Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tricky Times

This is an excerpt from an interview with Muriel Anderson. The full interview is in the August 2009 issue of “Acoustic Guitar.” But screw that dinosaur media stuff because the full interview is online at Acoustic Guitar’s website and at the website you can watch and listen to video clips of Anderson demonstrating the things she’s talking about.

Print is dead.

You’ve written some tunes with complex time signatures. How do you deal with something like 13/8 time?

I put out a limited-release CD called Journey Through Time, where every song was in a different time signature and the track number corresponded to the time signature, on to track 13, in 13/8 time. With that [“A Baker’s Dozen”], I don’t think of it as one, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . . you know. I think of it as groups of beats. Three beats is a long beat, and a little group of two beats is a short beat. So, it’s one two three, one two, one two, one two three, one two three: long, short, short, long, long. So it just keeps that dance feeling.

You’re feeling the higher-level rhythm?

Yes, and when I first started working on those, when I’d hear a rhythm I’d like, I’d just walk in that rhythm, move my body in that rhythm. It got internalized, so that when I went to a guitar it was quite natural.

I’ve always been interested in stuff like this and it’s amazing how musical tools for playing with stuff like this have changed over the years.

When I was growing up, getting the hang of an odd time signature meant, typically, tapping out beats with your fingers. Sometimes you would tap out a basic time with one hand, and then tap out the melody with the other hand.

Nowadays with score writing software packages like Sibelius and Finale the “problem” of tricky time signatures has almost gone away—you just have the software play the piece for you! You can almost always “hear” the rhythmic essence embodied by the combination of a time signature and melody. And then you just play what you’ve heard. There’s nothing to “figure out” like in the old days.

Essentially the computer becomes a non-anthropomorphic musical robot that teaches the musician how to play something.

Frank Zappa used score writing software to generate canonical performances of his orchestral pieces when he worked with classical musicians all around the world.

I don’t really know what to think about all this.

On one hand, the process of figuring out things like tricky time signatures—either as a player working from a score or as a composer notating music you’ve created—is discipline that changes a person, develops their character.

On the other hand, learning tricky time signatures from a software package means you get things correct quickly and the music still becomes internalized then anyway.

I’m not sure that anything is lost by taking away the “struggle” of working out tricky time signatures by doing things like tapping fingers.

But I have read accounts from (pre-computer) famous conductors and even composers where they’ve shared their experiences with this-or-that particularly odd time signature that gave them a bit of trouble and how they resorted to the time-tested method of one hand tapping a beat and the other hand tapping a melody.

When something has been common for many generations and then, practically, disappears in the course of one generation, it is very disconcerting.

Modern musicians won’t think twice about writing or performing a piece in an odd time signature. Modern musicians don’t think twice about odd time signatures.

But we’re relaxed because we have robots teaching us what to do.

We have robots teaching us what to do . . .

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