Sunday, November 27, 2011


Although I have several in the pipeline, this is the first original piece I've been sufficiently satisfied with to post in a while. 

I love odd time signatures.  Of the many ways that you can mess with the symmetry of a time signature, two are by taking away a beat or by adding one.  In the case of the former, because we tend to expect symmetrical rhythms, cutting the corner off of the square, so to speak, feels a little hurried.  A great example of this is Oregon's Waterwheel, written in 11/8, broken into 3-3-3-2 so it feels a little like 6/8 with the last beat missing from every other measure, but the musicians use the lopsidedness of the beat to pull the music and the listener forward in a deeply compelling way. 

On the other hand, you can take a symmetrical time signature and add to it.  A good example of this is the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Blue Rondo a la Turk.  Technically, this is in 9/8, but it's broken into 2-2-2-3, i.e., 4/4 with an extra half a beat.  For me, this kind of time signature has a similar feel to unexpectedly stepping off a curb:  you're walking along steadily when all of a sudden your foot takes just a fraction of a second longer to hit the ground.  In Brubeck's case, the group emphasizes the clunkiness of it, showing off their amazing ability to keep track of where they are in dynamic time while improvising melodic lines that flow with (rather than in spite of) the shifting foundations. 

For me, the musical challenge with asymmetrical rhythms is more about making an inherently awkward time into something that feels natural.  If a composer can accomplish this, it can give the music a flow that is impossible with more symmetrical time signatures.  A great (and popular) example of this is the 5/4 Mission Impossible TV show theme, which doesn't even feel asymmetrical until you start to count it (and, to my sensibilities, became instantly unremarkable when it was re-conceptualized into 4/4 for the Tom Cruise vehicles).  In Nine, which is in a 2-2-2-3 division of 9/8, I have attempted to turn the stepping-off-the-curb feel into a round that, as opposed to the urgency in the example of Waterwheel, conveys an elongation of time, a grace, like a dancer gliding over an unstable substrate.  (I leave it to the listener to determine how successful I've been with doing so, but this is the feeling I was striving for.) 

Another aspect of this piece that's worth pointing out is that this is the first work I've completed using GarageBand, a sort of a poor-man's DAW that comes native with Mac OSX and recently has been adapted for iOS devices, in this case iPad.  Although Tracktion 3, my principle DAW application, appears to be more sophisticated than GarageBand, and the version I have came with a raft of third-party plug-ins that expand its capabilities significantly, Tracktion is frustratingly unstable, crashing consistently when certain functionalities are used, effectively rendering them non-existent.  GarageBand, on the other hand, is rock-solid and has many of the functionalities that an introductory-level user such as myself needs.  Its synthesis capabilities are very restricted in comparison to Tracktion, but that is mostly due to the fact that I have not purchased any third-party synthesis plug-ins for GarageBand.  So, stability is turning out to be worth a lot to me. 

Additionally, the iOS version of GarageBand, designed to allow non-musicians to make music and/or for players of one instrument to be able to fill in their music with basic lines from instruments they don't play, offers some surprisingly useful interfaces for music-making.  In particular, the on-screen keyboard gives the user portamento effects that, using a real keyboard, are technically more difficult, both in a musical and electronic sense.  In GarageBand iOS, the player can slide fingers up and down the keyboard rather than hitting keys; it's rather like a ribbon controller, except it allows polyphony.  You will hear the results of this ease of interface in the melody line of Nine