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Sunday, June 21, 2009
The Art and Science of Time
Again this is an older post which I originally published on my website. But it's still current and I'm placing it here in case anyone hasn't seen it before and is interested in reading it. It outlines my thoughts on the whole area of rhythmic technique and the development of good secure time.
In the course of the essay I blithely mention the fact that I'll be putting together my next book/DVD (which deals with this subject), on rhythm 'over the next 6 to 8 months', but I'm ruefully looking at the date that I wrote that - September 2007! I haven't got that book together as yet, though I have started to catalogue the myriad exercises which will be in it. I have promised myself to make a concerted effort over the summer to finally get this together and get it out there, and I will - no really, I will! Promise! In the meantime, I hope you find something useful in the essay and I have a few things up on Youtube that relate to this HERE, HERE, and HERE
As always any and all comments and feedback are welcome.
The Art and Science of Time II
Over the course of the next 6 to 8 months I'll be putting together my next book and DVD on rhythm, which will be entitled 'The Art and Science of Time". Unlike 'Creative Rhythmic Concepts for Jazz Improvisation' which dealt with the specific use of extended rhythmic techniques in the jazz idiom, this one will focus on more basic rhythmic elements - specifically how to develop good musical time and how to be in control of all the rhythmic elements in one's music. The essay that follows takes the form of an introduction to some of the ideas that will be demonstrated at length in the book/DVD.
The Simplicity of Rhythm
I've been dealing with extended rhythmic techniques, as a player, writer and teacher, for more than fifteen years now, and over that period a lot of issues relating to rhythm, time, pulse, metre etc. have both clarified and simplified for me. One of the initial attractions for me in expanding my rhythmic vocabulary was a love of what I saw as complexity - complex polyrhythms, odd metre modulation - all was grist to my mill in the search for the new and the interesting. I took in information gleaned from Indian, African, Arabic, and Balkan music and it all enriched my rhythmic vocabulary.
However over a period of time I began to notice similarities in how one could approach understanding the rhythmic aspects of such very different musics as those from Indian classical music and Balkan Folk music. I began to see that rather than rhythm being a complex issue it was in fact a very simple issue that could be understood in two simple ways - a) what I call the 'division of the space' and b) the concept of rhythmic relationships.
Now when I say rhythm is simple, I do not necessarily mean easy - those are two different things. But the understanding of the elements of rhythm, and what we have to do in order to have a good rhythmic technique, is simple in my opinion. Whenever rhythmic activity is going on - from the most basic to the most complex - it can be explained and understood in relation to the aforementioned rhythmic elements - the division of the space, and/or by the rhythmic relationships created by the rhythmic activity of the music. I would describe these two elements as follows:
Division of the Space
Whenever a pulse is conjured into being we automatically have a division of space. The simple, one after another, beats of the pulse are dividing space into evenly measured units. By space in this instance I mean a space in time. The passage of time is itself an abstract concept that is measured by us using mechanical devices such as clocks - and we do the same thing in music by the use of machines - computers or metronomes for example. By creating a pulse, or making that pulse tangible by whatever means (either by explicitly playing it, having a metronome playing it, or implying it by the way we play the rhythmic phrases of our music) we are dividing the space.
A musical space can be any duration or length - it could be a measure, a beat, 8 beats, or even 8 measures. It could be described as the space of time between an event, and the regular recurrence of that event. So, for example an 'event' might be the tick of a metronome, and the recurrence would be the next tick. So if we, (to explain in this in a conventional notational manner - though I'm not always a big fan of this), call those ticking metronome events 'quarter notes', then a 'space' occurs between those two quarter notes. How we divide that space will define our rhythmic perception of the music we're playing. So if we understand our metronome as being in quarter notes, and we play 8th notes, then we'll be dividing each unit of the space into two equal parts, if we play 16ths we'll divide the space into four equal parts, 8th note triplets three parts etc.
