Thelonious Monk

Turn the Beat Around

In a previous post I talked about ‘keeping the beat’, while rhythmically shifting melodic motifs and accents.  One way of shifting  was to pre-ordain it through the process of pulse preserving polymeter, as exemplified by Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir and Stavinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet. However, Stravinsky didn’t only use such prearranged processes to create rhythmic displacement; in fact more often he would also just do it.

Histoire du Soldat and Thelonious Monk:

Again, Histoire du Soldat provides some of the best examples of this, partly because, as Lambert said, all those marching band rhythms and pseudo polkas and rags make the pulse emphatically clear.

Here is one of my favourite examples from Histoire:

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From a quick glance it appears that this is full of pulse disrupting elements with all those bars of 3/8 and 5/8 But from a quick listen that is not the case (follow the bass part);

So allow me to re-bar this excerpt:

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We can now see that there is no pulse disruption here; what is mobile is that violin motif (designated A); in relation to the ‘1, 2’ of the bass, A1 falls on the upbeat after ‘2’, A2 falls on a downbeat, ‘2’, and A3 on the upbeat after ‘1’; A4 again falls on ‘2’ and although this motif is clearly a variation, given its sonic similarity, I have included it. Note that at no point does this motif fall on the strong ‘1’. Of course with the original barlines, the restatement of the violin at A3 looks as though it is symmetrical, but it doesn’t sound that way.  

Neither can I find a hint of an alternative meter at work: between the initiation of A1 and A2 there are eleven quavers, but between the beginning of A2 and A3 there are nineteen quavers. (Also note the the actual internal lengths of the ‘A’ motif can vary, with A3 being 5/8 in length).

For the first thirty bars up to rehearsal mark 5 (Stravinsky’s bars not my redrawn bars), the bass and the pulse remain fixed, despite appearances from all the changes in time signatures. When a true disruption of the meter occurs, 2 bars after 5, it is accompanied by the loss of the bass line, which then returns again to close the piece for another thirty bars of groove with the same violin part (again rhythmically displaced).

Histoire du Soldat and many other pieces are full of this kind of thing (as Stravinsky himself admitted).  So why all those bar lines? Well it seems to be tied into Stravinsky’s attempts to have the parts played as evenly/mechanically as possible. Here is how he put it in conversation with Robert Craft:

RC: “Meter. Can the same effect be achieved by means of accents as by varying the meter?”

IS:   “To the first question the answer is, up to a point, yes, but that point is the degree of real regularity in the music. The barline is much, much more than a mere accent, and I don’t believe that is can be simulated by an accent, at least not in my music.”

Conversations with Stravinsky (New York 1959) 21

I read this as Stravinsky wanting the players to fully stress these various melodic motifs as though they are always a down beat, regardless of where it actually initiates rhythmically. However, I have to admit that some of the complexity seems beyond an easily discernible logic. For instance at bar 22 of the original score (bar 20 in my version), the bassoon introduces a brief line that doesn’t seem to conform to Stravinsky’s barlines – as written the accented ‘A’ being on the and of ‘2’, but in fact it falls right on the first downbeat in relation to the bass part. And Stravinsky himself acknowledges the underlying 2/4 pulse with the beaming of the bass part across the barlines. (I will leave all that as an unanswered question).

Jazz and funk comparisons:

From previous posts, it may be obvious to you that I like making links between different musics, and finding ways in which similar techniques have been used. So I immediately began to look for this kind of melodic displacement. I’ve already done that for pulse preserving polymeter – in fact rock gives some of the clearest examples. In Jazz, Funk and more dance orientated music, fewer examples have come to mind. It might be expected that in such rhythmically vital disciplines, rhythmic displacement is common, and in a way it is, but two and four bar periodicity and harmonic rhythm take precedence:

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On the surface of things, this might look like is a similar displacement happening. A small, easily recognisable melodic unit is displaced, in this case from down beat to upbeat, but the phrasing stays very much the same, whichever way it falls. I perceive this phrasing by the Ellington musicians as same effect that Stravinsky sought to achieve with the barlines for classical musicians:

But the displacement in this example is a very contained moment; the two bar metric structure remains dominant and everything comes back around very soon, without putting the listener/dancer at sea. Unlike Histoire, the motifs don’t continue to go further out of sync.

