I do think of totalism (a style of complex tempo relationships, usually with limited harmonies and some vernacular influence) – or metametrics, as we used to call it in the verdant groves of Postclassica [he mused, stroking his chin] – as a style that crystallized in the 1990s and then waned. OK, we finally said, you can get your ensemble to play rhythms of eight against nine. What else can you do? But my colleague John Halle is one of the great unsung totalists, and occasionally I realize he’s still riding higher than ever on the tempo complexity wagon.

John’s not strictly my work colleague, because he’s at the Bard Conservatory and I’m in the Bard music department, which, confusingly, have little to do with each other. Although we’re based in the same building, I run into him about twice a year, less often than I see, say, John Luther Adams who lives in Alaska. But the student composers have started having Conservatory/music department forums, and the other night John Halle played us some music of his I hadn’t heard. How’s this for totalism?:

John Halle: Spheres, excerpt from 1st mvmt.


The piece is an homage to Thelonious Monk, called Spheres, and the first movement is based on the Monk tunes Straight, No Chaser and Brilliant Corners (you can see the former in the viola and the latter in the cello), the tunes used almost as tone rows. And, as in Nancarrow’s orchestra works, there are several tempos going throughout: quintuplets in the first violin, regular 8ths and quarters in the second violin, triplets in the viola, and septuplets in the cello. It’s crazy, but the centripetal force of those tunes ties the whole thing together, and, as in a lot of John’s music, the freedom of the tempos creates a lovely aural impression that the music isn’t notated or coordinated, it just happens. 

I’ll write rhythms like this for Disklavier (which I haven’t finished anything for in a long time, though I’m toying with returning). But I don’t write them, nor microtones, for live performers, on the grounds that performers seem to have enough reasons to avoid my music, and I don’t like to give them any new ones. And sure enough, the quartet John wrote Spheres for a few years ago, which will remain nameless here, never touched it. But he notes, as many have, that rhythmic complexity standards have risen miraculously among the younger generation, and he’s now gotten the first movement played by the young Afiara Quartet. I’ve uploaded a recording for you here. He says they play it even better now than on the recording, but he and I agreed, it’s a pretty damn accurate performance on the recording. Amazing. 

And, as I also do in my Disklavier pieces, John gets a wide range of densities by varying the repeating durations within individual lines, creating tempos within tempos. He may be the most metametric of us all, and refusing to mellow out. It’s inspiring:


  1. says

    Zounds! Beautifully shaped & paced. Monk convincingly re-grooved: no small feat IMO. Hearty congrats to John and many thanks for the link Mister Post(classical)man.

  2. Ernest Ambrus says

    Apologies for mucking up a perfectly good entry, but you might like this:

    “Bard College Named Nation’s No. 1 Dinner Party School”


    “It’s almost impossible to walk the campus of this 2,000-student college on a Friday night and not hear the sound of Yellow Tail Pinot Noir bottles uncorking and Brian Eno’s Here Come The Warm Jets album wafting across the quad.”

    KG replies: Yes, we actually got notified by our school PR person, and I especially enjoyed the Here Come the Warm Jets reference, one of the three or four pop records of which I can sing all the lyrics.

  3. says

    I was lucky enough to have been there to hear the Afiara premiere this terrific piece by Halle in January ’10. John should post video of his pre-concert intro where he sings and thumps his belly to the Monk tunes. It’s just poised to go viral. Honest. And the Afiaras are singularly terrific: playing this piece around the country when most quartets would stick to their Beethoven and Haydn. Cause for optimism.

  4. mclaren says

    Synchronicity strikes. Was just listening to Thelonious Monk last night and thinking, “Man, this stuff really sounds polymetric… Has anyone transcribes Monk’s rhythms the way they’re actually played?” And here Halle goes and does it.

  5. says

    Thanks so much for making that music available. I’ve listened to it over and over since you first put it up and it continues to amaze and delight. Went looking for commercially available music by John Halle and couldn’t find anything. If this piece is ever released, would love to know. And again, thanks for the free education. No way in the world I’d have come across this if not following your blog.

  6. says

    It is wonderful how John Halle integrated the Monk themes with a string quartet, without any culture clash whatsoever. The result is excellent classical music, not weak jazz – and that is a real achievement.

    Obviously I would not tell other composers what to write but I wonder, if John were to write a string quartet using themes from rock music, the string quartet may really become relevant to a wider audience. Why I am writing this is because the Elizabethan composers would write variations on folk tunes. The early 20th century French composers were sometimes influenced by the excellent Parisian cabaret songs of the time. Maybe it is time for composers to follow these examples.
    (Just an idea – I don’t know if John likes rock music or not of course!)

  7. says

    I have just wondered how John Halle dealt with the copyright of these themes. Not that I am obsessed with the legalities, but I would love to compose a work based on a rock theme. However it would mean composer has no copyright in the work. Not that I am obsessed with money but I need to earn my living!

    KG replies: Good question. Don’t know. Since he basically treats them as pitch rows, with not much reference to the original rhythm, I don’t know whether it’s an issue or not. Anyone?

  8. says

    Thanks for your reply Kyle. If it is a note series I am sure there’s not a problem, however I thought Straight, No Chaser was pretty close to the original rhythm. (I can’t comment on Brilliant Corners, as I don’t know it.)

    I have use the melodic concept of Interstellar Overdrive in three works, in the last two the theme is so highly developed that the provenance is unrecognisable. This would probably not be a problem anyway, as the original theme is almost certainly based on the intro to My Little Red Book by Love.

  9. mclaren says

    Hey, has John tried Quartette Indigo? Akua Dixon wrote a fabulous totalist jazz piece called “Andromeda” a few years ago and she’s played it with her quartet, so she’s completely familiar with polymetric pieces like this. Plus, Quartette Indigo specializes in jazz. This might be right up their alley.

    Couldn’t hurt to ask…unless Halle already intended it for Quartette Indigo, of course.

    KG replies: Nope, that wasn’t the one. I’ll pass it along, thanks.