All rhythmic activity in a single melodic or rhythmic line can be explained according to this principle. When thought of like this, subdivisions which are conventionally thought of as being 'complex' (such as 5's , 7's, or 9's) can be seen to be no more complex than a division of the space in 3 or 4. If we play what are called 'quintuplets', or 'septuplets' (a more appropriate term for large numbers of offspring than for rhythm in my opinion!) the space is still being divided, just into groupings other than the conventional 4 or 3. The process is the same. Now, possibly one may not be able to play quintuplets or septuplets accurately, but this is probably because of a lack of familiarity with how a division of 5 or 7 sounds, rather than because this subdivision is any more complex than a subdivision of 4 or 3. When more than one rhythmic line is being played at the same time, and the space is being divided in two or more different ways simultaneously, then we have to deal with the other principle I mentioned - the concept of rhythmic relationships.
Concept of Rhythmic Relationships
Whenever more than one rhythm is being played at a time, a rhythmic relationship is called into being. To take a very simple example, if we imagine a metronome playing quarter notes, and we play eighth notes along with it, then a rhythmic relationship exists between the metronome and what we're playing, in this case a relationship in a ratio of 2:1. If a third rhythm were to be added, say in 8th note triplets, then we'd have another relationship happening at the same time - the resultant relationship could be expressed as 3:2:1. But these ratios are not so important, what is important to understand, as a performing musician, and especially as a performing improvising musician, is that we need to be able to perceive simultaneous rhythmic relationships in order to keep our place in the music - both in relation to the pulse and in relation to what the other musicians are playing. We need be able to react to whatever we hear and still be aware of the pulse and the relationship of ourselves, and the other musicians, to it.
In any group that's playing anything other than simultaneous quarter notes, (or whose members are all playing exactly the same rhythm), then a rhythmic relationship system is in play. The rhythmic relationship may be fixed, as in most rock and classical music, or fluid and changing such as in jazz or Indian Classical music, and the relationships in play could be as simple as those contained in a Sousa March, or as complex as in drum music from West Africa. But in all of these, from the most simple to the most complex, a system of rhythmic relationships is in play and we must be in control of this aspect of music if we are to play effectively in any situation.
So we can see that pretty much everything in rhythm can be understood as being one or other, or (more likely) a combination of these two things - the division of the space, and which rhythmic relationships are in place. An analysis of the rhythmic elements of the Rite of Spring can be as easily accommodated by this form of analysis as can the aforementioned Sousa March. In order to have a good sense of time, the musician needs to be able to do both of these things well - divide the space in whatever way is desired and be able to hear where he or she is in relation to the other rhythmic activity that's going on simultaneously.
The Art and Science of Time
Musicians speak a lot about a person's 'time' and their 'time feel', but what does this mean, and what constitutes good time? In my opinion a person can be said to have good time when they are able to place their notes consistently in relation to the pulse, and are in complete control of that placement. I think the word 'consistently' is very important here - having the ability to place your notes in a consistent relationship to the pulse is the foundation of good time and indispensable if one is to have a good time feel. A person whose time is not good does not have this consistency, they rush some phrases and drag others to compensate, they are aware of the notes in terms of pitch but only have a hazy awareness of how those notes should sit into the pulse. I have heard many players like this over the years, often playing the instrument at a technically high level - at least in terms of digital dexterity - but lacking control of the time elements that are so vital not only to professional performance of music, but to its emotional effect.
Rhythm and Time as an Emotional Device
People often speak about emotion in music, but usually they are referring to the use of the melodic or harmonic elements of music - one rarely hears people speak of rhythm as being emotional. Yet it is one of the most fundamental aspects of music and one that affects us immediately. If a band starts playing a good solid groove at a gig, the audience will automatically start moving their bodies - tapping their feet, bobbing their heads etc. This body movement, akin to dance, is a direct emotional response to the music. Nobody at a concert thinks to themselves 'I like this music, I must move my head in time to it'! No, the movement represents the automatic physical response to the emotional stimulus - the enjoyment of the music - being generated by the way the band are playing the groove. The greater the musician, or band's ability to generate good rhythmic feeling the more the audience responds.
There are numerous examples of musicians whose command of time feel and ability to generate great rhythmic energy through note placement played a huge part in their popularity and connection with audiences - Louis Armstrong, Errol Garner, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderly, Ella Fitzgerald - these were all famous for their time feel as well as for other qualities. But it's not just in jazz that we can see this effect on audiences - Bootsy Collins the legendary funk bassist made a career out of his ability to energise an entire band, and by extension the audience, by the power of often simple basslines. His time feel was so good and his mastery of time so complete that he has been one of the most in-demand and famous bassists in popular music history. And the example of Bootsy Collins or Errol Garner is no coincidence or unique occurrence - a person who has a strong time feel will inevitably affect a listener's response to the music, a person with a poor or ragged time feel will have much less impact on the listeners, no matter how apt the notes they play may be in terms of pitch and harmonic correctness.
