Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Representing Rhythmic Irrationalities in Standard Notation

Anyone who performs contemporary guitar music created by pop, rock, and jazz guys has to deal with this, as a lot of it is quasi-improvisatory and was never written out by the performer, but instead the sheet music and tablature is created by a transcriber. In these pieces, meters can change often as beats are added or dropped by the performer, and tuplet groupings can get quite plastic in single line sections or guitar solos. Just as mathematics has irrational numbers, then, music has irrational rhythms. In fact, standard notation never really represents the music perfectly, because performers always take rhythmic and tempo liberties to express the music as they perform. Improvisatory soloists are notorious for floating in and out of lock with the beat, and while that is a large part of the compelling nature of their creativity, representing that in standard notation can be a real, actual nightmare. Seriously, I've had dreams about the piece I'm going to use as an example today.

The problem is, you can take accuracy in transcription too far, and if you do, the rhythmic complexity of the resulting transcription looks so daunting that many players will be scared off by the sheer difficulty of reading the rhythms. If you take this into account, then some simplifications are a good thing, as it makes learning the pieces easier: The irrational details of the "feel" can be added later. The devil is in striking a proper balance, and that's what has driven me nearly batty about this piece, Desert Song by Eric johnson from his first album, Tones.

Since a large part of the point in transcribing my entire repertoire into Encore is so that I'll be able to practice along with the MIDI files instead of just a metronome, I had to get close without making it impossible for me to follow. The resulting MIDI file is pretty darned amazing, if I do say so myself, and I converted it to an m4a AAC file in iTunes for you. If you open two windows or tabs in your browser, you can listen and follow the music.

Desert Song - Eric johnson

NOTE: Some artifacts in the form of ghost notes crept in during the MIDI to MPEG conversion process. This often happens with really complex MIDI files.

Here's the score, which is just the notation without any fingerings (I'm not to that point yet).

The first decision I had to make was whether or not to notate the flams that Eric plays leading into a lot of the measures, and since it is only a sixteenth note pickup in the bass, I decided to go ahead and put them in. Since I first learned this from an ASCII TAB I found online, and since I'm a composer myself, I did change a few details of the figuration just because I wanted it to go differently in certain places. Those changes are all pretty minor though. He also plays a lot of quarter note triplets, and those are pretty difficult for some to rationalize, but the file just didn't sound anything like right without them, so I put those in too. It's the figures after the triplets that look 'hard" however, but they sound perfectly natural that way. Ack. I am missing a 32nd there though: The E should also have a double dot in measure 10. See what I mean? LOL! The "legit" way to represent these rhythms is with a lot of ties and repeated notes, but I really hate the way that looks, so I do them the way I want to see them since this is for my own personal use. I've dealt with jazzy music so long that I don't need my hand held, know what I mean?

One of the coolest things Eric does with the figuration in this piece are the series of three times five eighths ending with a quarter to fill up two measures of four, like you see in measures 19-20 and 21-22. That is just so hip, and one of the things that makes this piece so unique.

The first time through the "A" section is really pretty straight ahead by my standards, but the varied repeat starting at 38 gets weird fast. He drops a beat at the end of "A" as you can see, and then immediately adds it back: A measure of 3 plus a measure of five is two measures of four. The first of several single line licks then follows in 39, and it's pretty easily represented by 8th triplets with the 16th/dotted 8th at the end, but not perfectly. Guitar articulations just can't be perfectly replicated in a MIDI file. Eric smoothly locks back up with the beat in 40 though, complete with a lead-in flam.

My nightmares began at the end of measure 46. The 5:3 quintuplets were pretty easy to suss out, but the following 7:3 septuplets took a few days of intermittent experimentation to uncover. It's really a common legato technique lick that just goes down an octave every beat, but wow, figuring out how to notate it and make the resulting MIDI file sound right without any tempo changes was a beeotch. Notice that I have two measures of 4/4 represented as 9/8 plus 7/8! It was the only way to get it to sound right.

At 49 Eric locks back up again, and the last lick on the page is another simple 8th triplet deal.

No real big deals on this page, but the two triplets in 69 is sorta/kinda weird with the tie, but that's what sounded closest, so there it is. I still haven't figured out the best way to do 70: It's an over-simplification for sure, but the notes are there and the rhythm is approximated.

Here's the little Flamenco section, and I tried all sorts of ways to segue between the two, and finally gave up and started over, complete with a 1/4 pickup measure. The licks are what Eric plays for 72-77, but the licks starting in 78 are mine: His were just too freaking hard, so I replaced them with some legato tech licks that maintain the Flamenco phrygian flavor. Remember, Eric plays with a pick between his thumb and index finger, and picks the rest of the figuration with m, a, and c. So, it's easy for him to transition into these quick licks. I just can't match that kind of speed with i/m alternation, so I have to "cheat" with legato tech... a lot. LOL!

Starting in 82 I also removed the Flamenco strums, since I don't know how to do those, and that section sounds ridiculous in MIDI because it depends on harmonics to get it's charm on.

The figurations in 84-85 and 88-89 are what Eric plays, but I again ditched the Flamenco strums in 86-87.

And so there you have it. I have no idea how the "official" transcription of this looks, because the Tones guitar transcription book has been out of print for quite a while. I'd be curious to see it, though, as this is one of the most difficult transcriptions I've ever done. All I had to go by was that old ASCII TAB transcription and the recording.

Merry Christmas, everybody.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Merry XMAS Huc! Your an inspiration.

3:00 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Thanks and back at ya.


4:14 PM  
Blogger Minicapt said...

Chopsticks is still the bestest song ever!


2:45 AM  

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