Month: January 2016

Maximally Even Rhythms Part 1

Maximally Even Rhythms Part 1

Today I’m investigating the simple maths behind some of the deepest rhythms of groove music!

The notes of a looped rhythm can be imagined as dividing up the loop into sections.

Not Displaced
A 1-bar cycle, 6 8th notes in length, evenly divided into 3 groups of 2 8th notes’ length each.

(There is no distinguishing feature in this cycle that makes it 6/8, by the way… unlike the rhythms we’ll be focusing on later which do have a shape. This one could equally be in 4/4 or 1/4.)

This version does the same thing, except displaced an 8th note from the pulse.


This rhythm is even. Each of its 3 parts are equal in duration (2 8th notes). But, many divisions can’t be done evenly, for example dividing 8 8th notes into 3 sections.

In arithmetic, this division would either result in a fraction 8 / 3, with the value approx. 2.667, or need a remainder: 2 remainder 2.

ME 2 Even
Fraction: 3 groups, but the length of each group does not fit the 8th note subdivision.
ME 3 Remainder
Remainder: There are now 4 groups due to the need for a remainder of 2.

The only way to have three groups of whole 8th notes in this cycle is to have different-sized groups:

ME 4 224 125
Division of 8 notes into groups of 2 2 4 or 1 2 5

Other solutions would be 1 3 4 or 3 3 2 or 1 1 6.One of these mixed-sizes solutions has special properties, though. It is “maximally even”, meaning it’s the solution most similar to equal-sized groups. For divisions, like 8/3, that can’t be done evenly, the maximally even solution requires groupings of two different sizes. In this case, groupings of 2 and 3. So the maximally even solution to dividing 8 notes into 3 groups is…


ME 5 3 3 2
3 3 2 grouping AKA Cuban triplet AKA tresillo

It makes intuitive sense that the division most similar to 2.667 2.667 2.667 would involve a mixture of 2s and 3s – the whole numbers most similar to 2.667.

Is there anything musically special about this division? Well, yes. It is used almost universally in rock, pop, and dance music. Its closeness to the even division of 3:2 can confuse, and I’ve seen student musicians write down one while meaning the other. You can often hear rock, reggae or folk bands hesitate between these two rhythms, perhaps playing something between the two. More intentionally, Afro-Cuban musicians make use of this ambiguity regularly.

These examples show it’s possible to lean or warp between rhythms containing the same amount of notes per beat or bar, even if they have different subdivisions. This is because West African cultures view rhythms as divisions, not additions.

By contrast, Middle Eastern or Indian musicians would be more likely to view a Cuban triplet rhythm as a group of 3 units, followed by 3 units, followed by 2 units. That’s called additive rhythm because, conceptually, different groupings are added on to each other to form sequences. From an additive perspective, the analogue of a Cuban triplet in a triple subdivision would be use the same sequence: group of 3 notes, a group of 3, and a group of 2:

ME 6 Karnatic Style

From the West African perspective, though, the closest thing to a Cuban triplet in a triple subdivision would be the rhythm that divides 2 beats into 3 parts:

ME 1 3 over 2

So, whereas South Indian musicians excel at playing the same sequence at different speeds against a pulse (like the first example), African and African Diaspora musicians are adept at warping rhythms into a different subdivision, creating tension between the resemblance of the rhythmic shape (same average rate of notes) and the change in the flow of the subdivision (e.g. triplets feeling more rolling/circular than 16ths).

To move on: one important thing about every “maximally even” rhythm is that they are cyclical – there is no particular start or end. Like modes of a musical scale, any note can be imagined as the start of the pattern:

ME 7 3 Variants
Modes of the Cuban triplet: 3 3 2 (original), 3 2 3, 2 3 3

But unlike modes of a scale which must have a root note, cyclical rhythms needn’t have a note on beat 1, which opens up 5 more variations:

ME 8 5 Variants
5 modes of Cuban triplet that don’t land on 1.

As I unfortunately don’t have all week to write each weekly post here, I’m gonna spend the rest of today’s piece focusing only on these rhythms. In part 2 I’ll cover maximally even rhythms over 12, 16 and 20 notes, including Afro-Cuban, African and Brazilian rhythms. For now, let’s find applications for the variations of 3 3 2, and maybe make some general observations.

All of these rhythms are short, and so when I’m composing or improvising, I find they work well as a sort of basic pulsation within the groove. In a 16th-note-based style like say techno or hip hop, one or more of these rhythms can underlie all the other rhythmic activity.

In this song that my sister happened to play as I’m writing, the underlying cell is the Cuban triplet 3 3 2, but it is developed into 2-bar patterns by substituting two rests or two quarter notes.


ME 2 Fixed
Different rhythms in “Desire” with the times they enter

The third of those 2-bar patterns has been used in countless dance and pop-dance tunes.