So if rhythm is an emotional device in music and has such an effect on audiences it's obvious that we need to be in complete control of our rhythmic technique, as least as much as we are in control of our harmonic and melodic techniques. To be in control of your rhythmic technique means being able to control the exact placement of the notes in the space that I spoke about earlier. And to be able to do this consistently. The importance of being in consistent control of the rhythmic aspects of your playing cannot be overstated.
Most musicians of even the most basic level would not be happy if they could not produce a specific pitch if requested to do so - if the music requires the player to play a C, then even the most basic player would be considered incompetent if they could not do so. Let's imagine that they were only able to hit the note in the vicinity of C for example - sometimes on C, sometimes close to a Db, sometimes closer to a B - well if this were the case and if they didn't decide to go off and practice in order to fix this inconsistency themselves, they would certainly be advised to do so in no uncertain terms by their colleagues! Yet how many players get away with this same inaccuracy in relation to the rhythmic elements of their playing? How many players when playing 8th notes play them inconsistently, how many rush certain phrases, how many are constantly adjusting their phrasing in order to compensate for inconsistency in pulse relationship? Far too many in my opinion, and, considering how important this area is, far too little attention is given to proper and thorough rhythmic training. Often the extent of that training begins and ends with the mantra 'work with a metronome'!
I think one of the problems that teachers have with teaching rhythm is that they often don't really know how do it, and so they skate over it and place their trust in the generally competent ability to play in time that most musicians have. Harmony or instrumental technique is much easier to teach than rhythm, since in these two subjects the teacher can give the student a set of explicit tasks with clearly identifiable and 'correct' solutions and outcomes - 'if you are given this chord you can play these scales over it', or 'if you do this fingering then this scale will be much easier to play' etc. etc. Rhythm - since it involves a control of note placement in an invisible space, and relating to a pulse which is supposed to be internalized - is much more abstract, at least as a teaching subject. Quite often the teacher, if faced with a student with rhythmic problems such as rushing, has no tangible suggestions to make other than pointing out the rushing to the student (who's usually aware of it anyway) and the aforementioned suggestion to work with a metronome. Yet people often need help with rhythmic issues and unless rhythmic issues are addressed they become a permanent block to the musician's development.
Rhythmic Spatial Awareness and the Phenomenon of Rushing
By far the most common rhythmic problem that people have is that of rushing, and in working with many students with this problem I've thought a lot about why this is so widespread and what the causes of it are. I've come to the conclusion that people who rush (and people with other rhythmic problems) are suffering from a lack of what I call 'rhythmic spatial awareness'
There is no doubt in my mind that there are people who are naturally rhythmically talented and who have what's referred to as 'good time', and these people have an innate sense of what I think of as being rhythmic spatial awareness. They have a sense of how pulse inhabits space and the space around those pulses, and the result is that they don't rush, because they seem to have a heightened awareness of the where the pulse is in relation to wherever they are. I believe this to be innate with some people – nature not nurture – you can see it in even the youngest children singing a nursery rhyme – some children rush all the spaces between the notes (especially at the end of a line), while other children's placement of the notes in the space create the sense of the underlying pulse, even when these children are singing on their own.
I think this kind of talent can be compared to great athletes in games like soccer, or tennis, or basketball – the really great players seem to have more time to execute their manoeuvres than lesser players, the game seems to move slower for them – sometimes when watching them you get the sense they're moving slower than anyone else. This is a kind of talent that can't be manufactured and I think this ability is very similar to the rhythmic spatial awareness I'm talking about - the people with this rhythmic spatial awareness, like their counterparts in sport, seem to also have more time (in the chronological sense) to create their phrases. Their playing, even at speed, is characterized by a sense of relaxed clarity.
