February 11th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Free-trade policy sending manufacturing into free-fall

CANBERRA OBSERVED Jeers at suggestion we not be fringe dwellers

EDITORIAL Nothing new among Trump's executive orders

QUEENSLAND Pro-life Brisbane marches as abortion vote nears

GENDER POLITICS Autism, gender-dysphoria link: the evidence mounts

EUTHANASIA Quebec, Dutch, Belgian and Oregon laws a 'mess'

OBITUARY Scholar's passing is our common loss

WESTERN CIVILISATION The owl of Minerva: the signs of times past

POETRY Hal Colebatch: the poet who celebrates heroism


MUSIC Juggling with time: it's all in the head

CINEMA What doesn't kill you makes you stronger: Split

BOOK REVIEW Teen brings 'penny dreadfuls' to life

BOOK REVIEW Money and quantum physics


EDITORIAL The future of Senator Cory Bernardi

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Juggling with time: it's all in the head

by David James

News Weekly, February 11, 2017

Describing the nuances of rhythm in the African-derived musics – blues, jazz, samba, Afro-Cuban, rock – is not something that is often attempted. And when it is, at least by the musicians, there is a heavy emphasis on the metaphorical. They use words like “feel”, “soul”, “heart” and so on. Musicians know what they mean, non-musicians tend to be left in the dark.

The true complexity of these musical traditions is not widely aired. In classical music, two types of rhythmic complexity are typically employed. One is speeding up or slowing down the time in musical phrases. Rallentando is an example, where the actual tempo is changed, as if the performer is changing the numbers on the metronome during the phrase. Much of the interpretative skills of classical performers involves knowing how to make subtle changes in tempo; mostly slowing down phrases.

The other common type of complexity is complex metres; not just the usual 4/4 (four beats per bar) or 3/4 (three beats per bar, the waltz). Modern classical scores often use extremely complex time signatures to achieve variation.

The rhythmic subtlety of the Africa-derived music tends to be quite different. One dimension, commonly called swing, is to vary around the beat. In the case of blues, jazz and rock, it typically involves playing slightly behind the metronomic pulse. Not everyone in the band is “swinging” in the same way. Often the bass or drums will be on or ahead of the beat to enhance the tension. The resulting tension is what makes the music encourage movement: the tapping of the foot or the impulse to dance.

In the Latin variants, especially samba, the emphasis is on getting ahead of the beat. Whereas blues and jazz work off the backbeat, the second and fourth beats in a four-beat bar, samba works on the front beat, the first and third beats in a four-beat bar.

João Gilberto

Compare, for example, the phrasing of Frank Sinatra singing The Girl from Ipanema and Brazilian great João Gilberto’s version. Sinatra sings behind the beat and stresses the backbeat; Gilberto, pictured. sings way ahead of the beat and emphasises the front beat. The effect is very different but the degree of rhythmic nuance is strong with both singers.


A second dimension of rhythmic subtlety in the African musics, at least with improvisation, is the use of two times simultaneously. Skilful improvisers are able to keep two times in their heads: the basic beat, which is swinging in some way, and the time that is being established in the improvisation. When it is done well, a high degree of tension is created between these two times, which is subsequently resolved.

The most obvious effect is displacement, which involves some form of repetition of the notes in different combinations so that where they fall in the bar keeps shifting. Displacement is especially pronounced in blues, where the same sequence of notes is varied in different ways to create different accents (emphases in the bar). The listener hears two times being played: the basic time the band is playing and the time being established in the solo line.

Being able to play two times simultaneously is intensely enjoyable; perhaps the main reason why playing blues and jazz can become such an addiction. It also opens up the improviser to a great deal of risk. By venturing out on a different time, the improviser never quite knows where it will end up; which part of the bar they will eventually alight on and whether or not they will lose contact with the background swing.

It is a little like the psychological equivalent of flying: you take off in a pre-determined place but you never know where you will come down – or crash.

Why did these musical traditions develop so differently? There is no clear answer; it is part of the mystery of cultural difference. This writer asked the great trumpeter Miles Davis to explain why people of African descent so often swing and people of European descent so often don’t.

Miles, being something of a racist, readily accepted the premise, but had no answer. He said, by way of illumination: “Black people like to move, to dance, you know.” But this was a description, not an explanation.

One possible reason is that the movement of African people seems looser, as evidenced in their dancing. Perhaps that translated into the music. But this does not get us very far because it is clear that swing and related rhythmic complexity can be learned, as evidenced by the extraordinary percussion baterias in Brazil, which are multi-ethnic yet everyone has the same sense of rhythm.

Miles eventually decided it was genetic, and perhaps it is. But in the end, the answer remains elusive.

David James is a Melbourne journalist, writer and musician.

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