In these contexts, the cymbal (and usually a 4/4 kick) provides a strong skeleton of 8th notes that the syncopated rhythms can interlock with. Interlocking is, I think, another essential component of groove music. It’s a rather large topic to try and define, but I would say that when two cyclical rhythms have some notes together and other notes a 16th note apart, they will feel interlocked. Here’s an example using a riff from my rock band, Mescalito.

Methuselah Riff
Interlocking rhythms. Notes that are together are indicated by the lines.

Onto the other variants; here’s a 3 2 3 division. This might be the least common of three variants that hit the downbeat. This example is by the Ben Prevo Band, with me on bass and Dominic Mullan playing the pattern on drums. The song is Ben Prevo’s composition, “An Udder Blue”.



ME 11 Prevo
The drum pattern on “An Udder Blue”

Check out how this example is over 4 beats of swung 8ths rather than 2 beats of straight 16ths – still 8 notes in all, divided into 3 groups. It’s important to be able to recognise fundamental rhythms no matter that they might be notated differently or felt with a half- or double-time pulse, or swung. The next example is also over 4 beats.


ME 12 Wilkinson
The basic accents of the drumline in “Too Close”

The main accents in this d’n’b tune’s drumline (0:47) are the 2 3 3 grouping, in 8th notes. But the drumline as a whole is filled with many 16th notes. So, the energy of the maximally even division operates on one frame (8ths) with other rhythmic information in a denser frame (16ths). Take a moment if you like to feel how those interact in the song. To me, there’s a floatiness caused by the powerful but slow 1-bar cycle of the 2 3 3 (which suggests a half-time feeling, actually, and is used by itself to introduce half time at 1:53) mixed with the twitchy intricacy of the 16ths.

There’s a basic transformation that can be applied to all the maximally even rhythms I’ll talk about today and in part 2. I think of it as making a “bell pattern” out of the rhythm, because it is the technique used to turn 6/8 clave into bembe, the Cuban 6/8 bell pattern. However this is probably confusing use of language as all of these rhythms can be played on a bell. A proper name for this rhythm is cinquillo. Quite simply, the 3s in the rhythm are filled in to become (2 1). So 3 3 2 becomes 2 1 2 1 2. This is also a maximally even division of 8 into 5 parts.

ME 13 Bell
Turning the Cuban triplet into cinquillo.

Notice that this is only one note off from being a 3:2 son clave.

ME 14 Son in 16ths
The only note different between the bell pattern and son clave (notated in 16ths)

We’ll see more of how maximally even rhythms can be transformed into each other in part 2.


In Megadeth’s new track “The Threat Is Real”, the kick drum line at 0:59 is the same as cinquillo: 2 1 2 2 1. (The guitar chug follows this line too, with one extra note where the snare hit is.)

ME 15 Megadeth
Drumline at 0:59 of “The Threat Is Real”

I won’t try hunt up examples of all the other variants, because I think you get the idea. The main conclusions we can draw are: these rhythms can exist at half or double speed against a given pulse or subdivision; they can be warped into similar rhythms in different subdivisions (even the swung 8ths rhythm above is arguably warping, from straight 8ths into a triplet grid); they can be constituents of longer patterns like the dance-pop bassline grouping 4 4 3 3 2; and they are a very rich source because they can be spun around in all their modes, filled out and interlocked with other rhythms.

To finish, here’s a spontaneously improvised maximally even division of 8 into 3 groups – one of those that doesn’t fall on beat 1. This is from a bootleg of Mescalito playing live a few years back. I’ve included the build-up because I like how the pattern slowly asserts itself in my bassline, fully emerging at 0:48. Like the d’n’b example, this pattern is in 8ths but the rest of the band play 16ths.


ME 16 Mescalito Improv
Improvised bassline off mode of cinquillo

Thanks for reading! I think next week I’ll get back to my discussion of negative dominants and alternate paths, but stay tuned for a part 2 of this article where I’ll get into more maximally even rhythms in meters up to 5/4. As always, feel free to comment below!

Alternate Paths on a Blues

Alternate Paths on a Blues

Today I’ll use “negative dominant” progressions to solo on a jazz blues. These ideas are from Steve Coleman – and I’m not the only one to have tried to interpret them. I had to cut them down a lot, so I recommend you read his stuff, with the warning that it is hard! After I do my best to explain the idea, I’ll show how these movements are present in typical jazz harmony, then play through entire alternate chord progressions built off them.

To understand a “negative dominant” progression, we should consider a traditional dominant to tonic cadence.

Trad 2

The tritone B F (actually tritone plus an octave in this voicing) resolves to C E, a major 3rd (plus an octave). The chord moves down a 5th (or up a 4th) – G7 to C. These resolutions are the basis of mainstream jazz harmony… but not the whole story.

Although this cadence happens all the time, spelling the notes of a plain V I progression makes a very corny melody. Jazz musicians have long avoided that sound in favour of altered and substitute chords.

