In general, I don’t like beats that are too regular, yet I also don’t like beats that are merely functional. I like beats that are different—beats that make me think about their patterns of beatings. So when I compose (electronic) beats, I avoid typical beat-making moves: having the beats mark the backbeats (e.g. in 4/4 time, the accented beats sounding on 2 and 4), having four-on-the-floor kick drum patterns, and having any beat component (e.g. the hi hat, the snare, the kick drum) playing a single pattern over and over and over again. These avoidances push me to make a beat that’s always changing, not run of the mill, yet also doing the work beats are supposed to do, which is to keep, or at least mark, time.
In much popular music, beats mark and divide time and serve as a clock off of which other musical parts orient themselves. But there’s no reason a beat has to be rigid and unchanging, or ploddingly obvious with how it breaks time into smaller units. Rather than being a short pattern that repeats (e.g. typically 4 or 8 beats long, or one or two measures of 4/4 time), a beat can be configured in other ways. We can, for example, think about beats in terms of timelines and pulsation. Timeline is a term that describes a key element in West African drumming practices: here the timeline for a piece is typically played by a musician striking a repeating pattern on a metal bell. The pattern is usually a combination of short and long strokes, and these strokes demarcate where one is in the cycle of time. For a piece in a 12-pulse meter, a timeline pattern could be something like this (bell strokes are bold):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
The bell timeline part is not the piece’s beat, but rather a rhythm and a metrical framework within which the drummers fit in their rhythms. Listening to the bell, the drummers interweave their parts and with the cycling time of the music as articulated by the bell.
I’ve been thinking about timelines and pulsation a lot lately while working on music, because programming conventional beats doesn’t give me the results I want.* But I’m finding a way forward by recording beats that adhere to the piece’s pulse but not its metrical structure. I avoid using drum “fills” to mark the end of bars, and I avoid short-term phrasing. Instead, I play ever-changing rhythms for minutes at a time—enough time for me to get into some kind of synchrony with the music and develop patterns that add a voice to its texture without declaring, I’m the beat.
A second thing I do is manipulate the sound of my freestyle timeline patterns so that their timbre and pitch become integral parts of their voice. Throughout the history of popular music, the sound of the beat over the course of a song almost always remains the same: the song begins and ends with the same snare drum sound, for instance. There’s a simple reason for this: the drummer was playing a single drum kit, or the drum programmer was using a single drum machine or sampler. But digital music tools throw question marks at this and other performance conventions. It’s as if the tools are asking:
Well, if you’re not playing an actual drum kit to make a conventional beat, why do your sounds need to be timbres of acoustic instruments that stay fixed over time?
Using the most conventional sound-shaping software, a beat’s sound can be re-pitched, its attack and release changed, and so on, so that it hardly resembles a drum kit drummer’s beat. All this to say that by thinking of beats as timelines and pulsations whose timbres can change over time, I felt freer to re-define how rhythms would sound in my music.
Here are three interesting pieces of music that come to mind whose unusual beats give us pause:
*And by programming I mean playing. I play every sound I record—it’s kind of a thing.