It's Still Always About The Groove

In my life/career, I've played so many different types of music: pop. rock, hard rock, prog rock, country, latin, fusion, dixieland, swing, jazz, classical, and on and on. One thing they all have had in common is the groove. 

It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)        
(Composition by Duke Ellington, lyrics by Irving Mills)

Yeah, jazz (and related musics) have swing - ding-ding-a-ding-ding-a-ding on the ride cymbal. But swing is just another name for groove. Other styles might call it something else. The music changes, the label changes, the swing/groove goes on. Even classical music has it. Mozart and Beethoven knew, they made their music groove in its own way.

Nowadays, I work mostly in improvised music. I hesitate to call it jazz, although many people do, because it lacks that distinguishing swing rhythm. Sometimes it's played along to some sort of rhythm, other times it's what people call free improvisation. The thing is, when I'm playing, I'm always thinking about the rhythm. Even at the most free and obscure, I'm still basing what I play on some sort of rhythmic pulse.

It's easy to listen to something I play and say, “There's no rhythm/pulse,” but that would be missing what's there. It's no one's fault, but more a matter of perception brought on by how we have learned to listen to music.

Most popular music, rock/pop, jazz, even classical, is divided up into short rhythmic fragments strung together to create longer phrases. For example:

Because of this, we are conditioned to hear short, repeating rhythmic phrases. This is one reason we are often uncertain about African, Indian, Asian and other ‘world musics,’ because their rhythmic phrasing is often longer, so it doesn't sit neatly within our expectations. Our ears/bodies haven't been trained to listen to, and pick up on much longer phrasing. Let's say a rhythmic pattern is playing that repeats after 21 beats. In normal 4/4, that would be over 5 measures, so our impatient ears may be struggling because we expect repetition after only 4 beats.

This all brings me to playing improvised music. While it may be interesting for a short while to listen to something that is total cacophony, sounding like all the musicians and their instruments are falling down a long flight of stairs, to me, that fails to sustain long term interest. 

When I play, I am always thinking of some sort of forward motion. This may contain playing some sort of regular pulse, or, playing a sustained stream of notes that are felt and divided up into irregular segments which are a part of the whole, the continued forward motion. Or I may be looking at a longer term sense of rhythm, perhaps arcing over 20, 30, 40 beats or more. Or, I may be looking at a rhythm where I don't know an end point, but I feel the sense of motion and follow it until it stops or changes.

This video is a good example of all these elements: 

At times I'm playing shorter rhythmic elements, even a bit of swing with the brushes, then it evolves later on into a sort of stream of consciousness of notes that keeps the forward momentum going, yet does away with standard time signature/bar lines/divisions. The music was improvised, but I was always thinking pulse/rhythm/groove. Nothing I played was just random.

Now when I'm playing solo, especially with the Gongs and other ringing metals, my idea of pulse is extremely broadened. Whereas playing in a rock band the rhythmic measures are only a few seconds long (and the corresponding drum sounds are very short), here I may be thinking of rhythms/pulses lasting minutes! With the ringing metals, I have longer sounds to work with, which helps create a broader sense of space within the music. 

This sort of meta-rhythmic approach looks at broadening our sense and awareness of time. Again, I'm always thinking of rhythm/groove (meta-groove?), but in a much wider sense that is not always readily apparent. Rhythm is there, but so is space between the rhythmic events. While we are taught to sense rhythm/beats, we are not taught to sense the space between those beats, so when the beats spread out, so does the space, and we are often at a loss to sense any sort of rhythm happening.

The thing is, we are naturally adapted to longer rhythmic cycles. Think of the seasons, the cycles of the moon and tides, or the changing day and night. Circadian rhythms are at the very heart of our existence.

(of biological processes) recurring naturally on a twenty-four-hour cycle, even in the absence of light fluctuations.

"a circadian rhythm"
 For most of mankind's existence, we were guided by circadian, or longer, rhythms: you got up when the sun rose and slept when the sun set. You planted in the spring, tended crops through the summer, harvested them in the autumn, and rested through the winter. 

But then the clock was invented and the machine age arrived, throwing all of our natural cycles off. Today, we are often slaves to our own machines: computers, phones, electronics of all types that keep us in line and on schedule. And so too our music, which is often at a frenetic pace, pushing us ever faster. 

Is it any wonder that we don't easily recognize longer and slower rhythms?

One thing I have my students do is to play whatever they are working on at extremely slow tempos. The idea is to feel the spaces between the notes and to recognize how the rhythm unfolds. When we play fast, it's easy to just go with the momentum, which is self generating. At a very slow tempo, that momentum must be generated by your awareness of the time & space you are moving through.

Another exercise is to take an 8 bar phrase from something you are working on and rewrite it without bar lines. Write it as one long stream of notes. Then when you play it, try to feel how all of these notes are connected in one long phrase/stream.

And if you work in a free/improvised setting, instead of just playing randomly, try to think in larger terms, thinking of all your notes connected, creating, if not a steady rhythm, a sense of flow and forward motion.

Deconstruct your sense of time.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™


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