Steve Coleman has characterised the harmonic/melodic techniques used by Charlie Parker to avoid the V I sound as “alternate paths” or “invisible paths”. He brilliantly uses symmetry to explain how they are the “dark side” of a normal V I. (He is also brilliant at coining names for these things, evidently.)

Symmetry emerges from mirror images.


What would be a mirror image of a V I? I can “reflect” it by inverting it, for instance around the axis note D. (For the nerds, this is because the C major scale is symmetrical around the note D.) So, every note in the original progression is replaced by one equally distant to middle D…

Inv Loran Fixed.png
The process of reflecting each chord of the original progression. G7 turns into D-6, C turns into A-.

… but on the opposite side of the D axis note. Below D if it was originally above, and above D if it was originally below. E.g., the B in the G7 ends up as the high F in the D-6.

Inv Full Progs.png
Comparing the original progression with its reflection in bar 2.

What is the new progression? D-6 to A-. It has a tritone resolving to a major 3rd (B F to C E, again separated by an additional octave) but the chord moves up a fifth, not down (D-6 going to A-, not G7 going to C). And both chords are minor, not major. Steve Coleman calls this a “negative dominant” resolution to A minor.

This by itself might explain how a lot of II V licks seem to be more tonally weighted on the II- than the V7. A melody over a II V I could imply a II-6 to VI- movement (negative dominant resolution) rather than a V7 to I movement. Although the chord tones are almost the same, the mental model and the tonal gravity would be different.

Such melodic shapes can be shifted to other positions and still retain their cadential power. This is due to the phenomenon of borrowed chords, or modal interchange in jazz speak. So, instead of the negative dominant that fits in the C major scale (D-6), we could use the one that fits C minor, i.e. F-6. It still resolves down a fourth (because it’s a negative dominant), but with the distinctively pretty sound of landing on a tonic major: F-6 Cmaj. Coleman notes that this IV-6 sound is often used over a V7 chord, creating a “dominant 7th complex” notated V11b9 (G Ab B C D F). The darkening substitution of D-6 by F-6 can be re-applied to the F-6, changing F-6 to Ab-6. The resulting bVI-6 sound is also used on dominant chords forming an altered V7#5b9 chord.

So, without going any further into symmetry, we have three melodic-tonal centres that can be used as dominant chords to target a tonic chord: II-6, IV-6 and bVI-6, targeting I. Crucially, these negative dominants are present as upper structures in most functional  jazz progressions.

Often, one of these negative dominant chords will be found as an upper structure of a jazz chord, followed by one of the darker versions (e.g. II-6 followed by IV-6) as an upper structure of the next chord. So:

D- F- is present in the following functional chord progressions:
B-7b5 E7alt
B-7b5 Bb7
D-7 G7b9 (probably in the key of C)
D-7 Ealt (probably in A minor)
Fmaj7 Bb7 (probably in F major)

I’m being flexible with chord spellings – to make the point clearest I could say F6 Bb9, because clearly D- and F- are the exact upper structures of those chords. But I’m using Fmaj7 Bb7 as a shorthand for two chord types, not exact voicings. Same deal with the G7b9, it technically should be the 11b9 mentioned above.

There’s another darkening movement, which is shifting up a tritone:

D- Ab- is present in:
D-7 G7alt
D-7 Db7

As well as these darkening movements, there are the actual negative dominant resolutions to a target chord.

D- A- is in:
B-7b5 E7b9 A-
E7b9 A-
G7 Cmaj
D-7 G7 Cmaj
G7 F#-7b5
C#7alt F#-7b5

F- Cmaj is in:
D-7b5 G7b9 Cmaj
G7b9 Cmaj
F-6 Cmaj (back door, same with the next two)
Bb7 Cmaj
F-7 Bb7 Cmaj
Bb7 A-
F-7 Bb7 A-

Ab- Cmaj is in:
G7alt Cmaj
Db7 Cmaj
Ab- A- (not seen as a written chord progression but I’ll be using it later)

Okay, let’s stop with the wall of chord symbols. The take-away is: a small set of negative dominant progressions (and their associated voice-leading and cliches) can be re-used on a huge variety of jazz changes. Today I’ll use the two basic types of movement: darkening and resolving – to navigate inside and outside the harmony on a jazz blues.

2 2 Stave

My alternate pathways in the first video, with the second staff showing example bebop harmony compatible with the alternate pathways.

My alternate pathways here are inspired by the original melody of Blues For Alice (transposed to C). Then I take a somewhat strange turn in bar 9. I work from II- VI7 II-7 V7, a common decoration of a II V progression, e.g. as implied by the melody of Billie’s Bounce…

BB Lick

… but I use a C#- to target the second D-, and then straightforward negative dominants to target the E-7 of the turnaround.


