Caution, Slow Listener

That my readers’ defenses of Dvorak are falling on deaf ears says something about my own compositional technique which has been on my mind lately. It’s not that I don’t find Dvorak’s music well crafted, but that his unit of craft is too often the one- or two-measure phrase, bounded by bar-lines. In my own music, I am obsessed with making the bar-line disappear. I don’t have a lot of particular things I pick on students about, but a passage like the one I quoted from the New World Symphony, if a student had brought it to me, would drive me nuts. When I see a kid composing in units of measure, measure, measure, with a new impetus, new phrase, new harmony on every downbeat, I start in with my wheedling tone (every experienced composition student will recognize the sound): “How about a triple upbeat to start that melody off a little more gracefully?” “How about we vary the harmonic rhythm here?” “You think the audience can’t hear where your bar-lines are if you don’t accent every one?” 

Perhaps because it deals with floating bodies, The Planets is, even more than most of my music, about obliterating the bar-line:
I don’t think it’s often in my music that the listener can feel sure what meter is being used, and I appreciated Daniel Webster’s reference in the Inquirer to my “intricate metrical joining.” I like nothing better, in fact, than to start off in clear 2/4 or 3/4, and then start throwing in five-beat phrases, or change harmony on odd 8th-notes, or to simply omit rests in the melody that a regular phrasing would imply. In rehearsal last week Douglas Mapp, Relache’s bassist, started pointing out “groove-inhibiting factors” in my music, and I picked up the nickname “The Groovebuster.” It’s not really at all that I don’t like regular rhythms, but that I think written music should aim to efface the page, to sound so fluid that the listener forgets that the music is written down, and especially that it springs from obvious formulas like 1 + 2 + 3 + 4-ee-and-a. Of course, Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto obliterates the bar-line too, but I do prefer in my music (and this is the essence of Totalism) to have recognizable metrical patterns for the ear to grab onto and follow – I just don’t want them slavishly dictated by a recurring bar-line. 
Plenty of great 19th-century music satisfies me in this regard. It’s not so much about contradicting the groove as having a meta-metrical sense on a larger level than the measure. The opening of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto projects an open-ended hyper-measure, grouping phrases through its descending drone bass-line into a striking accelerando; and then the quiet second theme sustains a dazzling tightrope-walk of metric ambuiguity. The soaring, minute-long opening theme of Bruckner’s Seventh lifts you to a meta-metrical height that makes the measure look like a petty unit indeed. In a grad-school Rhythmic Analysis course I chose the Adagio of the Bruckner Seventh to analyze because its rhythm fascinated me; and sure enough, I found its key in phrases that would begin a new tonality in mid-measure, delaying the resolution of rhythmic tension for minutes at a time until, at that big cymbal crash (added later and controversial), the harmonic rhythm and the phrase rhythm finally match up, resolving a subliminal but long-standing metric dissonance. Even in Mozart, I feel, however unconsciously, a satisfaction in the 15- or 17-measure sections he creates by overlapping the last measure of one phrase with the first measure of another, sounding perfectly normal but never quite letting you anticipate. 
I hear these things without trying. I have a long attention span, and I listen to music in slow, spacious units. First time I heard The Well-Tuned Piano live, La Monte ended after six hours and I looked up and thought, “What? Over already?” Music that keeps reminding me of its bar-lines and meters strikes me as fussy, like the composer couldn’t stand back far enough from his music to hear it on a multiplicity of levels. I’ve known all nine Dvorak symphonies since I was a teenager, and they’ve made all the impression on me they’re going to. His scherzos are sometimes rhythmically interesting; I’m fond of that in the Eighth, which falls effortlessly into ten-measure phrases, and exhibits more than his usual variety of large-scale phrasing. As with Tchaikovsky, I think he’s freer, more graceful, when he’s not struggling with sonata-allegro form. The world will not be altered in any respect by my finding Dvorak fussy, and meanwhile I have Bruckner, Brahms, and Mahler to remind me what glorious arcs of sound can be made by an orchestra playing in common meters. Dvorak will have his revenge, too, for the flip side is that a lot of folks probably can’t hear the larger rhythmic level into which I pour the cream of my creativity.
By the way, you want to know the secret to voluminous blogging? Insomnia. I’m up at 4 AM probably because I took some Benadryl, which is supposed to make one sleep, and things that make most people sleep tend to induce insomnia in me. I’m just built different.


  1. richard says

    I usually think of Dvorak’s music as being “nice”, not earth-shaking, but also not gag inducing. On the other had, I can’t abide
    Tchaikovsky. Hearing him makes think “what a waste of decent tunes.”

  2. says

    “Paradoxical response” is the general term used when someone has the opposite to the expected reaction to a pharmaceutical, like you and the Benadryl. Looks like that might be a useful term for your responses to the Nutcracker and Dvorak as well. At any rate, this last series of posts has been great. Congratulations on the Planets. Looking forward to the CD.
    KG replies: Clever juxtaposition. Perhaps my entire life has been a series of paradoxical responses.

  3. says

    “In my own music, I am obsessed with making the bar-line disappear.”
    Reminds me of Satie’s approach. I’ve heard too many works where phrasing is limited to bar lines.

  4. says

    Keep on the voluminous blogging… though of course I wish all the best for your health and good sleeeping is part of that.
    The other day when you wrote about Dvorák I remembered the ten-measure-phrases of the third movement of the 8th Symphony. That’s very pretty and a favourite of mine. Is it derived from folk style or am I mistaken?
    KG replies: Dunno. Those Slavs have all the interesting rhythms, though.

  5. says

    Being unfamiliar with the term “Totalism”, went to Wikipedia. Are you OK with this sentence?
    >>The term totalist refers to the aims of the music, in trying to have enough surface rhythmic energy (often emulating pop) to attract unsophisticated listeners, but also to contain enough background complexity to satisfy connoisseurs.KG replies: Heck, I may have written it.

  6. mclaren says

    If there’s something strange
    In your polymeter
    Who you gonna call
    If the rhythm’s weird
    And it sounds real good
    Who you gonna call
    I ain’t afraid of isorhythms
    I ain’t afraid of isorhtyhms
    If you’re seeing tuplets
    Running through your score
    Who can you call
    An invisible beat
    Leaking through the bar
    Oh, who you gonna call
    I ain’t afraid of isorhythms
    I ain’t afraid of isorhythms

  7. kraig Grady says

    Interestingly Balinese music might be a counter example. The more developed music is in the simplest meters and phrase lengths. the odd meters/lengths are more common in the smaller ensembles. I think other world music examples bare this out.
    One might argue it takes a good composer to make such regularity work. But i won’t in this case
    I am not convinced the endless meandering of the late romantics is the result of imagination any more than one would look at urban sprawl as imaginative city planning. (One might compare musical forms to the history of cities designs to in which they are created).
    It basically has lead to a collapse of long forms as having much musical meaning. Perhaps the minimalist brought these back. but more often as monotheist enterprises.

  8. says

    Dear kraig Grady,
    Early U.S. blues and country recordings — Robert Johnson, Lightning Hopkins, Carter Family, Woody Guthrie — frequently depart from 4/4 time from 4-bar phrases; later stuff is much more regulated/regular.
    Poet/translator/essayist and theorist of ethnopoetics Jerome Rothenberg has an axiom: Primitive means complex.

  9. Joe Kubera says

    I’m easy — I tend not to mind neat 4-bar phrases as long as there’s not a drummer in the group whacking out every damn beat.
    Not that I’d necessarily want to play such a piece, though.