How Drummers And Percussionists Use Rhythm To Engage Time

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Drummers and percussionists use rhythm to engage musical time in a variety of ways.
Here are some of the techniques we use:

 Marking time through articulating meter.
(One-two-three-four-five-One-two-three-four-five…)

Dividing time through subdivision of the meter’s main beats.
(One-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-five-and…)

Decorating or accentuating time through accents and emphases.
(One-two-three, Two-Two-Three…).

Driving forward time (or somewhat worse: pushing).

Holding back time (or much worse: dragging).

Interrupting time through a drum fill.

Abstracting time by free playing around a general pulse.

Ghosting time through ghost notes that subdivide and suggest the main beats.

Suggesting alternative times (poly-time) and time depths through polyrhythms (e.g. 3 over 2), and inherent or emergent rhythms (where the heard composite is different from the sum of the played musical parts).

Playing with time by artfully swinging, grooving.

Regimenting time by playing like a (quantized) machine.

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Talking About Musical Time

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J. and I were talking
about musical technique of a sort,
maybe something more.

We were talking
about the feel of another drummer’s time,
about how in tiny ways
it sounded wonky.

He plays louder instead of stronger I say
making gestures like clouds.

J. reaches for a conclusion already formed.
His playing doesn’t have soul he says
waiting for my response.

(Where does one get soul?)

(You just have it.)

It doesn’t drag or rush though
I split the difference.

But the feel isn’t there, J. rebounds.

It never settles.
Right, it never settles.

Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation Between Beats And Musical Time

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B: MT, hello!

MT: Hi there, Beats. What’s on your mind?

B: I’m tired.

MT: Why?

B: Because I feel like I’ve been overused in music. I’m like, everywhere these days.

MT: It’s kinda true. Certainly you’re in every pop song. And of course the EDM, boom-boom-boom-boom thing…Craziness.

B: Exactly! It’s just getting to be too much. I mean, I can only be in so many places at once.

MT: How you do think popular music got to this point? Shall we begin by blaming disco?

B: [laughs] No, it’s more complicated than that. You forget how rhizomatic music history is.

MT: Okay, so let me take a different route: Should we blame drummers and their drums?

B: No, because they have always been playing beats. I think the problem, MT, is machines.

MT: Like drum machines and digital drum software and such?

B: Exactly! Technology set beats free, but in a crazy way.

MT: Well said, but back up for a second. What don’t you like about electronic beats as opposed to human-acoustic ones?

B: Technology-made beats are too easy, too widely available, and too much of a shortcut for creating musical action.

MT: What’s wrong with all that? Sounds to me like making music more accessible.

B: A lot is wrong with it. First of all, anyone can make a beat now—anyone can drag and drop a loop and get a beat going. Also, the music that’s built upon this is just…

MT: Go ahead, say it.

B: . . . Banal. Can I say that?

MT: You just did.

B: Right. The music is banal because not a lot happens in it. It’s like, because everyone is a producer now, everyone thinks they’re a beat expert without knowing the limitations of the beat mindset.

MT: Did you just speak in italics?

B: Yep.

MT: So what do you mean, Beats, by the “beat mindset”?

B: The beat mindset is the erroneous belief that adding a beat will solve all of your musical problems. Not only will it not do that, but just by having this mindset you’ll also paint yourself into a musical corner, so to speak.

MT: The way disco did with its boom-boom-boom-boom?

B: The way disco did, exactly.

MT: But disco did solve a problem which was how to tightly synchronize a lot of people on a dance floor.

B: Sure, but listen to what it did to music and look what it spawned!

MT: Right, though some of what it spawned was and is very cool-sounding. But on the whole I agree with what you’re saying: disco did seem to regiment music in a spectacular fashion. Then again, the serialists and minimalists were guilty of that too in their own ways. And yes, we have seen a lot of trickle-down from disco. Are you saying though, that disco spawned the rise of the machines?

B: Well, it showed our capacity to be regimented by musical machines or a machine aesthetic.

MT: But come on, all those electronic dance music styles that exploded in the wake of disco’s boom boom boom boom are surely a good thing?

B: Umm. I can’t say. All I know is that technology set beats free and now we’re hearing the results of that and as I said, I’m tired. But enough about me. What’s new with you?

MT: Not much. In a way, I’ve been way under the radar because of all the attention you’ve been getting over the past few decades.

B: That must be nice.

MT: It is. I get to pick my musical projects and I can work myself into music in a much less boom boom boom boom way.

B: You don’t have to keep saying boom-boom-boom-boom. I know what you’re talking about.

MT: Sorry. Anyway, my point is that you feel my presence more than you hear me. I’ve actually been hanging out in ambient/contemporary classical music a lot lately. You know, the weird stuff that gets used in TV ads.

B: Sounds like a relaxing way to make a living.

MT: What’s cool about it is that musicians working in these styles aren’t really allowed to use beats! Imagine that!

B: They’re not allowed?! That sounds dull.

MT: It’s dull, but if they used beats it would ruin the contemplative and serious mood. So they’ve had to figure out other ways to make me come alive.