Here there are two main ideas: bar 1 has an unexpected B- (equivalent to Bb7alt) targeting Eb-6 in bar 2, which I interpret as a C blues scale shape (because it has the notes Eb, Gb, Bb and C). This is another way to use minor shapes – as blues colours, primarily I-6 and bIII-6 against a I or IV chord. But here the Eb- (bIII-) is also functional, implying a D7alt sound going to G-.

Then I use what could be standard bebop changes to reach the bar 9: interpretable as, say, Cmaj7 F7 E-7 A7b9 (bars 7-8). But I keep up this rate of movement to arrive at a tonic chord (A- which could be Cmaj) in bar 10 rather than bar 11 as expected. I create a cyclical feel by repeating the exact pathway for the next 3 bars. Every pair of chords involves a shift up a minor 3rd, but it’s not a strict pattern because the G- D- resolution breaks it.

The first pathway in video no. 3.


The second pathway in video no. 3.

If you find it hard to hear how this relates to a blues, here is the same solo with bass notes added (and abominable sound quality!).

I had to slow down even more to get some juice out of these progressions. (I play the first one once and the second twice.) The first uses those blues colours again. The second uses unexpected resolutions of a minor chord to major chord a fourth below (so, the F#- is an Amaj, and the C#- is an Emaj), with that major chord changing to a minor chord. It also strictly uses only the darkening and dominant cadential movements, lending it quite a lot of momentum.

There are so many more possibilities, of course. For example, diverging from the subdominant chords in the blues, i.e. the IV in bar 5 and the II in bar 9. In my examples I stick to the original subdominants. Obviously I’m only barely scratching the surface!

I had fun coming up with and playing through these progressions. To conclude, I think the relationship of these pathways to conventional jazz harmony is crucial. I’m thinking both ways as I play. Also, obviously, the pathways are only a technique. These sequences have a rather severe sound due to the unrelenting drive of the cadences and the minor colouration – that mightn’t always be what you want.

Hope you enjoyed it! Sorry for the late post. Please comment with any related ideas, thoughts, questions or criticisms!

Thanks to Loran Witteveen for correcting my examples!



[I edited this piece on 27/01/2016 to make a stronger start by moving some stuff to the end.]

Today I want to focus on an idea from my first post. I claimed that Gang Starr’s 1993 hip hop track “The Planet” celebrates the process of making music and developing skills. This idea of an African-American “processual” aesthetic stayed in my head. Recently I realised what it was missing: how respect for creative work applies to creative work happening right now – in the moment and “in time” to the beat.

Hip hop and jazz and jazz both value a performer opening their imagination and voicing ideas while staying cool (represented by controlled time feel and timbre). In jazz this is called spontaneous composition. Although rap is usually much less free than jazz soloing, it nonetheless privileges the idea of improvisation. Many features of rap are clearly improvisers’ techniques: routines and cliches which give the rapper time to think, repeating of words or lines as if correcting a mistake, and free, intuitive association of thoughts or sounds.

I believe that hip hop values in particular the willed act of in-the-moment creative expression. This is clear in the spoken introductions prefacing so many classic tracks. They are a ritual hyping up of the upcoming creative act. For example…

Burnt Batch’s “Artform” features a beautiful spoken intro and outro that lays out the song’s purpose: to “explain this artform of hip hop”.

It invokes two qualities of virtuosic improvisation: transportive/visionary power, “take me on another journey”, and unexpected switches of scale, “in a twisted world where everything is in the palm of your hand”. The speaker’s voice creates a great vibe by using the pitching, although not the strict rhythm, of rap. Still, his timing is very intentional, as in the hesitant “You know what I mean it’s like… takin’ a trip… you ain’t comin’ back” finishing right before the bass-heavy beat enters with a snare drop and a sublime laid-back kick on the downbeat at 0:24. It’s a lovely build-up.

These intros represent and stylise the social function of cheering on the performer. This is a facet of call-and-response, an archetypal feature of African and African-American music. A clear example of that is the chorus chant in Freestyle Fellowship’s “Cornbread”.

T-Spoon Iodine calls out “Aceyalone I hear ya” to the main performer, reacting and spurring him on. By the way, this brilliant rap has many indicators of improvisation – free association, leaps of imagination, playing with sounds, filler lines, etc. – whether or not it was spontaneous.

Big L, in this radio performance, claims that he is improvising “I  don’t know how I’ma do this” even though the actual rap is pre-written. It’s just one of a few stock phrases he uses to build up to his rap – and a good demonstration of the idea of improv in hip hop.

His tone of voice and even facial expression change when he switches to full-on rapping. This mental transition, and the “here it comes” feeling, are integral parts of the performance – as are the exclamations and contributions of the others in the studio. I believe that in this aesthetic, there is a unification of intention, invention, utterance and audience reaction. There is no word in standard English that covers all of these (“expounding” and “holding forth” have no connotation of creativity) – but later we’ll see what terms rappers themselves have used.

