Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Who Cares About Rhythm?

In order of importance to me, the basic musical elements:

1) Counterpoint

2) Harmony

3) Melody

4) Rhythm


Rhythm has never been particularly important to me. Or rather, it has always ranked as least important on my list of the musical elements, and it is the last musical element that I usually address in any given composition. I'm really not sure exactly why this is, but it is: I could write pieces with surface rhythms of constant eighth-notes or constant sixteenth-notes for the rest of my days and I'd be OK with it. Well, that's an exaggeration, but it's nearly true and you get the point.

Being a guitarist - i.e. playing an instrument on which music is not delimited by the human need to breathe - probably has something to do with my attitudes about rhythm, but another aspect would have to be my love of trance-inducing textures. I happen to love motoric perpetuo motu pieces, whether they be polyphonic or homophonic in conception, because of the introspective states of consciousness they lead me into. Pieces with broad ranges of rhythmic elements usually don't take me to places that I enjoy as much. Especially if the rhythms lead to semi-voluntary reactions like toe-tapping. Strange, but true.

Examples of great perpetual motion pieces that I love would include any one of the dozens of solo instrumental preludes that J.S. Bach composed which fall into this category. Literally any one of them, because they all take me to sublime places of deep introspective joy: The Cello Prelude BWV 1007, The Lute Prelude in C Minor (Usually played in D minor on the guitar), the list goes on. I love those kinds of pieces. Tons of prestos, doubles of dances, and similar pieces of his also fall into this category.

Back when I was a pop, rock, and jazz music writer, I didn't worry about rhythm either because it was already there: If I was writing a bossa nova, I instinctively knew what the rhythmic parameters of a bossa were. It was like that for everything: Swing standards, rumbas, sambas, whatever: The rhythmic parameters were like given elements.

When I started to become interested in more traditional forms of music writing, I wanted to come up with my own unique approach to rhythm just as I had previously with harmony and then counterpoint. At first all of my efforts in this area were failures because they all lead to one of only two places: Back to jazz or to Baroque dance paradigms (Which is really only one thing, when you think about it). I wasn't satisfied with these results because I wanted the rhythmic elements to be as unique as the contrapuntal, harmonic, melodic, and formal elements were. In short, I wanted to avoid all types of stylistic paradigms and given elements.

Since I couldn't figure out how to do this at first, I just used the obvious solution: Forget about rhythm as entirely as possible. There. That was easy, wasn't it? Didn't hurt at all, and it wasn't the least bit scary. And, so long as I was writing only solo guitar miniatures, it worked out perfectly well.

When I started writing fugue subjects I came up with one type of solution: By composing them as canons, the demands of the counterpoint would create rhythmic variety which was perfectly natural and entirely organic. This example of the final two versions of a fugue subject I developed in canon demonstrates this approach (From one of last year's posts):

This obviously works out quite well, but I was still looking for some other kind of an approach to rhythm that would be just as organic but would be generated by the counterpoint or harmony directly. Now, I had been introduced to Schillinger's "resultants of interference" decades before, and as I came to understand their connection to intervallic ratios in the overtone series they increased in my estimation, but applying them directly always seemed arbitrary and lead to less-than-satisfying results.

Well, a new approach I have come up with allows for the harmonic and contrapuntal "desires" of the piece to generate the rhythmic elements. Basically, I look for "cracks" (Or opportunities) in the piece that will allow for harmonic completions or contrapuntal devices to be introduced with rhythmic variations. Then, I allow those "germs" to infect the rest of the piece. I've experimented with this approach a few times before, but now I've developed the technique to the point where I have a proceedure developed. I'm currently applying it to the guitar fugue I'm writing, and initial results are encouraging.


I have a friend named Bill Pettaway (Now a hugely successful pop music writer/producer) who is the most rhythmically oriented guitarist I ever met. Back in the late 70's when we were at the Guitar Institute SW together he was playing all of this thumb-slapping awesomeness on the guitar the likes of which I had never heard before, and have never heard since. I was the guy who was into harmonic theory: The polar opposite of Bill.


I could so love her. LOL!


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