And again here in a very disco/funk horn part from Earth Wind and Fire, Getaway:

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Here the horns are even more unmovable in their phrasing; the part is identical regardless of where it is within the pulse, but again it quickly comes back around-any confusion and ambiguity can be soon resolved as the listener ‘learns’ the part.

From Bebop, I have included Charlie Parker’s Billies Bounce: here the F to D two note motif looks very reminiscent of a Stravinsky part, and it does fall back through the bars, but retaining its identity. However that process is abruptly brought to a close at the fourth bar, as a new figure leads us on to bar five (and also the IV chord of course- this is a blues).

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It seems that the more music moves towards a dance aesthetic, the more regular the pulse and metric structure become. Of course these hyper meter regularities enclose much dynamic time stretching and again, though I hate to use that word, syncopation – all this is really the subtly of ‘feel’ that’s needed to make a good groove.

Looking through transcribed jazz solos and heads, I find this two and four bar structuring holds true, and even as fusion and non duple time signatures become more common, metric structures seem to remain pretty regular.

Interestingly also, Boulez, greatest advocate for Stravinsky’s rhythm that he is, completely discounts jazz. His assertion, that subsequent classical music hadn’t really understood or successfully absorbed the lessons of Rite lead him to compare jazz:

“…..it was jazz, with its single poverty-stricken syncopation and invariable four beat bar, that was able to take credit for rhythmic renewal in music.”

(Boulez, 1953)

(At least he and Adorno could agree on jazz then).

For me, what Boulez didn’t like are the very things essential to most of jazz’s existence: the regular harmonic rhythm and periodicity (12, 16 or 32 bars of repeating chord changes essential for soloists to be able to ‘play the changes’), and regular 4/4 rhythm with little of no tempo change etc. It’s just that, as I looked into in the last post, to be ‘hip’, is to mess with the pulse, nearly break it, but always know where it really is- if the overused word syncopation has any meaning, then for me that is it. So far from “poverty stricken,” syncopation is the norm in jazz, but its dance music origins and function require that syncopation to be an organic thing that doesn’t upset the symmetry of dance (even the symmetry of a human dancer?).

So I can agree to disagree with Boulez here – until the disparate movements of free jazz on the one hand, fusion on the other, with the second Miles Davis quintet in the middle, jazz ‘keeps the beat’.  As jazz introduced non duple time (Famously Brubeck’s Take 5, but Max Roach and others were already experimenting with fives and sevens) the pulse stayed very clear.

A radical illustration that comes to mind, is the Miles Davis Quintet’s 1968 recording of Tony Williams’ Black comedy (Miles In the Sky).

The metric structure in comparison to existing jazz practice is devious; apart from Thelonious Monk (see below) I can’t think of anything else quite like this before 1968 (and not often after). I have attempted to transcribe it here:

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I was not entirely sure what to include in the final two bars, since Miles partly plays motif B, but Wayne Shorter (saxophone) and Herbie Hancock play the pattern of accents that I notated (The alternative take was less clear- no doubt this was all recorded with no rehearsal, Miles preferring to have everyone flying by the seat of their pants during this period).

The crotchet pulse remains consistent, (but unsurprisingly there considerably more looseness and push and pull than the straight up and down Music to scene 1), and even though the tune is sixteen bars long any sense of two and four bar periodicity becomes ambiguous by the seventh bar. Very much a drummer’s composition, Black Comedy came at a time when Davis was actually moving away from loose swinging (almost free) jazz to the more grounded grooves of his fusion output-it’s like a swan song for this quintet.

In my opinion to really find a jazz comparison to the Stravinsky traits i’ve been talking about, I need to go back nearly twenty years before Black comedy, to take a deeper look at the originality of Thelonious Monk.

Four in One is a piece of music from 1952 (probably written earlier) that I find a) stunning and b) unparalleled in any jazz from that time or some time to come:

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Aside from the very successful use of polyrhythm in the opening, it’s the bridge (letter B) that really fits my purposes here. The little motifdisplaces without seeming to come back around:

    ex 15 monk motif

 Monk, here introduced into the written aspect of jazz (this is the composed ‘head’) a greater degree of rhythmic flexibility and displacement, that is distinct form all the syncopation, swing and general ‘feel’ that is to be taken for granted in post war jazz. I know it still occupies only four bars, and doesn’t upset the normal 32 bar form, but somehow, unlike the other examples above, it implies that it could easily carry on and throw off the form.