Let’s not forget that I’m looking at a little slice of music history here. Actually, I should put my hand up and say first of all that categorising and defining aspects of black music that I only know from records puts me at risk of making the similar mistakes, and perpetuating the same racialised dynamics, that plagued many white blues/jazz commentators. I try stay aware of that!

Anyway, my point was that these techniques have a different meaning today than in the mid-90s, because they’ve been assimilated into mass culture. The chorus of Jurassic 5’s pleasant but backwards-looking “What’s Golden” (2002) uses a typical crowd-interaction/call-and-response chant as a convenient stand-in for classic hip hop: “We’re taking it back to yes-y’allin’“. What was a behaviour becomes more like a sign.

And I should also make clear that these African-derived techniques have become transplanted into other cultures. For instance I saw an all-white, all-European jazz band in JJ Smyth’s last week that made exuberant use of call-and-response, when drummer Eric Ineke punctuated bassist Ronan Guilfoyle‘s solo phrases with detailed rhythmic comments.

So with that said, and having looked at the hyping introductions, let’s examine celebration of improvisational thinking in the actual lyrics. I isolated two types of tropes: metaphorical descriptions of the in-the-moment creative act; and mind-blowing imaginative leaps. The metaphors celebrate improv with heroic comparisons, while the flights of fancy celebrate it by demonstrating mastery of it.

There are a huge number of metaphors for rapping. One important type is physical metaphors, most obviously of violence. “I’ma hit ya with the blow of death” from Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend”, or “I wake you with hundreds of thousands of volts” from Rakim’s “Lyrics of Fury”. Rap may be viewed as  a “slang blade” (Binary Star, “Slang Blade”) or a “rappin’ sword” (EPMD, “You Gots To Chill”), or a gun, “be prepared for the mental head shots” (Company Flow, “Vital Nerve”). Also physically-derived are the many verbs used for the intentional creative act I’ve been discussing: bust, kick it, flip shit, flow, hit, drop…

One rapper was a master of these verbs and he is Guru of Gang Starr. It’s no coincidence that he popularised jazz-rap and collaborated with top jazz players: he obviously prioritised the aesthetic of spontaneous composition. Check out the incredible amount of terms for the creative act in his early track, “Manifest”:

I profess

I manifest

I select a clear message

I go for glory

I narrate, relate and equate, dictate and debate

I’m kickin’ clout

Right about to spin it

I instill

I impress upon you

Let me uplift and shift my gift

To ignite, excite and delight

I’m about to let off

I convey

I give you lyrics to live to

Guru was also conscious of the effect of using all these words in the first-person present tense: to say “I speak” is to prove the truth of the words, collapsing the distance between word and reality. Guru intentionally played with truth and “realness”, I think.

Another class of metaphors are those about unleashing, or threatening to unleash, hidden energy – an essential component of black cool, Questlove claims.

“Wanna rhyme one time, to release the steam”

“Because I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”

“My rhymes are hungry plus they haven’t been fed” – “You’re A Customer” – EPMD

“I come in peace to release the effect of my voice” – 2 Deep – Gang Starr, Step In The Arena (holy shit that is such a good line it gives me goosebumps… check it out in context, it’s at around 2:47)

“Grab the microphone and let your words rip” – “Check The Rhyme” – A Tribe Called Quest

“Your optics will not be able to detect/The deadly hypnotical gases” – “Releasing Hypnotical Gases” – Organized Konfusion

Releasing hidden energy isn’t a common trope, but it’s important to me because it crops up in a few of my absolute top-rated tracks. For instance, this line by Pharoah Monche of Organized Konfusion, comparing his rapping to a volcano, is one of the heaviest I’ve ever encountered.

“…I strike/Sight beyond sight, sound beyond sound/Which comes from below the magma, the granite, the ground/The surface will separate, dispersing harmful ashes”

(Notice the utterly virtuosic shift of perspective in one line from deep in the earth to where the listener stands on top of it, and the tricky switch-up – like a fighter or dancer’s – of the phrasing “Which comes from”, prepared by the abstraction of the previous line.) That, and the first line of his verse, “I am the one who is one with all things”, are powerful expressions of what Amiri Baraka called “the classic African sensibility… everything that exists… is part of, connected as, the same thing”.

These head-melting shifts of location, context and/or scale are a trope too: agility of imagination. E.g. Gang Starr’s “Comin’ for Datazz”:

“True indeed I believe in taking my words’ power/Across the seas and deserts through the trees and grass, and if you ain’t on point then we coming for that ass”

Just like Monche, Guru creates a progression of locations homing in on the listener. This tricky thought switches context from foreign lands and oceans to the here and now. Nas pulls a similar stunt in his classic “N.Y. State Of Mind”: “Don’t put me in your box if your shit eats tapes”, bringing the message home to the listener’s cassette player.

