(NB The following is related to this post – you might want to have a look if you are interested in the subject of rhythmic ‘tricks’)
Writing in the early 1930’s, composer/critic Constant Lambert takes great delight in recounting the following incident at a Ballet Russes performance:
“Diaghilev included as a symphonic interlude Mozart’s Musical joke……no one saw the joke except Diaghilev himself. His entourage took the piece with perfect gravity as an example of classicism to be admired and imitated.”
I’m sure he exaggerates – he was, after all, decrying Stravinsky’s brand of neoclassicism (Lambert was more an admirer of the “barbarism” of The Rite of Spring and Les Noces, and caricatures Stravinsky’s move to neo-classicism as a “spectacular sinner” having a “spectacular conversion.”
“….they (the audience) craved more sensation- very well they should have it. Cold water and sermon for them…Stravinsky in his latest works has achieved a final triumph of fashion….a fashion for boredom”
Mozart’s Musical joke (K.522) would better be titled as a musical parody of inept composition. It begins subtly with a nice musical phrase, only it’s three bars long- upsetting the 2 and 4 bar periodicity of the obsessively balanced classical compositional style. To an inattentive, or not particularly musically literate audience, this opening ‘joke’ could pass you by (things become more obvious by the end of the piece with its ludicrously dissonant final cadence). But, perhaps an audience of the Ballet Russes in the late 1920’s were pretty much inoculated against any perception of odd numbers of bars, or any other rhythmic shifts; Stravinsky had been doing it to them since The Firebird, and with each successive ballet, rhythm became more of an experimental feature. This came to a peak with the The Rite of Spring.
Now I don’t intend to spend too long on Rite of Spring, (especially after the hundredth anniversary last year), but it brings up a fundamental aspect of what I want to investigate: pulse, meaning here, that thing that you are most likely to tap your foot to; what you most feel as the defining expression of tempo, regardless of time signature. This does throw up a slight problem with some music- for instance jazz where the culturally aware ‘hip’ feel is to tap/snap on the ‘2’ and ‘4’ of a four crotchet bar measure, especially when it’s faster, since tapping your foot on all four beats at a tempo of 250+ crotchets per minute becomes too frenetic. Here Duke Ellington shows his followers how to do it:
Another example where defining pulse becomes a little complex: I have it on good authority that Balkan primary school children happily clap (while singing) on the 1 2, 1 2, 1 2 3 of a fast tempo 7/8, where again the eighth note quaver pulse is too fast to be a comfortable beat marker. It seems like the uneven accenting is the pulse.
What makes Stravinsky interesting to me is that his beat/pulse is often so clear; for much of his output, you can easily tap your foot, notwithstanding that you’ll might find that you have to recalibrate that pulse, because it’s just been disrupted by a smaller subdivision of time (e.g. during very clear 2/4 pulse, a sudden 3/8 bar turns the beat upside down-more on that soon).
This aspect of Stravinsky’s music generally, and especially with Rite, upset many critics and especially Theodor Adorno. What bothered them was rhythm divorced from melodic and harmonic movement, as described by Lambert:
“Debussy gives us harmony for its own sake, and Stravinsky gives us rhythm for its own sake….”
Lambert retains some admiration for all this as long as it is “barbaric” (“barbaric music for the super civilised” in fact). Adorno has stronger words:
“Rhythmic structure, is to be sure, blatantly prominent, but this is achieved at the expense of all other aspects of rhythmic organisation…Rhythm is underscored, but split off from musical content. This results not in more but rather in less rhythm…”
Augurs of Spring:
This is the one that really annoyed Adorno, where all that “blatantly prominent” rhythmic structure unleashes itself after the long impressionistic opening. Stravinsky writes it in 2/4:
In doing this Van den Toorn sought to differentiate between what he called conservative and radical perception of rhythm. This re-barring brings out the radical listening of Boulez (and Adorno)- any rhythmic change/disruption is delineated and adjusted to, whereas the conservative seeks to maintain the pulse as long as possible. Probably to most of us, certainly to me, it’s obvious: Augurs is a groove, therefore defining me as a conservative (i.e. I keep the pulse going –not really liking conservative attached to my name, I prefer to call it pulse preserving.
Consider Augurs from the ‘modern’ listener’s point of view. For nearly three and a half minutes a constant clear crotchet pulse is maintained (mainly in 2/4, apart from a few bars of 3/4 near the end which do nothing to upset the pulse) all the famous accents are completely in the comfort zone of any modern jazz/rock/funk listener – in the words of Eric B and Rakim “(they)….can clap to this.” And let’s face it, that is often not the case with twentieth century classical music. So the score of Augurs is actually notated in a way that conserves the pulse.