I think people who don't have this innate ability are more inclined to rush since they seem to have difficulty perceiving that space around the beats. But I think in most people the tendency to rush is caused first and foremost by anxiety, by a restless mind – a combination of self-consciousness in their playing and a fear of sounding bad, with the result that they rush their phrases in order to 'get it over with' in a way. And also in performance, as people play, they often become more excited in a self-absorbed kind of way as the piece goes on, becoming more focused on what they're doing and less and less able to have an overview of where they, and where others are in the music and in particular in relation to the pulse.
In my opinion I would say those factors – nervousness, inability to be both subjective and objective while playing – have more to do with causing the rushing phenomenon than anything else. Of course we are human beings and not machines and some rushing is to be expected when a group of 4 or 5 people are improvising together in a piece that can last 10 or more minutes. In fast tunes in particular one can budget for a certain increase in tempo over the course of the piece, in fact it can be argued that this adds to the excitement of the piece. Indeed in some musical traditions - such as Balkan folk music, or Gnawan music from the Maghreb - a sense of speeding up is a stylistic feature of the music. But I'm not talking about this when I'm talking about rushing as being a problem - I'm referring to the situation where phrases are garbled because they are rushed and/or where, due to rushing, the soloist and the rhythm section are out of sync to the point where the groove is adversely affected. In a worst case scenario the rushing can reach a point where a musician becomes almost unable to play with due to their inability to be in the right place after just a few measures have been played.
'Dragging' can also be a problem though this is less common in my experience and tends to be a direct result of technical problems, where for example the tempo is just too fast for the player, or where problems of physical coordination make the player slow down. So is there a solution for the chronic rusher or for someone with other rhythmic problems? Yes, become what I call a 'rhythmic being'
Becoming a Rhythmic Being
Quite often, because of the way we learn music -through an instrument - we give the instrument we play a prominence in the creation of the music that it doesn't deserve. What I mean by this is that we have a subconscious sense that the music is somehow produced, at least partially, by the instrument. Of course the reality is that the instrument is an inanimate object that is mute until we pick it up and do something - pluck, press, blow, strike, etc. - to it. We are producing the music, the instrument is the conduit - it is our physical action (those actions themselves generated by our creative musical mind), that produces the music, not the instrument. The instrument makes sounds, we organise those sounds and make music with that organised sound. Once we understand and recognize this we can also see that any rhythmic problems we may have will not be solved on the instrument. Since it is the body that is playing the instrument, we must be rhythmic within our own bodies, then we can put that rhythmic physicality onto the instrument and at the service of the music.
Our bodies need to be physically rhythmic in order for us to be rhythmically strong on our instruments and in our music, and there is a huge amount of practical work we can do in order to achieve this. This involves lots of singing and clapping! Basically what we're trying to do is make ourselves coordinated physically and rhythmically and to make ourselves relaxed rhythmically and physically aware of where the pulse is at all times. If you can't coordinate yourself physically, if you can't clap in time, if you can't sing in time then you certainly won't be able to play in time. Conversely if you can sing and clap with a good time feel then (given an appropriate level of instrumental technique), you will certainly play with a good time feeling. Of if you can sing one rhythm (or melody) and clap a different rhythm, and physically experience how these rhythms relate to one another then, in a real time playing situation, you will be much better at hearing how what you're playing relates rhythmically to what another person is playing.
There are many exercises one can do to improve one's sense of pulse and feel that space that I talked about earlier, and many exercises one can do to work on rhythmic relationship vocabulary. In my teaching of this subject I have literally dozens of exercises that I use to help students with different facets of rhythmic technique, and after working on these exercises for a while it's extraordinary what the students achieve. After a while and with consistent work, almost anything seems possible - from playing consistently well in time, to knowing where one is in relation to the pulse even when using phrases that cross the beat asymmetrically, to having three completely different rhythms going on simultaneously. The beauty of these exercises is that you don't need your instrument to do them so they can be done anywhere - the only equipment ever needed (and that only sometimes) is a metronome which can be slipped into the pocket. After a while, with consistent practice, anyone can improve their time and get in touch with, and be in control of this most elemental of musical forces - the power of rhythm. All great jazz musicians are or were truly rhythmic beings, by doing rhythmic exercises that involve singing and clapping, we can become rhythmic beings also.
As I mentioned earlier I will be producing a book/DVD on this subject over the next while, but before that I will post a few of these exercises online, so if you're interested in this area please keep an eye out for them.