So what kind of conclusion can we draw from surveying these tropes and aesthetic tendencies? Well, I’m reminded of a thing Vijay Iyer said in the Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music in 2012: Great Black Music contains within itself the codes for transformation: of yourself, your community, and your surroundings.

Transformation of everyday situations by manifesting a rhyme happens to be the final hip hop trope I want to mention.

“Rhymes attract the crowd once I got em down pat” – “Slave To My Soundwave”, Lord Finesse

“When I rock street kids rejoice” – “Mostly The Voice” – Gang Starr

What I’ve picked up from thinking through all this, is a view of creativity as a social act of generosity and courage – bringing joy to a situation by unleashing, and trusting in, subconscious powers. Two kinds of discipline are involved: the woodshedding discipline of internalising patterns that can be used later in the moment; and the performance discipline of trusting in imagination and controlling sound and time feel, which comes down to being connected to your body and to the present moment.

I hope you enjoyed the read and that you picked up some new ways to listen to rap lyrics and improvise, and to think about creativity. Please comment!

[Here are two paragraphs that were originally at the start of the piece, about the politics of technology.]

Writing comments is unpaid labour, or so it was suggested on The Quietus yesterday. Is blogging similarly a donation of work to corporations monetising ad clicks? Do they deserve it for the services they provide?

I guess it comes down to whether you broadly agree with the way our technological world has gone. From a musician’s perspective, the internet reduced investment in recorded music. In return it’s given us free music to listen to, which can be handy. Vijay Iyer hopes that the spontaneous emergence of deeply organised structures from apparent disorder is the future of music. But honestly, I haven’t seen this yet on the internet – though I appreciate how Youtube, Google Drive and Facebook let me swap musical ideas with bandmates.

Circular Rhythm

Circular Rhythm

[Edit 28/04/16 – fixed the notation of the voice-leading exercise]

A few months ago I was jamming with a trio I’m in (featuring Dylan Lynch and Max Zaska) and I improvised a riff I really liked.

It felt really inviting to play over, and Dylan coined the term “circular rhythm” for how we were freely choosing different points to accent within the cycle, not at all constrained by the barlines. I knew vaguely that this was an African-inspired approach to rhythm, and that it felt really good.

Today I’ll investigate what gives any riff or vamp this inviting, cyclical grooviness. Then I’ll look at techniques for getting very rhythmically free on the riff while still “inhabiting” it. This metaphor of the improvising musician being inside a rhythmic of harmonic form comes from Anthony Braxton’s phrase “navigating the form”.

The first nice thing about the groove is that it is compatible with two distinct divisions of the beat: 8ths (2 possible note placements per beat) or 16ths (4 possible placements).

8ths 16ths.png
2 possible underlying subdivisions

To me, these have a very different feeling, with the 8ths being smoother, more elegant, perhaps more amenable to laying back and legato playing. When soloing, I could switch between the two feelings to change the mood. Here though I just demonstrate the two one after the other.

The next nice thing I discovered is that the groove is clearly divided in groups of 3 (mostly) – a feature shared with most of the drum chants in 7 I posted about a few weeks back.

Groups 3

To come to grips with this perspective, I made a drum chant outlining the groups.

Drum Chant

…and improvised slight variations on the riff while singing it. You can see by how I’m weaving my body around that I’m feeling the rolling, triplet-ish physicality of those groups of threes! Like with those 7/4 drum chants, it was really nice to feel rhythmic independence (as drummers would call it) between my voice and hands.

A really strong technique that works nicely with this riff is rhythmic voice-leading, which I discussed already in my post on Charlie Parker’s melodies. In this video I play a bunch of different groupings that voice-lead to (i.e. land/resolve on) accents in the original riff.

Voice Leading Fixed 28 04 16
What I played in the video – groupings targeting notes of the riff

While recording that I was finding it hard to resist using two  other techniques. The first is using triplets over a 16ths groove which I do in the video below at 0:15 and 0:38. I like this because it brings out the resemblance between broken 16th rhythms and triplet rhythms – in fact, it’s really nice to “warp” between the two, playing rhythms that are in-between 16ths and triplets (0:24, 0:32). This happens a lot in both Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music.


The other technique is to just displace the notes of the riff like I do at 0:09 or 0:19. The distinctive Ab G notes at the start of the riff are great for this because they are so recogniseable even in different placements. This reminds me of something I heard Vijay Iyer say about being able to displace the downbeats of complex rhythmic forms – not letting the material master you. (Though obviously this is a bigger challenge in music as complicated as his!)

Finally, here’s a fun exercise that was my original idea for this post. To really face the 3 energy inherent in the riff, I tap every 3/8 – a “dotted quarter note” pulse – while nonetheless feeling the music in 4/4.