B: Such as?

MT: Such as slowly evolving sounds, counterpoint, or sometimes arhythmic stuff–which, if you ask me, should be banned. That kind of thing. For the most part it’s interesting because I get to affect listeners without hammering them over the head, as it were—you know, with the boom-boom

B: Stop!

MT: It’s just so fun though. So-much-fun.

B: But seriously, as you were talking it occurred to me how polarized music has become. On the one side we have me, Beats, being stretched over all these popular musics. And on the other wide we have you, Musical Time, working in all these subtle ways, mostly in non-popular styles.

MT: Is this polarization a problem?

B: I just don’t know why it has to be an either-or situation.

MT: Beats, you and I are just reflections of what listeners think they want. We can be as subtle or as obvious as they make us. We’re rhythmic marionettes, our strings pulled by our humans…

B: …or by our machines. What musical lives we have!

MT: Yes, indeed.

•º•º

On Tiny Increments and Necessary Imperfections: Dave Hickey on Musical Timing

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“And you can thank the wanking eighties, if you wish, and digital sequencers, too, for proving to everyone that technologically ‘perfect’ rock—like ‘free’ jazz—sucks rockets. Because order sucks. I mean, look at the Stones. Keith Richards is always on top of the beat, and Bill Wyman, until he quit, was always behind it, because Richards is leading the band and Charlie Watts is listening to him and Wyman is listening to Watts. So the beat is sliding on those tiny neural lapses, not so you can tell, of course, but so you can feel it in your stomach. And the intonation is wavering, too, with the pulse in the finger on the amplified string. This is the delicacy of rock-and-roll, the body rhetoric of tiny increments, necessary imperfections, and contingent community. And it has its virtues, because jazz only works if we’re trying to be free and are, in fact, together. Rock-and-roll works because we’re all a bunch of flakes.”

-Dave Hickey, Air Guitar, Essays on Art & Democracy

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff Online

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1. An article about the inspiration for a Max for Live device (software for use within Ableton Live) that injects realistic timing into multiple computer generated parts.

“The timing of each individual note is dependent on every single note that both players had already played – a minor timing hiccup near the start of a piece will continue to affect every single note after it, up to the last notes. And when you play a duet every note your partner plays affects your playing, and every note you play affects your partner: a two directional information transfer is happening.”

The software is inspired in part by a study of the general properties of musical interaction and how musicians synchronize their rhythms.

“Some neuroscientists think that rhythm – not just in music but in movement and speech – is how we spot the ‘uncanny’, the unnatural, even how infants recognise other animals of the same species. In short, human timing is very important.”

2. An article about misophonia, a condition in which certain sounds can drive someone crazy.

“So, will misophonia exist decades from now? As knowledge of the brain improves, sensitivity to sounds may be included among other psychiatric or neurological conditions. But for now, the diagnosis remains a godsend to many.”

3. An article about drones in and outside  of music.

“A drone in music is a sustained note held for most or all of a piece. It’s an essential part of musical traditions around the world, from the continuous bleat of a bagpipe, to the om-like hum that gives Indian ragas their spacious feeling, to the cavernous burr of a didgeridoo. Classical composers have used it to evoke sounds of nature and a sense of something ancient, rustic or outside of time: Think of the gentle hum that opens Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, the almost inaudible whine at the beginning of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 or the E flat at the bottom of the Prelude to Wagner’s “Rheingold,” which seeps into the listener’s consciousness like water.”

On Sinister And Dynamic Rhythmic Energy: Laurel Halo’s “Oneiroi”

“I guess I just wanted to record what I was doing live. Basically when I got into the studio to record those tracks I found myself playing around with the patterns more, playing around with the samples more, trying to find what was particularly gripping, or dynamic. I wanted the tracks to have this sinister empty energy; I wanted them to sound quite cold.” – Laurel Halo

Halo’s recent recording Chance of Rain (Hyperdub 2013) is a collection of propulsively rhythmic instrumental tracks. Track two, “Oneiroi”, is a particularly focused piece that packs a constantly shifting punch. The piece moves in 4/4 time at 130 beats per minute. There’s a boom-rumble sound on beat 1 of each bar, low-res 16th-note hi hats insistently ticking away, a syncopated cross stick sound, small shards of cymbals and voice samples on the off-beats, a single tom-tom, and noise ambiance. The 4/4 grid never relents, but the sounds and their patterns keep changing up. The cross stick begins by playing on every quarter note, but gradually melts into a new sound (is it the same one played backwards? pitch-shifted down?) and eventually reappears later on offbeats. The hi hat comes and goes, now open, now closed, the shards of cymbal and voice samples change position, the tom-tom pattern builds up into something that resembles a paradiddle, and the noise ambiance ebbs and flows. Every rhythmic part fits into the 4/4 grid and could function independently as a timeline or bell pattern on its own, and the parts never sit still so the grid sounds dynamic and alive. In sum, “Oneiroi” is a groove with enough continuous rhythmic change happening that its seven minutes fly by.

An interview with Halo about her working methods can be read here: