythm while the piano and trumpet play in the 5/4 bar and even stretch away from septuplets. Playing 4 over the 7 16th notes ends up being 20 on 35 which play sound extreme but between players is possible – and dramatic.

The difference between the two ways of looking at it really is held together by the note choices. As I understand it, there is a good chance it cold just turn out to be a 5/4 song with lots of players using septuplets. The note choices I have made for this composition are just things I’ve heard in a loosely atonal way. I understand the principals of atonal and serial music, but haven’t used formal devices for this tune (Princess). I have done some compositions with tone rows and know the shapes of some grandmother chords, and things of that nature. But for this song I started with the rhythm and then started to hum over it once I had internalised it a bit. From the lines that I scat and work out I usually do some tweaking and changing of notes to make it more ‘out’ especially when writing parts for instruments that play at the same time. Like, I might end my scat on an ‘A’ but then decide to change it to a ‘Bb’ in order to make it fit in with another instrument, but then have to change that other instrument’s part as well. It could go on like this, back and forth between all the parts for a long time. Playing the parts on the piano, the lyricism of how I can sing it and the relation of the instruments (in regard to register, rhythm and each other) is always high on the list of priorities.

This is all only about the first little bit of the tune. I also have an over-all structure that I am working with. I don’t know when it’s going to get played or performed because I have a lot of tunes for Lakeside Circus that I want to get through. This music is different to Circus band, even though the players in it would be pretty much the same. I want to start a different project that deals with group improvisation over complex cross rhythms and has really heavy written parts to work from.

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