Metametric Mysteries Cleared Up

In my extensive post on Metametric music (you know, The Style Formerly Known as Totalism, c’mon, man, get with the program) I mentioned that I could never figure out how the California Ear Unit performed the three meters at once of Art Jarvinen’s Murphy-Nights. To save you from having to look, the piece starts off with an 8/4 ostinato (32 16th-notes) in the electric keyboard against a 33/16 ostinato in the electric bass – on top of which the rest of the ensemble enters in changing meters, starting in 6/4. (You can hear the effect here.) I wish I could show you the actual score: in its postminimalist way it’s as scary as any early Stockhausen outside of Gruppen. I’ve known Art for years and could always have asked him how they did it, but sometimes when I’m amazed by something I enjoy not knowing the secret, and just letting my imagination run wild. Well, Art decided to dispel my imaginings, and I provide his explanation – which will ring familiar, I think, to every composer/performer who has performed in his or her own chamber music. The trick, he says, was

rehearsal, mainly. But some other factors played in.

First of all, it’s just not that hard for the melody instruments to lock into the keyboard, which is in straight 8 – might as well be four-four. The bass is the one that has to be on his toes, and that was me. When I came up with the idea, I test drove it at home, playing bass over a tape of the keyboard part. No problem. Knowing I could hang with it, the rest of the group just had to follow the keyboard, and trust me to be with them at the next big downbeat. We played the piece live exactly 14 times, and no, we didn’t always get it right, but we did most of the time. For the recording we put down bass and keyboard together first. That was the only take (he said somewhat proudly, but not smugly). It was such a treat to work every day with such great players.

Almost the whole group had a couple of advantages over most conventional players such as orchestra section players. We had played a LOT of Reich, as well as Michael Gordon, Andriessen, etc. We cut our teeth on music made from these sorts of schemes. And of extreme importance I would add, is that most of us played in rock/jazz/pop bands, and understood groove as a collective thing, not just accuracy within one’s own part. The one time we had some difficulty getting the piece to work was when we broke in a new keyboardist. Fabulous player, but zero pop music experience. Even played “accurately” the groove wasn’t happening. So we had a sectional with just bass and keyboard, with clarinetist Jim Rohrig coaching the keyboardist on feel, not counting. It all came together again pretty quickly after that.

Back when I used to perform in my own ensemble pieces, I’d write rhythms in my own part that I wouldn’t have dared put anyone else through, and also left parts blank to fill in in performance. Art also adds commentary to my post on Lucky Mosko’s music:

You definitely zeroed in on a couple of major issues, things he was consciously trying to do, such as sabotage the listener’s sense of temporal placement. His succession of “nows” forms a coherent continuum – of sorts – but it’s not a “classical/logical” formal argument he makes. I always thought of all of Lucky’s pieces as “middles” of a much larger, eternal, piece, that we are given samples of now and then. None of his pieces really start or end. They just happen.

While I’m at it, I was about to say (before Samuel Vriezen anticipated me) that I could imagine making a distinction between metametric music and totalism. Part of the idea of totalism, beyond the rhythmic issues, was that it brought together elements from rock, jazz, and world musics, and also appealed both to pop music fans and postclassical fans. The term metametric focuses in on just the rhythmic angle, and (since coined by a Dutch composer in response to an American style) could indicate a broader realm of music, defined more technically and less by style and milieu. Don’t goad me on this, you don’t want to know how anal I can get when it comes to defining musical terminology.


  1. says

    As someone who started out as a teenager in rock bands, and am now a college prof who teaches digital media and composes on the side, I can relate quite well with your comment about “groove”. I listened to the clip in question, and immediately thought, “Hey, that wouldn’t be hard to play at all.” It brought me back to dozenbs of jam sessions where meter was never a conscious concern. Rather, you simply learned to listen to your fellow players to be sure that you fit well together; the groove aspect you mentioned.
    But I wonder whether some who use such varied meters do so simply to be different, or because there’s a sound, an asthetic they’re attempting to reach. I feel that there’s still so much we can explore in traditional rythms that there’s not a strong need to look for more unbeaten paths.

  2. David Ryshpan says

    Dave Douglas has written an essay that ties into Art’s comments on the collective sense of time and groove, which can be found here. Another essay Douglas has written which challenges the puritanical views of certain musicians, composers, and armchair analysts can be read here, and fits nicely with some of the arguments you’ve made, Kyle, in recent posts.

  3. says

    Remembering your frustration with your students saying “hey, that sounds like X“, for some pop music piece X, it is with some hesitation that I say this, but your description of the Jarvinen above reminds me a bit of King Crimson’s “Discipline” (from the album Discipline). (Though they don’t sound alike, based on the sample posted.)

  4. says

    I like the name “Metametrics”, sounds nice and inviting.
    I’ve had some experience playing music a bit like you describe, with electric guitar, bass, and interesting rhythms. Personally I find it funny, amusing to reaharse rhythmically difficult stuff.
    Your posts make me remember of a work by a friend of mine written for percussion, prepared piano and toy piano, in which I played prepared piano. Among other things there was a 7/4 in the other parts while I had 7/4 + 1/8. Not the most alien ever written, but different enough to give quite an interesting sensation.
    And, of course, I could perceive this kind of music would please listener who enjoy rock, jazz etc.

  5. Jules says

    BTW,l the style formerly known as post-rock – i.e. artists like Mogwai and Tortoise that employ unusual time signatures, unusual, at least, for pop – have been redesignated ‘math music’ by one of my download sites of choice, ’’.

  6. says

    BTW,l the style formerly known as post-rock – i.e. artists like Mogwai and Tortoise that employ unusual time signatures, unusual, at least, for pop – have been redesignated ‘math music’ by one of my download sites of choice, ’’.
    That’s really a misclassification; “math rock” and “post-rock” were current terms simultaneously (both being species of the Prog That Dare Not Speak Its Name). Math rock: Don Caballero. Post rock: Tortoise. Emusic may classify Mogwai as math, but to me, that just sounds nutty. Math rock is generally more aggressive and, well, rock than post-rock. Drop-tuned guitars and riffs, not vibraphones and lengthy swells.
    There’s an offshoot of math rock generally called brutal prog (decent article), which can sort of be seen as math rock plus the Ruins (who can uncharitably be seen as making a career out of a single Magma track, “De Futura”).

  7. Fred Schneider says

    I think the bass ostinato is in 33/16 and the keyboard is in 8/4 (32/16)
    KG replies: Isn’t that what I said?