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:
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.