“Hymn to the East,” Muhal Richard Abrams, Afrisong, 1982.
I picked up Muhal Richard Abrams’ Afrisong LP yesterday, and though I was not familiar with this record, I liked the cover and have had good luck with other India Navigation titles in the past 1.
Frankly, I couldn’t be more pleased. Abrams’ playing here lands for me somewhere between McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett; that is, he appeals like the former in his chords/rhythms and the latter in his flight, for lack of a better term 2. Communicative and uplifting.
“In some of [your music] you seem to me too easily satisfied. One ought never to forget that by perfecting one piece more is gained and learned than by beginning or half-finishing a dozen. Let it rest, and keep going back to it and working at it, over and over again, until it is a complete finished work of art, until there is not a note too much or too little, not a bar you could improve on. Whether it is beautiful also, is an entirely different matter, but perfect it must be. You see, I am rather lazy, but once begun I never cool down over a work until it is perfected, unassailable.”
— Johannes Brahms, 1876, from a letter to Georg Henschel.
Syncopation refers to the practice of inverting or otherwise shifting accents in an established rhythmic pattern. Polyrhythm, on the other hand, describes more than one rhythmic pattern occurring simultaneously. Though these elements frequently appear in tandem, especially in larger groups, I think their distinction from each other is worth pointing out.
Here’s some polyrhythm:
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou, “Sé Wé Non Nan,” The Vodoun Effect, 2009.
To my ear, the drums resolve in a 2/4 (two quarter notes to a measure) shuffle while the other instruments are played in 6/8 (six eighth notes to a measure). This polyrhythm yields syncopation for the ensemble’s total sound, though each rhythm sticks to its accent-pattern.
The resulting energy of the tune is sustained within the push-pull of the time signatures: the drums are steady but seem to push the other instruments, which in turn seem to drag the tempo. This is not the same thing as playing ahead of or behind the beat. It is, in fact, a difference of measure, which term should be read literally: it takes the horns longer to get back to the top of their phrase than it does the drums.
Once the vocals come in, however, the group coalesces into a collective 2/4, following the drums instead of the horns. The guitar, percussion, and organ, in the meantime, opt for a 4/4, bridging the gap between the drums and the other instruments.
If this is math, it is also rhythm. The fact that it can be quantified does not disqualify the energy and emotion it provides and amplifies. Rather, it confirms the energy and emotion, and one additional absolute truth: music does not exist outside of time.
The first step towards defining new criteria for craft 1 is to establish the criteria of composition.
Context provides meaning. Much in the way a composition’s key determines its note-relations, its time signature determines its feel. This latter determination is where things get interesting for me as a drummer.
Hayden Carruth, in an essay on writing poetry in syllabics, sums up the situation most tidily: if a poetic line is bound to a specified number of syllables, it is, within that limitation, free to contain any number of stresses, any meter, any number of words, as long as it conforms to the syllabic proscription.
So it is, more or less, with time signatures. If one is drumming in 4/4 time, the only limitation is that the measure is derived from 4 equally distributed quarter notes. Within this measure, one can play any combination of notes on any part of the kit, bearing in mind that in any event, one must start over in a total of 4 beats.
This is rhythm.
I continue to sweat the term craft because I believe it to be a generally-accepted term whose use describes the favorable degree of a piece of music’s energy generation, distribution, and sustainment.↩
Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts. — Friedrich Nietzsche
Musical performance is, in every case, a bodying forth of energy. Though it might rely on electrical or electronic means, it is, at bottom, a physical act. We do it with our hands, our limbs, our voices — at some point or other, we bring the sound into existence.
Though taken out of context (he was talking about working on a typewriter as opposed to writing everything out longhand), I think Nietzsche’s remark describes the condition under which music is played.
For example, I play a drum kit, not hand percussion or any other percussion instruments. I have at my usual disposal a snare drum, a kick drum, two rack toms, a hi-hat, two crash cymbals, and two ride cymbals. I strike these items with sticks, except for the hi-hat and kick, which are pedal-driven (or both struck and pedal-driven in the hi-hat’s case).
All the noises I make are derived from a combination of my body and the preceding array. Therefore, I can, within the limits of my mind, strength, and dexterity, strike any combination of these items simultaneously or in succession, in any order, at any volume. On the other hand, I can refrain from striking any or all of them as I see fit. The subsequent fitness results from my choices.
Those choices are guided by the energy at my disposal, from my personal fitness, the sounds of my drum kit, and the fitness and sounds of my collaborators. Collectively, the energy will be, by definition, greater than its contributing parts. If we are to remain humble and effective in the face of music, we must keep this result in mind at all times: no single collaborative expression is more important than any other.
To reiterate: the problem is not generating the energy but rather managing it. Taking a moment from a drum-centric view, I think it’s worth considering how energy is presented in songs which handle it more or less the same way, though to different ends.
In the case of early Hardcore, for example, there are two conditions under which the energy is maintained. First, the tempos are unusually fast. Second, the songs in this style generally contain all the same elements as conventional popular songs, they just occur more rapidly. So there are verses, choruses, bridges, solos, or codas, all occurring in the space of under two minutes instead of the usual three or four.
Minor Threat, “Out of Step,” Out of Step, 1983.
The aim of the accelerated tempos is clear: manage the energy by forcing a burst of it and nothing else. A limitation to the style is that each song must be short. The aggression and compression makes longer songs unthinkable.
A variation on this style appears in a certain vein of popular folk-derived music (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Mark Kozolek, et al.) . In these songs, pace and duration are determined by the song’s lyrics and the singer’s style; that is, the manner in which s/he sings and how long it takes to sing everything. Gillian Welch’s “Dream a Highway” is an example of this practice, as is her “My Morphine,” whose yodel might be the slowest such call ever recorded. It is aloof, nostalgic, self-absorbed, slow, sweet, remorseful.
Gillian Welch, “I Dream a Highway,” Time (The Revelator), 2001.
Gillian Welch, “My Morphine,” Hell among the Yearlings, 1998.
Both the folk-derived mode and that of Hardcore, however much they swing to extremes of tempo and duration, still stay close to the form, if not the structure of conventional songs. I suspect this is due, in large part, to their reliance on singers. In the above cases, the vocals and music reflect each other mutually: the first voice can’t keep up (or thinks he can’t), the second dreams at her own pace, the third sings from the depths of a dope habit. The music is frantic, contemplative, and stoned, respectively.
In any case, I think this mutual reflection is a sign of the quality of songwriting — the high level of craft — at work here. Each of these songs continues to resonate with its fans, even after many years and with no obvious distinction from its peers. 1
Most of the time, if someone in a conversation about music brings the term “craft” to bear, they’re talking about singers and popular music. I suspect further that what they’re responding to is the fact that they are moved in some notable way by the music in question even though they know precisely where the tune is headed. This notion of craft, then, describes to me the effectiveness of a song’s distribution of energy according to its conventions: if the song does precisely what we expect in an unexpected way, we praise its craft.
I contend that craft is defined by its unique relevance to an established practice. Once one abandons the parameters of a given practice, one must establish, from the outset, the parameters of the new practice. These parameters will result in a new definition of craft.
e.g. most Hardcore fans like several bands in their preferred genre, which all sound identical to the uninitiated ear — one has to learn to hear it; the same is true for slow, long, Americana or roots music: get hip or get lost, which is further true, upon reflection, of most things worth knowing. But I digress…↩