The Alt. Route to Metametrics

Art Jarvinen, whose rhythmic intricacies are second to those of no one I write about, offers a different genealogy for how he came to metametric complexities. In ninth grade (circa 1971) he discovered Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band’s then-brand-new album Lick My Decals Off, Baby, which he found, as he puts it, thoroughly “post-minimal/totalist, with the crunch that was supposedly added to the prettier pattern/phase things of Reich et al by my generation of composers.” As evidence he sends an mp3 of the song “I Wanna Find A Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have To Go,” which you can listen to by clicking the link. Art didn’t hear of Steve Reich till he got into college, and never heard the word phasing until his senior year, 1978, when percussionist Jan Williams lectured on the topic. By then, the metametric idea had already long been sown in him, via Captain Beefheart.


  1. David D. McIntire says

    Kyle, there’s a fair number of examples of multiple-meter and different-length looping in the world of rock. Like Art Jarvinen, that’s where I heard it first, in my case with Frank Zappa’s “Toads of the Short Forest.” Frank even announces the time signatures for the audience’s benefit. King Crimson’s ‘Lark’s Tongues in Aspic,’ much Beefheart, Magma’s “Hhai,” and many other prog-rock groups experimented with similar ideas. Maybe it was just something in the air at the time, but when I heard Steve Reich’s music for the first time, it made all the sense in the world to me. (And suggested there might be a place in the classical world for me after all.) When I heard the Totalists years later, I felt an inevitability with that music that I think in part had its roots in the rock and jazz of the late 60s and 70s. It’s music that had/has to be written. Sam Vriezen’s remark about these composers seeking a kind of extasy or exaltation would certainly apply to most of the rock examples as well. (BTW, I’m looking forward to hearing your paper in Wales.)
    KG replies: Hi, David. Yeah, I’m glancingly familiar with those bands and even some of those individual pieces. I suppose this is as good a place as any to mention that I am not quite as ignorant of progressive rock as many people seem to assume. Most of the composers I write about I know personally, and we all developed these techniques as part of a scene, and I write about them because I consider them extremely underrated and unduly ignored. That doesn’t mean I dismiss all those groups who hardly need any advocacy from me, nor that I don’t imagine that artists in other genres weren’t working in parallel areas of exploration. I certainly knew Captain Beefheart’s music, for instance, though not the song Art sent me, and I passed that influence on to my son. (In fact, if I fail to cite examples, it is sometimes because my son absconded with much of my progressive rock collection, and I no longer have them to refer to.) May all those groups thrive and be suitably lauded. I write about a certain tradition, and as I am nearly the only person writing about it, I am all the more devoted to it – but that doesn’t mean I assert its superiority to every other. I know you didn’t mean to imply that, but it’s an ongoing theme of comments I get here.
    Another reason for the particular, classical-based list of influences I give is that I absorbed all these techniques not just from listening, but from studying scores. I have no scores of Frank Zappa’s or Captain Beefheart’s or Henry Cow’s recordings. If I were merely going to write about music that encouraged exotic meters, of course those groups deserve mention. But the brand of metametric phenomena I’m referring to (11-against-13-against-17, 103-against-171-against-211) are subtle and complex, and would be exceedingly difficult to ferret out from merely listening. Do Captain Beefheart, or Prince, actually use rhythms like this? How would I know? How would I find out? If you thought so, how would you prove it? But Nancarrow does, and I can find them, though I might never have figured out what he was doing had I not gotten access to the score. And so, in tracing these routes through history, I rather limit myself to points I can prove. But I am certainly interested in what the composers I’m interested in have gathered from other sources.

  2. says

    the music of captain beefheart completely changed everything for me, specifically the albums trout mask replica and lick my decals off, baby and i’ve been periodically immersing myself completely in that music. i’m currently working on a project devoted to it, figuring out all the parts one by one and recording them. the plan is to change the contexts of the pieces, if even slightly. it’s also fun to hear them without the vocals. rockette morton aka. mark boston the bass player in that magioc band has sent me cds of all the individual bass, drum, guitar amd marimba parts. if mr. jarvinen is interented i’d gladly send him a copy.
    i have a myspace page if anyone’s interested in checking out:
    the guitarist henry kaiser might contribute, which i’m pretty excited about.
    i also tend to write from a rhythmic standpoint. it’s the aspect of music i find most exciting. the first time i heard putnam’s camp, redding conn. i was literally on the edge of my seat. i love the almost speech-like quality of beefheart’s rhythm and it’s something i use a lot in my own music but i have tons of trouble trying to notate it. i’m just not theoretically or intellectually equipped to do so. i’d like to see some of art jarvinen’s scores, i’m sure i could learn tons.
    KG replies: Art is sending me some transcriptions he’s made of Captain Beefheart scores. You two should get in touch.

  3. says

    “mark boston the bass player in that magioc band has sent me cds of all the individual bass, drum, guitar amd marimba parts. if mr. jarvinen is interented i’d gladly send him a copy.”
    Thanks, but I’ve had those tapes for 25 years. That’s the only way I could have transcribed Japan In A Dishpan.

  4. Mark Surya says

    See, this is why the Zappa family trust really should start selling scores to his works. John Adams went through a love/hate relationship with his music, and I still think he says something like “It’s some of the most rhytmically complex music in the world, but it doesn’t add up to anything.” I really don’t agree with the second statement, but Zappa’s definatley someone who internalized Nancarrow, Varese, Webern and even some early Reich.
    (I always thought it was funny how people credited ‘Different Trains’ for using recorded speech as melodic patterns when Zappa did it in ‘Porn Wars’.)

  5. Mark Surya says

    Oh, right. And Captain Beefheart references ‘Come Out’ in Moonlight On Vermont from Trout Mask Replica.