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Saturday, July 10, 2010


In 2007 a casual lunch gave rise to something that culminated recently in twenty seven great musicians from all around the world coming together to informally play music and explore the world of rhythm in jazz and beyond.

The lunch occurred at the 2007 IASJ meeting in Siena and involved myself, my brother Conor and the Brazilian saxophonist and composer Marcelo Coelho. We’d just attended workshops given by each other on very different aspects of rhythm and over lunch we remarked on a) how many different developments there had been in the area of rhythm in jazz and improvised music over the past twenty years, and b) how little people working in this field knew about what other people were doing, and how they went about what they were doing.

From that conversation came the idea of the International Rhythmic Studies Association, an organisation formed to help put people working in the area of rhythm in touch with each other. We agreed that the first thing we’d need to do was have a venue for a meeting where people could meet, play and exchange ideas – Marcelo volunteered the Conservatorio Souza Lima, the school where he teaches in Sao Paulo, as a venue and since it had long been an ambition of mine to go to Brazil I readily agreed!

So we had our first meeting in 2008 in Sao Paulo and though it was small in number, it allowed us to put a shape on the meeting that would make it most affective for the participants. While we weren’t quite sure what we wanted at the beginning of the meeting, we were very sure about what we didn’t want. We didn’t want this to be any kind of workshop situation, with teachers and students. We wanted it to be a meeting place for high level practitioners, a place where peers could share information, try things out for themselves and see what others were up to. And so we settled on the best format for the meeting – in the mornings the musicians would get together in informal groups and try different things out – each musician would bring things they were working on and could introduce ideas and concepts to the other members of the group. In the afternoons there would be a more formal presentation of ideas and techniques to the entire membership of the meeting. This idea worked very well and allowed for the maximum exposure to the maximum amount of rhythmic information over a three-day period. In addition being in Sao Paulo allowed us access to some of the greatest rhythmic music in the world and this undoubtedly added to the stimulus of the meeting.

In 2009 we repeated the idea in Sao Paulo again and decided that if the meeting was to grow, we would have to have it in Europe at least once – Brazil is a wonderful country and one of the great rhythm countries, but it is expensive to get to from Europe and since there was so much intensive and wide-ranging rhythmic activity going on in Europe it was important to make the meeting more accessible to European musicians. So this year we did just that and took the meeting to Dublin, to my school – Newpark Music Centre. And as we had hoped, putting the meeting in Europe made it more accessible to more people and we had the biggest meeting yet this past week – 27 people from 13 different countries. But despite the greatly increased interest in attending the meeting, we decided that we would never let the meeting become larger than 30 people since to do so would be to endanger the flexibility of the musicians to be able to work together and get the most out of their encounters. We turned down several applicants on the grounds of numbers and/or suitability – the criteria for attending the meeting is that the participant should be someone with a prior interest in the rhythmic aspects of the music, preferably with a track record of activity in this area.

We followed the same format as before – informal playing sessions in the mornings and presentations of new ideas and concepts in the afternoons. It takes the musicians a minute to get used to the morning sessions since it’s so unique – there are no rules, no pre-agreed ensembles to go into, no group leaders. So it can be difficult at first to figure out what to do, but people quickly begin to revel in the freedom of this format – freedom to get together with lots of different people or with just one or two people and just work on whatever you feel like working on. These sessions featured such things as Brazilian music in odd metres, metric modulation, frame drumming, South Indian rhythmic techniques, odd metre standards and clave, and try-outs of new rhythmic compositions. By moving around, each musician got to try out a wide variety of music over the three days.

The formal presentations included such subjects as South Indian rhythmic techniques, Odd Metre Clave, rhythmic techniques used in contemporary composed piano music (such as Ligeti, Nancarrow and John Adams), multi-layered metric modulation, composing using the rhythmic line technique, the evolution of Afro-Brazilian rhythms and an overview of recent developments in rhythmic music in Brussels, Paris and London.

Given the explosion in the rhythmic variety of jazz in the past twenty years I think this kind of sharing of ideas is very timely – not that we need to regulate the world of rhythm, but with such a vast Terra Incognita out there an organisation like IRSA can help map the outermost regions at least.

Next year we’ll be returning to Sao Paulo again where no doubt we’ll have another great three days. Here’s the first part of a video documentary on the meeting which gives a flavour of what the meeting was like and what it was all about

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