Another example is a sixteen bar tune Played Twice, with a triplet line that falls back through the bars:

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And perhaps most significantly, and a real jam session confuser for novice players, Straight no chaser:

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Firstly, in harmonic terms this is a conventional twelve bar blues, and I have written the chord changes out in their simplest form, to show their two and four bar periodicity, (in practice more variations and substitutions of these chords are typically used in post war jazz).

I’ve delineated the basic melodic cell x: C, F, G, G#, A, with the horizontal bracket lines. There are alternate versions and extensions of that motif, and in bar 4, the dotted bracket shows a shortened version of the motif x1: C, F, G, Ab.

This melodic line maintains the same internal identity, always characterised by the C to F anacrusis, where F is a downbeat – but that line shifts several times. The pattern starts off conventionally: F falling on the ‘1’ and then the ‘4’ of bar one. This is similar to the kind of displacement you would expect from a jazz riff; the same thing happens again in bar three. Then x1 jumps in early on ‘4’ of bar four, interrupting the expected flow i.e. the remainder of bar 4 could be expected to be consequent material, a tailing off of the statement, before the all important bar five (IV chord) that would either repeat x, or introduce a new melodic motif.  Instead, in bars five and seven the x shifts to the ‘2’ , with longer rests in between. It then returns to the ‘1’ and ‘4’ placement only this time it’s on an even bar: bar eight. This again is upsetting the 2/4 bar periodicity, where we would expect something to happen in bar nine, where the V chord arrives. Instead this important harmonic moment is somewhat lost in the continuation of x. Harmonically this G# disagrees with the C7 chord ( a G minor 7 chord would often be played here, again with harmonic disagreement). This riff (x) has its own logic, one that is subtly different from a normal blues riff, but again I can find no alternative underlying metric pattern to it- and neither would I expect to.

I don’t pretend to know how or why Monk composed this way so often; I’m really, just pleased that I remembered these pieces and so could include them as a further illustration. These example do, I think, come very close to the spirit of Stravinsky’s rhythmic games – that “rhythmic stuttering.”

Beat disruption – turning the whole thing around:

Finally it is time to look at the wilful disruption of the beat. In the last post I had mentioned the tendency of Stravinsky to upset the pulse; to set you off tapping your foot, but then cut the rug out from under you with a deliberate shift in the pulse, forcing you to re-calibrate your time sense. This is distinct from the kind of tricks that we looked at so far; that is rhythmic puns, polymeter and disruptive accents/melodic displacement – all of which have maintained the same underlying pulse.

Although I have already touched on this really, because my earlier example Music for scene 1, disrupts the pulse at a point where the bass line is temporarily dropped (right where my transcription stops, at bar 30). And of course Rite of spring also contains many famous incidents of disruption of the pulse, as does the stunning Les Noces.

I am going  to stick with Histoire for an example of this pulse disruption, this time with the opening piece Soldier’s march  – again with re-barring to iron out the differences between Stravinsky’s use of barlines (for the instrumentalists), and what we actually hear:

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As is the case throughout Soldier’s tale, the extremely clear pulse setting allows us to hear what is really going on, and note that again the beaming of the bass part across the bar lines acknowledges the alternative meter of the bass line.

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It now becomes clear that only at bar 20 (the same place in both scores) is the beat truly disrupted, by a single extra quaver – at least that is how I have chosen to show it, since at bar 21, (in my version, the ascending A major arpeggio in semiquavers), seems to fall back into the 2/4 meter – especially with that bass note ‘A’ reinforcing a sense of a new ‘1’. Of course bars 20 and 21 could also be seen as a single bar of 9/8; but either way the solid clear pulse has been disrupted with very obvious results – the beat is turned upside down. It is then quickly re-established – a momentary glitch. For the remainder of this piece, the 2/4 pulse remains intact, without disruption. It goes without saying that Stravinsky repeats this kind of disruption several times during Histoire. Again I don’t propose to wonder why this is done, or why I like it, but instead I will look at a comparison from rock: Led Zeppelin’s The Ocean:

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Here again is a very clear crotched pulse (and heavy too!) which I have chosen to write as one bar of 4/4, a bar of 2/4, and then the disrupting 3/8 bar that again turns the beat around, requiring me to re-set my sense of groove. When the Beastie Boys sampled this for the 1986 hip-hop jam She’s Crafty, they only used the first bar of the riff- hip-hop, with its connection to dance, could not, it seems, accept such sabotage of the groove.

Interestingly, Canadian proggers Rush, produced their most hip-hop friendly groove in a similar context. Tom Sawyer lays down what has become a classic break beat ( I have seen Beastie boys DJ Mix master Mike among others use it);but only the first part. As you can hear, at after 1 min 30 seconds, the boys can’t resist throwing it all out with the famous double time 7/8 riff:

This effectively becomes a whole new middle section, so as such, doesn’t really count as pulse upsetting in the way the Led Zeppelin and Stravinsky examples do. To do that the previous pulse has to come back again.  (I notice that guitarist Alex Lifeson’s foot is tapping on the quaver beat through out).

I also thought that I had found a funk version of this- sort of; by which I mean that Funkadelic were always as much of a rock band as a funk band , and Hit It and Quit It very much mixes the boundaries:

But on closer analysis this turned out to be a case of odd time signatures that don’t interrupt the pulse. You can either hear it as a slow crotched funk/rock groove (as suggested by the kick snare pattern of the drums), or as a double tempo fast soul type groove – either way it comes out as a case of a truncated bar, upsetting the 2/4 bar periodicity, but not contradicting the underlying pulse:

ex22 hit it

There is no doubt to me that this is a killer groove, despite its departure from normal dance music structure.

So to sum up…

We have had the rhythmic pun-tricking the listener as to where the beat actually is (from a monometric European perspective) as shown by Herbie Hancock and Haydn. We have seen displaced and shifted accents and motifs, while a regular pulse was maintained – sometimes with an underlying polymetric structure, sometimes not. Depending on the strength of these accents, some listeners may feel that the pulse has shifted, other will ‘hang in there’, keeping the same beat in mind. (pulse conserving).

Finally the beat itself can be disrupted by taking a smaller subdivision of the tactus and turning the old beat ‘upside down.’

I want to finish this with Perfume and their song Polyrhythm, from the double platinum album Game:

Which as you can hear is misnamed, since it is really an example of polymeter: in the chorus they sing in 5/8. I was surprised to find this sort of thing in a J-pop song, but then that’s really not my thing. I can’t pretend to really enjoy this track, but it does suggest that there is some allure in rhythmic displacement that attracts all kinds of music makers. Perhaps some of the appeal (speaking for myself) comes from the playful aspect of setting something automatic into motion and seeing how it pans out? I think it can be a bit like a child pouring too much water into a cup, to see how spectacular the spill is going to be- you keep playing (or composing) your part, holding it down, and feeling yourself swept up or down the pulse…time travelling in a way. Which is about as far as I’ll go with any of that kind of analysis.

As usual if you have any more interesting examples send them to me.

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My PhD was entirely devoted to the process of composing music. Before academia I spent eleven years (from 1990) as a full time musician based in New York, working as both as a session player, and as the musical director of The Groove Collective, a band that combined Jazz, Latin, and Funk forms. This led to six albums and performances around the world including Montreux and North Sea Jazz Festivals, the Roskilde Festival, Red Rocks Amphitheater Colorado, and Filmore West. I have also performed in orchestras, and as a solo flutist, including a broadcast on BBC Radio Three.

2 thoughts on “Turn the Beat Around”

  1. I would like to share my impressions on AC/DC’s She’s Got Balls. I hear the first note of the opening guitar riff as falling on the 1. But, when the “shuffle” drums enter (and that’s the first surprise), it is evident that that note falls at the end of a bar, like an anacrusis (possibly, on the third beat of an 8th-note triplet, the “plet” one, if counted as “4-tri-plet”). Interestingly, this “rhythmic pun” doesn’t work always on me. I mean, it only works if I don’t pay too much attention to the subtleties of the guitar part (actually, two guitars play the same riff, with the second guitar probably outlining the syncopation a bit more clearly). I suppose that I generally expect a typical rock riff like those by AC/DC to be right on the beat. In other words, I am biased. Of course, the more I listen to the song (which I did not know until yesterday) and the more I tend to expect the shuffle and anticipations. It’s curious. What are your sensations upon listening to that track?

  2. Dear Dr Richard
    thanks for pieces I particularly like the story of the tin soldier I thought another composer represented it as well.
    I forgot lot of things that I learned in the past but lately come across to some Brazilian music which sounds good. So thanks I am the only one making music here

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