That’s all for today. Think I’m gonna post on Saturdays from now on, I never seem to make Friday. At some stage soon I want to talk about the political and cultural questions around being a white European studying music derived from and associated with African American communities. Also I want to interview some of the black musicians active in Dublin. But next week will probably be about lyrics.

Leave comments, on Facebook or even better here. Cheers!

Post-Dubstep Aesthetics

Post-Dubstep Aesthetics

I’m taking a stylistic leap today to look at David Kennedy aka Ramadanman aka Pearson Sound, a visionary UK dubstep/house producer who came up around 2010.

His music shares the obsessions of this blog: timbre and syncopated rhythm. But obviously it’s quite removed from Delta blues or bebop where I’ve previously found those qualities. Kennedy doesn’t focus much on the overtones of a human voice or guitar string, but rather on digitally manipulated drum sounds. He’s not turning syncopations into improvisational melodies, but rather layered, interlocking drum parts.

So, today I’ll explore the techniques (sampling and digital effects) and structuring of Kennedy’s 2011 track, Don’t Change For Me. Then I’ll argue that the concepts he uses – emotional distance, physicality, coolness via disguised or seemingly thrown-away emotional peaks – connect deeply to African Diaspora aesthetics found in blues, hip hop and jazz. Kennedy is a white Englishman in his 20s, but has a long-time fascination with New York hip hop as well as black London-based artists like Dizzee Rascal and LTJ Bukem, representatives of a British Afro-Carribean musical lineage rooted in Jamaica.

Kennedy’s sound is built from chopped up from vocal and drum performances. In both cases the sampling process leaves obvious traces. The vocals become lyrically unintelligible. The drum sounds are highly coloured by the loud cymbal and resonating drum kit in the original break, whose tones remain in the chopped kick and snare hits. This is the classic sound of jungle music. The most-used sample in jungle is the ‘Amen’ break, but “Don’t Change…” uses one of the ‘Think’ breaks from Lyn Collins’ “Think“. (Thanks to Chris Guilfoyle aka Exit Introvert for his knowledge!)

Further colouration comes from pitch shifting the samples. At 0:56 all the drum sounds are subjected to a cool upwards pitch bend, and I think all the vocal samples (starting at 1:38) are sped up a bit.

Kennedy’s main sound-sculpting tool is a foundational technique of dance music: resonant filtering. He often uses it to create transitions, for instance at 1:36 where the drums are muffled for the vocal entry, or during the fade-out where different layers each get their own low-pass filter settings (so that, e.g. the snares are much more dampened than the hats at 4:50). A very clear musical use of different filter settings is the intro to Kennedy’s “Quivver“. Or, in his awesome “Blimey“, a high-pass filter with ascending cut-off frequency is used as a structural gesture to clear away the beat at 3:13. I use the word “gesture” because filter manipulations don’t have musical information like a melody or drum groove does – instead their meaning is in where, when and how they are used, just like pointing or waving your hand.

Kennedy has made a signature sound out of combining filtering and delays. The knocking, clacking percussion in “Don’t Change…” from 0:05 is, I suspect, made by filtering delayed echoes of the original high hat pulse; at 0:53 the snare hit is echoed in sixteenths with a descending filter cut-off frequency; at 4:50 a two-note snare drum rhythm echoes every 3 sixteenth notes while its filter resonance is manipulated to provide a timbral lead line for the outro. Both “Blanked“and “Untitled” start off with this signature combination of delay and filtering.

Like those songs, “Don’t Change For Me” uses delays to generate rhythms. At 0:28 a crunchy drum/cymbal sample is echoed in quarter notes, and at 0:46 a slap-back delay creates a flammed effect on the drums (as if each hit is quickly played twice). Together, the pitch shifts, delays and filter manipulations give a rather “live” feeling of a human consciousness influencing the music moment to moment.

The song’s is structured around layered drum loops at 137bpm. Each is quite simple, but they come together in pleasing ways. For example, the kick and cymbals are first apart, then together, then apart, in the first two bars.

2-Bar Drums Groupings

This two-bar length is the basic breath/cycle of the groove, with off-beat energy in the middle always resolving to the fat distorted kick sound on beat 1. The snares in the second bar form groups of 3 that target both the and of 3 (a classic snare placement in drum’n’bass) and the next bar’s distorted-kick downbeat. The overall groove is lurching and staggering, floating in the space between those downbeats – which I guess is how people would dance to it.

Kennedy is actually creating simulated physicalities: his percussion sounds simulate drums of various sizes and constructions; the occasional reverbs (e.g. 0:14 on the cymbals, or 1:10 on the snare) simulate reverberant rooms; the syncopated rhythms and their shuffly, intricate interplay simulate funky human movement. An acoustic virtual reality of morphing spaces and objects, for people to dance through. There is an intentional lack of melodic or lyrical content. The music is purposely incomplete unless the listener engages their body or at least their kinesthetic imagination. (Vijay Iyer is my inspiration for this idea.)

