Tuesday, August 07, 2007

I got rhythm

Yesterday’s lesson from our recital rehearsals - maybe even the week’s lesson – was this:

“That’s what he wrote, but that’s not what he meant.”

I don’t remember which song Steve said it about (maybe the Berlin duet), but this idea seems to be an over-arching theme this week. What is rhythmic vs. what is musical? What is accurate vs. what is stylistically right? Fine lines, lots of gray…

A lot of songs on this program aren’t “classical art songs,” so they shouldn’t be sung as such. There’s a freedom implicit in styles like musical theater and jazz that we as classical performers might have trouble wrapping our heads – and voices! – around. The four of us are getting there, but it’s hard to soften years of rigid accuracy overnight. The fact that we get to dance our way through rehearsals is helping! Well, at least I’m dancing… can’t seem to get anyone to join me yet…

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of “rhythmic integrity” and how its definition changes from genre to genre. The rhythms of my Ricky Ian Gordon song are fairly particular, at least on the page, and I spent a good amount of time subdividing the beats and making sure I was getting them exactly right. “One and two ee and-tie and four and” And, well, it sure sounded correct! The notes were right (mostly), but the feeling of the piece was all wrong. We found the same to be true with the Berlin, the Sondheim, the list goes on.

Today, as always, I think, contemporary composers are being influenced by non-classical genres: RIG, Musto, et al, have jazz; Golijov, klezmer & flamenco; Greenstein, Muhly, et al, pop and rock styles (cough Radiohead cough). These elements color their musics beautifully and make them the exciting modern pieces that we all get jazzed up about (no pun intended). The difficulty comes in how to translate the freedom of those influencing genres onto those five little lines we call the staff. Performers are trained to read the music, to recreate it as written on the page. So composers put down some semblance of the idea on the staff, using 8th’s and 16th’s and ties and dots. Then the difficulty for us performers comes in how to recreate not only the notes on the page but also the stylistic ideas behind the notes. We have to make it “swing.”

This is why I think it’s so important to keep listening to other genres. Anytime I hear a singer say that they don’t listen to pop music (or jazz or indie rock or what have you), I die a little inside. Loosen up! Some day it’s going to be required of you in a “classical” context; will you have anything to pull from?

**Be sure to read DJA's great additions to this conversation in the Comments.**

5 comments:

dja said...

Great post, ACB.

What you are talking about is "rhythmic authority," which is a particular hobbyhorse of mine. Rhythmic authortiy isn't just the abilty to play/sing rhythms accurately (although that is a prerequisite), it is about having an emotional connection to rhythm.

And not in some etheral airy-fairy sense. I'm talking about being able to internalize and really feel, in your gut, the difference in the emotional significance of all the beats in whatever grid you're working on. For example, if you're in 4/4, and the smallest subdivision is the eighth note, you absolutely positively need to be able to feel what an anticipaion on beat 4 means, versus what anticipation on the "and" of four means, etc. Virtually all classically trained musicians have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the emotional content of intervals -- what a minor second means, what a major third means -- but relatively few of them have anything approaching this kind of understanding when it comes to rhythm.

The other really important thing is placement -- given a metronomically steady beat, what happens if you place the and of 2 slightly ahead? Slightly behind? Can you sing/play a whole passage either slightly ahead or slightly behind by a consistent amount, without speeding up or slowing down? Can you identify what's going on when other people are doing that?

Singers have the added challenge of working with lyrics -- even within a single syllable, there are implied rhythms. It can be really, really valueable to try to create an accurate transcription of a singer like Billie Holliday, or Frank Sinatra. They will be, as you say, full of 16th-note subdivisions and ties. But they phrase with impeccable rhythmic authority, so you'd never notice the complexity of what they're doing unless you actually try to write it out.

It is intensely frustrating to me that while this kind of rhythmic authority is -- or ought to be -- required of classically-trained musicians in a "classical" context all the time, it's just not on a lot of people's radar. Classical musicians aren't used to being evaluated on their rhythmic authority (or lack thereof), and often to get really defensive when you try to bring up these kinds of issues. I understand it can be frustrating if nothing in your extensive conservatory training has prepared you to take responsibility for rhythm and time, but c'mon, people.

ACB said...

Wow, DJA, thank you! I'm going to print this out and take it to our group rehearsal today. Great thoughts...

alainwong said...

Great title btw.

I totally agree with your comment about keeping open-minded when listening to music.

As a Lindy Hop (swing) dancer, I define my movement rhythmically with my feet, and my overall choice of movements is defined by the musical structure and the jazz melodies/solos.

Your posting was really interesting. But I think as dancers, our point of view is less rigid. There's something about swing as music. As Duke Ellington said, "There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind." And I think that as dancers, we leave it at that.

operaprince said...

ACB, as I'm in the "building" listening to various recordings and more and more when I need to examine performances, I notice that the "golden age" singers were not the "best".

I was listening to Tebaldi and, though, she's an extreme example, I don't think she would have EVER made it through an audition nowadays. She's all over the place rhythmically (and sometimes pitch), but that's not why people love her. It's because she "gets" it. As I'm listening to the recordings from the 40's - 60's, the "old school" singers though the composer had an approximation of when things should happen.

People going ahead, starting later, recitatives going with how they would sing it, notes spoken rather than sung - it's all in there, because at that moment, that's what the drama propelled them to do - it was dramatic "musically" correct.

I don't know whether our generation was removed from these aspects and people decided not to inform us of it, but I always got a kick out of my band teacher asking me why I swung these notes in jazz band and not others - "Cuz it sounds better??" was my reply and you just feel it.

I think "classical" people need to get off their own elitist pedestals before the general polulous finds out how awesome that genre of music can be.

nissimm said...

Hey, this is a really interesting post to discover your blog with!

DJA has a really good point - I think that most of us have that sense of rhythmic authority/meaning intuitively. (though someone like Sinatra may have had it a bit better than the rest of us...) But it's definitely one of the things that learning to perform classical music - especially the contemporary stuff, which can be so complex rhythmically - can shove into the background in favor of reproducing the notes on the page too exactly. Which, particularly if you're working on something that's acting like pop/rock/jazz/etc, is going to deaden the music. Though as operaprince points out, classical music wasn't always so strict, either...

In my own music, I'm often trying to obscure most sense of pulse. But the idea of rhythmic authority still comes into play, because even without a pulse, you still have to find a way to get rhythmic meaning - that such and such figure is an anticipation to this other thing - across. And then get that to connect in with the harmonic meaning. It's tough, I'm not sure how successful I've been so far...

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