Rhythm and Restlessness

Modernist composers had some funny ideas about rhythm. Olivier Messiaen insisted that a regular pulse was actually the enemy of rhythm, since rhythm relied on differences in duration. Karlheinz Stockhausen, too, was more interested in the irregular—while he admitted that he liked to dance to music with a regular pulse, this compulsion was too “basic” for his own music.

This is all fine in theory, but in practice it can be quite difficult to write music without a regular pulse that still creates a distinct rhythmic feeling. It’s easier to find counterexamples, like Morton Feldman’s shifting meters that create an impression of floating outside of time, or the dizzyingly intricate rhythms of composers like Conlon Nancarrow or Brian Ferneyhough. While the performer must internalize these complex rhythms to an extent, for the listener these intricacies often go by too fast to be perceived. In effect, rhythm turns into texture.

Between these two extremes—sparse ambience and dense texture—are the rhythms we can typically make sense of, and this is the territory that most music explores. But I’m sometimes sympathetic to the modernist mission, the manifest destiny that wants to find new lands. What is the furthest we can go, in either direction, without entering completely inhospitable terrain? I’m especially interested in music that exists on one of these boundaries, but the problem is typically that it’s not a good place to rest. It’s a place you cruise by on the way from one area to another.

To make this a little less abstract, let’s think about the 4 against 3 polyrhythm, one of the most common polyrhythms, the one that gives so many intermediate piano students so much trouble. This should be a perfect example of a musical idea caught perfectly between two worlds. But written another way, it becomes almost trivial:

rhythm sample

Repeat this more than a couple times and it starts to sound conventional (“dum dah-dum dah duh-dum”). The restless, in-between character of it is lost. Messiaen’s argument starts to make a little sense. And this happens with polyrhythms that have larger periodicities, too (7 against 8, 11 against 13, etc.). To preserve that restless feeling, we need both a pulse and something that’s constantly undermining the pulse. And that other thing has to be in a constant state of flux as well. Compare this demonstration of Henry Cowell’s Rhythmicon, which uses static polyrhythms:

As opposed to this piece by the Claudia Quintet, with its hiccups and surprising turns:

Or even this recent David Bowie song, with vocal lines in various meters hovering over a near-constant 4/4 drum pattern:

Not surprisingly, many examples of this rely on deceptive drum beats that seem to obfuscate the “true” underlying meter. But I don’t think this is the only way to achieve this effect, and I’d like to see it attempted in chamber music more often.

4 thoughts on “Rhythm and Restlessness

  1. Michael

    Interesting piece: In terms of rhythmic sophistication, including what may be termed “corporeal” (regular) and “spiritual” (irregular) rhythms, the classical music of India comes to mind.

    Earlier this year, inspired by comments Ratzo Harris made in this publication, I came to an unexpected realization concerning the rhythmic gifts of an American musician:

  2. Keith Burstein

    The question of ‘periodicity’ in rhythm was central to the post ww 2 avant garde who tried to extend the pitch serialism of the Schoenberg school into the structures of rhythm.While all experiment in musical invention is good, this application of serialism to rhythm was probably even more devastating in terms of the cultural link between composers and audience, than the pitch serialism of pre ww 2 for the reason that non periodic rhythm is perceived to be ‘unrhythmic’ and therefore not ‘music’.There is probably a perceptual line that enables the brain to distinguish between random noise and noise organized with the emotive imperative ‘music’ and if the noise material promoted is written to obfuscate the signifier ‘music’ then the noise material is not perceived, at least other than by the immediate friends of the composer, to be music.The contrast between wonderful metrical mellismas to be found in some comtemporary pop dance music and also in traditional IIndain music on the one hand, and the so called ‘complexity of rhythm in New Complex new classical western music on the other hand, is highly instructive.In the case of the first two, the pop music and Indian music, the multi layering, no matter how complex never loses the dynamic pulse of periodicity, while in the paper constructs of new classicial aperiodic music, the loss of periodicity subjugates rhythm itself as the prime emoter of all music.I understand these dialogues are not for self promotion, and so will fully understand if the following information is not included, but in conclusion I would like to refer to the recently released Naxos album of my Symphony ‘Elixir’ in which I have attempted to construct very large fields of multi layered rhythm.It can be downloaded from here

  3. Liam Carey

    I agree that a sense of pulse, whether regular or irregular, is very important for rhythmic clarity, but I think it’s also important to take into account super-metre (groups of pulses) and sub-metre (sub-divisions of the pulse). The example you give of 4 against 3 notated as quavers and semi-quavers (the “dum dah-dum dah duh-dum”) can be heard as points on a continuous sub-metrical level made up of semi-quavers, and in this way the 4:3 becomes very easy to follow. But once the 4:3 rhythm is sped up, for instance as it’s used in Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu Op.66, we can no longer follow the sub-divisions as the sub-metre is too fast, and back comes the restless in-between character you describe. This is just one example of the ways in which I think we perceptually organise rhythm.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.