As well as making variations with filters etc., Kennedy avoids predictability with an elegant technique: the different parts have varying, (though all square) loop lengths:
2-bar cymbal and snare patterns, a 4-bar chord progression, an 8-bar vocal melody and kick drum pattern, and a 16-bar sub bass pattern.

Chords 1
The chord progression (approximate voicings) of “Don’t Change For Me”. The quarter note melody is barely audible but I’m pretty sure it’s in there.
Vocal melody.png
The chopped-vocals melody of “Don’t Change For Me”.

The kicks and sub bass patterns are created by slight variations between two halves – most obviously, the dotted-quarter-note sub bass in bar 15 which provides a satisfying release to the whole form.

16-bar drums
The 16-bar drum and sub bass form.

This 16-bar unit is used for almost all the sections: drums intro (0:42), chords (1:10), vocals (1:38), vocals w/ richer chords (2:06), bridge (2:36), vocals w/ “goblet drum-ish” percussion (3:04), etc. The only exceptions are some added bars at 2:34 and 4:00.

So we’ve looked at structure and techniques. Now for some aesthetics.

First thing to note is the coexistence of polished, abstract aspects with much rawer, more intense ones. This contrast is laid out in the intro, where clinical cymbal sounds undergo digital processing until suddenly distorted bass and slippery jungle snares kick in. Or at 2:36, soulful, bluesy vocal fragments are suddenly contrasted with an abstract rhythmic arpeggio pattern. Or, sonically, compare the wildness of the sub bass’ thudding triplets or groaning long notes to the airy, clean synth and reverb effects.

Questlove characterised black cool as “intensity held in check by reserves of self-possession”. We’ve noted rawness contained within polished structures in “Don’t Change…”. Kennedy ensures that when that intensity is glimpsed, it appears almost unintentional. One example is the sub bass pattern’s seeming arbitrariness. It’s almost like someone messing around, matching some kick drum hits and not others. (See the transcription above.) “Engagement masquerading as… disengagement”, in Questlove’s phrase. Then it strikes suddenly in bar 15 (remember this is meant to be heard on an enormous sound system). This pretend casualness giving way to maximum intensity is apparent in basketball ankle-breakers, for instance. David Kennedy uses it for the peak moment of “Don’t Change For Me” at 2:30-2:36.

All the hottest elements of tune are juxtaposed here: the dotted-quarters sub-bass variation, the sweet blues-scale trill that ends every 8 bars of vocals, and a once-off extra melody. This added melody slips in under the radar at 2:27 because Kennedy has already been adding octave-doubled notes to the chord sequence since 2:06 (they sound kind of like synth strings). He has got us used to the sound of adding voices, so we barely notice when the new, pretty tones appear at 2:27.

Chords Rich
Chord progression with extra line. Note the presence of seconds e.g. G-A in the first bar – the new line forms rather jazzy chord extensions. Again, approximate voicings.

But the really nice bit is at 2:34. Kennedy breaks his 16-bar drum/harmony pattern for an unexpected 1-bar break, which very simply continues the groups of six in the snares for three beats, then ends with a distorted bass thud on beat 4.

The break (last bar).

Meanwhile the beautiful bluesy trill continues to ring out over the lush final chord. But our attention is centred on the filtered, chewy, jingling, jungle-ish timbres of the drumline. To me, the message is “This music is basically about funky drums”. This is said via the (jazz-derived) gesture of the drum break. Then, without ceremony, we’re in a kind of “B section” stripped down to a tricky, syncopated minor arpeggiation, as the trill fades.

So, a lot of beautiful things happen in this short time – a once off melody, an awesome once-off break, a breaking of the rhythmic form, the prolongation of the song’s nicest sounds – but Kennedy defuses the drama by using only predictable elements and not breaking the flow (or introducing new information) in any of the lines. He’s pretending not to be doing much of anything. I think that’s precisely the camouflaging of one’s engagement that Questlove identified.

The vocals also have this camouflaged quality. Just as Kennedy’s drum timbres hark back nostalgically to jungle and rave, so the vocals are heavy with both soulful inflections and processing that recall emotive UK garage and house vocals. (The pitched-up sound contributes to this.) Kennedy mitigates this sentimentality by cutting the vocals up and using the bits as rhythmic stabs, so that the lyrics are unintelligible and the overwrought inflections appear in robotic stutters. Once again, raw emotion is contained by mechanical structures.

What’s the end result of all this? For me, it’s a deeply original style exhibiting technical mastery – but more importantly, this music both grooves (get on your feet and listen again if you don’t believe me) and has the emotional sophistication of nostalgic sounds affectionately subjected to ironic distancing, minimising and masking.

That’s all I’ve got today! Hope you liked this swerve into contemporary club grooves. Would really appreciate feedback on this one as I’m definitely not an expert in electronic music. Sorry for the late post and see you next Friday.