Just as a comparison, here is a couple of bars of rhythm that like to think would have pleased Stravinsky:
(Stravinsky would probably not have left it there-no doubt it would have been subjected to some further disruption or distortion)
For fun I did a ‘Van den Toorn‘ on this and re barred it:
What was the point of that?Firstly, just to show that so much of the music I (and probably you) listen to is full of the kind of “rhythm for its own sake” that upset Adorno, and caused Boulez (at least in 1953) to stop tapping his foot and readjust his rhythmic bearings. Secondly, that if you listen to music like James Brown you are probably a ‘pulse conserving’ listener. Now of course this example is only a two bar phrase, and so constantly repeats, allowing the listener to quickly ‘learn’ where everything is. But by the very strength of the disruptive elements, somehow the main pulse is reinforced in a subtle and satisfying way- to have banged away hard on all four beats would have been (as Ellington said) too aggressive. The groove becomes, as Phil Tagg says, a ‘place to be’; which is very much how I experience the repeating chord and ‘riffs’ (if I can use that term) of the Augurs of spring.The main point is, that when at his most personally idiomatic, what Stravinsky gives us, rhythmically, is very clear pulse or tactus, which makes all the displacement, subdivision and upsetting of the beat all the more obvious to the listener.We must also remember that Rite is not really representative of most of Stravinsky’s output. Although it has a rhythmic landscape he was to repeatedly use again, the overall hugeness- that enormous orchestra, the complex vertical harmonies-these were to be largely forgone by him for most of his career; his subsequent output more characterised by an acerbic dryness and wit, and an intentional efficiency in his use of melody, which is usually subjected to his rhythmic demands. In fact the pieces I really want to look at, Histoire du soldat and Three pieces for string quartet make these rhythmic tricks far more obvious because of the clarity of the setting – again to quote Lambert in 1933, as he unfavourably compared Histoire to Les Noces and Rite of spring.
“The constant rhythmic changes, which had some logic when applied to the asymmetrical line of the Russian folk song, acquire a new perversity when applied to the left-right-left and one two three hop of the wooden soldier’s march and the baby’s polka.”
(Lambert p 66)
“…..reiterated notes are a melodic-rhythmic stutter, characteristic of my speech…… a lifelong affliction in fact”
(Stravinsky in conversation: Stravinsky and Craft 1966, p58)
Let’s take that “perversity” as a positive and look at some of Stravinsky’s “stuttering.”
Pulse/tactus preserving polymeter:
One way of displacing something in music is by giving different elements different meters. In my last post I used this as an example of polyrhythm:
That example doesn’t show the real rhythm, just a reduction of it to the pulse. This might be more accurately called bar preserving polymeter, the 6 and the 4 both occupying the same space. This can then be differentiated from pulse preserving polymeter (more commonly called tactus preserving polymeter), where the pulse is the same, it’s just that different metric units coexist, as in this case:
Which is Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir: guitar and bass playing a 3/4 riff at the same time as 4/4 drums- the vocals also follow the 3/4 riff. When listening to it as a teenager, this was the first time I was ever aware such a thing existed. The 3/4 division is 4 bars long i.e. 12 beats, which means that it synchronises up to 3 bars of the 4/4 drums. They let the pattern run for 18 bars of 4/4 or 24 bars of 3/4 before the bridge. The vocals also follow the 3/4 riffs, so giving a melodic harmonic periodicity that is at odds with the drum part. (This all assumes that the listener is fully indoctrinated in the musical ‘meaning’ of a standard kick snare pattern of rock drumming).
Such ‘going out of sync’ is currently common in many forms of modern metal (Meshuggah), but in 1980, the Cars’ ‘Touch and Go’ brought polymeter to no 37 in the US charts. Here in the verses, we have 5/4 drums and bass but 4/4 vocals and harmonic movement:
My own experience of polymeter (outside of listening to led Zeppelin) came about in Groove Collective rehearsals as a kind of in-house musical joke; we had tension between elements in the band between jazz-fusion tendencies to play in non duple time signatures, and the requirements of danceable funk to stay in 4/4 – the compromise was similar to Led Zeppelin: keep the drums in 4/4 and let the riff (eleven beats long) go out of sync:
Three pieces for string quartet:
Stravinsky does pulse preserving polymeter quite early, in what I think is one of his most radical works- Three pieces for string quartet 1914. The trick here is a 7/4 rhythmic figure, written as a bar of 3/4 and two bars of 2/4 (Example 7) and a melody that is 23 crotchets long (Example 8):
Therefore, the melody goes through only four times and then carries on for another six beats with a little melodic (not rhythmic) change to close:
Example 9 (click to enlarge)
Adorno, Theodor (1973). Philosophy of modern music, New York, Seabury press.
Boulez, Pierre (1991) Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship, Oxford, Clarendon press.
Lambert, Constant (1933). Music Ho, A study of music in decline, London, Faber and Faber.
Stravinsky, Igor, Craft, Robert. Conversations with Stravinsky (1980). Berkeley, University of California press.
Van den Toorn, Pieter (1987). Stravisnky and the Rite of Spring. Oxford, Oxford University press.