Meter: the Postclassical Paradigm

During Bard’s Janacek festival a couple of years ago, I became rather impressed with that composer’s textural and tonal originality, especially upon realizing that I had always thought of him as a 20th-century composer and he was actually born in 1854. So awhile later, browsing at Patelson’s in New York, I ran across the sheet music to Janacek’s On an Overgrown Path – the piece that the well-known eponymous blog is named for, I suppose – and picked it up. It sat on my piano for months, but since I moved to a new house, my Steinway has developed a terrible case of sticking notes, rendering it unsatisfying to play, and piano tuner time is at a dear premium up here. So at an odd moment I finally decided to listen to the new ECM recording of the piece with András Schiff while following the score. It’s a lovely recording – except that Schiff can’t handle the 5/8 meters that come up in a couple of movements. He plays this passage:


by speeding up the first three 8th-notes notes and prolonging the last two (even extending the left-hand D-flat into a quarter-note), turning the meter into a more conventional 6/8, as you can hear here, and disappointingly taking the edge off of Janacek’s rhythmic originality. (In fact, when the music reverts to 2/4 in the 5th measure, Schiff’s 8th-note suddenly slows down by 50 percent, making it clear that he was feeling the 5/8 as 2/4 with triplets all along.)

This wouldn’t merit mentioning if it weren’t so common. Classical musicians are taught early in life that a measure is a rhythmic unit, divided into two or three parts, and if divided into more, then divded according to a symmetrical heirarchy: 2 groups of 2, 2 groups of 3, 3 groups of 3, and so on – or not and so on, because that’s about it. Of course, quite early in the 20th century – On an Overgrown Path is a hundred years old – composers opened up a new conception of meter, as a quantity of equal or even unequal units. Musicians accustomed to playing composers as long-dead as Stravinsky and Copland are used to negotiating 5/8 and 7/8 meter, but it’s surprising how many professional musicians have never added the new paradigm to their repertoire. They recognize it and think they know how to do it, but when they start to play, their body-need for a regular beat, like Schiff’s, overrules their visual cognition. I have to warn my students, some of whom gravitate to 13/16 and similar meters under the influence of notation-software-induced ease, that some classical players will have to be taught how to play the rhythm, and that they might not be teachable. Recently a student wrote a passage in 10/8 meter, with the following quite elegant rhythm that required four beats per measure, quarter-notes on 1 and 3 and dotted quarters on 2 and 4:


It seemed perfectly simple to him and me, but the performance, by professional players steeped in 19th-century music, was a disaster. They ended up speeding the non-triplet 8th-notes into triplets, and making it a kind of bumpy 4/4. No amount of pleading could get them to feel successive beats as unequal.

I face the same mentality when I show people my Desert Sonata for piano, which has a long moto perpetuo passage in 41/16 meter. Certain people look at it and exclaim, incredulously, “How do you COUNT that?!” Well, of course, you don’t count it, but if you will play the 16th-notes evenly and in the order indicated, I promise it will come out all right. What they want, of course, is some heirarchical division of 41 that they can funnel all those 16th-notes into, and there just isn’t one. (Please don’t be tiresome and advise me to renotate it in 4/4 – the 41/16 clarifies the underlying isorhythm, and mangling it into 4/4 would turn it into an unmemorizable mishmash.) By now this new metric paradigm is very common among young composers – Sibelius notation software will handle meters up to 99/32 just as easily as 4/4 – and so it’s astonishing to still find it so missing in classical music pedagogy. In 1947 Nancarrow turned to the player piano because the musicians he met couldn’t play the comparatively simple cross-rhythms he was writing. Were he to come back today, there are circles in which he would find that things haven’t improved much.

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  1. says

    Just to play devil’s advocate here. When you notate your compositions, do you notate for the performer’s ease, or the composer/musicologist’s ease? I always opt for the performer’s, since I’d rather make it easier for the them and have a good performance, than a score that makes it easier for analysis. Of course, since most of my pieces have staggered entrances, the meter doesn’t make all that much difference anyway. I also find that using phrase markings over a number of measures works better for most musicians than tricky meters, with the side benefit that beat duration isn’t altered so readily that way.

  2. says

    It’s an interesting problem, and I suppose one we all struggle with to one degree or another. Personally, if I have to choose between making the meaning clear to the performer and making the music sight-readable, I will opt for the latter, figuring that meaning will make itself apparent if the notes are played correctly.
    But the example you give of Schiff’s distortions — that’s inexcusable. In fact, all three examples you give here (janacek, your student, Desert Sonata) should be easily graspable by experienced performers.

  3. Richard Voorhaar says

    This reminds me of an incident from high school band days. We were rehearsing a piece that was in 7/8 and to “help” us, the director called out the counts “one-two-three-four-five-six-sev-en” (ie 8/8) and got quite upset that many of us were’nt following him. With regards to Schiff, I think that it help prove my theory that most western Europeans are rhythmically challenged. I think a class in Bulgarian dance should be a requirement for all performance majors, so they can get a feel for “Aksak” rhythms!

  4. David Wright says

    To add to the Schiff example, I recently got a CD with Stokowski’s c.1948 recording of “Sensemaya” by Silvestre Revueltas. If my ear is correct, Revueltas’ 7/8 meter is turned into 4/4 for much of the piece with the addition of an extra eighth note per measure. Stokowski then tries to cover this up by taking the piece at the speed of light so that the difference between 7/8 and 4/4 (8/8) is only a fraction of a second. (His solution to the “problem” of the alternating 7/8 and 7/16 meters in the second section of the piece is also pretty funny.)

  5. says

    Just getting around to reading the far back issues of your blog but this was such a pleasant and familiar topic and so inspiring to me that I had to write something. I used to write a lot of meters with fractional bits – you know, 4 1/2 beats of 4 for example – which seemed to be the correct notation for the music. It was supposed to sound like a little bit was dropped off the end – of a normal 5/4 measure in the above case – but I couldn’t get conductors to beat it that way, even though it seemed really straightforward to me. They all wanted to make it 2/8 + 2/8 + 2/8 + 3/8, which is of course the same length but hardly the same feel. I think the hiccuping rhythms in the Concord Sonata may have been the first place that made me think about using such things, but didn’t Led Zeppelin take these kind of rhythms to the masses in the 70s? In what universe did these people all grow up? And why have I allowed them to browbeat me into their way of thinking? On this day, I take a solemn vow to subjugate myself no longer!

  6. milton parker says

    I ran into this trying to notate the unbelievable song “Storise Khoro Goliamo” as recorded by Mita Stoycheva in the 20′s. Technically it’s 7/8, but the last unplayed beat is more of an airborne skip, and you don’t know when you’re going to land. It’s the opposite of a rest.
    luckily we do have a variant of the oral tradition & I can’t recommend this disc highly enough: