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.
Riff

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!

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