On The Beat (Part 12)
No time to lose when it comes to odd metres. Nigel Lord takes a look at "difficult" time signatures in this month's instalment of MT's rhythm programming series.
TAKING A SHORT BREAK FROM THE RIGOURS OF EXPLORING THE WORLD'S RHYTHMS, THIS MONTH'S BEATBOX PROGRAMMING LESSON CONCENTRATES ON ODD TIME SIGNATURES.
BACK IN THE days when I was editing MT's sister magazine, Rhythm, I wrote an editorial in which my somewhat reactionary and dismissive readership was asked to consider the possibilities of playing in odd time signatures. To emphasise the point, I compiled a list of all the records that had reached the charts (and could therefore be judged "successful") which had incorporated rhythms outside the more common 2-, 3- and 4-based time signatures. I was immediately deluged with letters pointing out (with all the smugness readers are wont to display when they think they've spotted a mistake) all the records I had neglected to include.
Summoning my skills as an editor whose omniscience they had until that point been unable to disprove, I neatly side-stepped the criticism by claiming that in no way had I meant to infer that my list was complete. It was, I argued, simply a cross-section of the better known records which fell into that category. (And of course I was truly grateful to them for bringing these other examples to my attention.)
With or without the help of the readers, however, I still believe the point was well made. Odd time signature rhythms can be readily adapted to suit a surprisingly wide range of music, and indeed, the word "odd" itself, need only refer to the structure of the rhythmic, not to its inherent "strangeness" in a contemporary music setting.
It could be argued that the problem we have to address lies not with musicians but with their audiences. Odd metres simply don't sit squarely with the great listening public. Or do they? It seems to me that providing a rhythm is dressed in the right clothes, most people aren't aware that anything untoward is going on - even the appearance of an extra beat to the bar.
I appreciate that this may sound like something of a Trojan horse approach to writing music, but why should that matter? If, as many of the odd metre tracks which have appeared over the years would seem to suggest, there's a direct correlation between non-standard time signatures and musical innovation, it is surely incumbent on us to at least consider them the next time we sit down to put a rhythm track together. Take some of the examples that were mentioned in my list: 'Take Five' (Dave Brubeck), 'Solsbury Hill' (Peter Gabriel), 'Living In The Past' (Jethro Tull), 'Wuthering Heights' (Kate Bush) and 'Turn It On' (Genesis).
Convinced? I'm not sure many of the Rhythm readership were, but then, most of them were drummers, and playing in odd time is the sort of exercise which brings your average skin basher out in nasty red swellings. Not so our friend the beatbox, who will happily sit there while you program him/her/it with the most fearsomely complex patterns and then, with great dignity (and not a trace of resentment at being expected to perform such a task), replay them flawlessly from beginning to end.
This isn't to suggest that the patterns that I shall be presenting this month could be described as fearsome - or complex. There is nothing inherently complicated about odd time in any form, and the examples I have come up with here certainly shouldn't present any problems - providing your machine is capable of handling the "arithmetic". Of course, being written in odd metres, it's unlikely that any of these patterns will fit, without modification, with other parts which you may have already written. But you should find yourself being led down some interesting avenues if you do choose to try adapting a song or instrumental track for use with them. And if you're starting from scratch, you can almost guarantee the sort of music you'll produce will be given a considerably greater degree of rhythmic interest by using one of the patterns here.
Having listened to a wide range of odd metre rhythms in preparation for this article, it seemed to me that where most of them fall down is in attempting to adapt existing patterns in common time for use as 5-, 7- or 9-based rhythms. More often than not, this tends to sound like a beat has been added to the bar (or missed out, in the case of two-bar patterns), and our 4/4-sodden brains are immediately alerted to the fact that something is "wrong". Here I have tried to devise patterns which, from the outset, are intended to be played with an odd number of beats to the bar, and which therefore stand on their own feet, rhythmically. Where I have adapted an existing 4/4 pattern, however, I have attempted to employ a few diversionary tactics so that the attention is drawn away from what we might perceive as a missing or an extra beat.
How successful I have been in this, I'll leave for you to judge, but I would ask that you give yourself enough time to acclimatise to these patterns before deciding on their value. Hopefully, after your brain has shrugged off its 4/4 straitjacket, you should start seeing the rhythmic possibilities contained within each example. There is no elaborate-instrumentation to concern yourself with. I've stuck to snare, bass drum, hi-hats and cymbals for most patterns, with the addition of a side stick or cowbell part here and there to add a little colour.
Of course, if you feel like getting adventurous I'm sure every one of the patterns could be improved upon by pressing other instruments into service, and it goes without saying (or should) that the overall effect will vary according to the duration of each voice (particularly the bass and snare drums) and the kind of ambience to which they are subjected. So choose your samples with care.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 (Viewing) | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19 | Part 20 | Part 21 | Part 22 | Part 23 | Part 24 | Part 25 | Part 26 | Part 26 | Part 27 | Part 28 | Part 29 | Part 30 | Part 31 | Part 32 | Part 33 | Part 34 | Part 35
Feature by Nigel Lord
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