Sunday, May 22, 2011

Swinging both ways

I'm not a jazzer, but I play one on ... TV? No, wait. False start.

I've gone into nauseating — or is it dizzying? — detail here about jazz, jazziness, and the Davyness that is jazzness. Jazzness has very little relation to lochness, unless you are willing to go very far out on a limb for the joke, and say that they are both monsters that are hard to describe (tepid rim shot).

In that other post, I make a glancing reference to swing eighths. The excerpt to the right is from Scatter, the second of Three Encores (C.F. Peters), and at the head of the score I say to swing the eighths.

And what does swing eighths mean? Somewhere in the middle of this unimpeachable wikipedia entry is a garbled description. The eighths on the beats are longer than an eighth, and the offbeat eighths shorter. A jazz player steeped in the tradition knows what it means to swing, and explaining it is akin to explaining yearningness, or thirsty, or silliness. Uh, well, there's this shuffle thing, and it's like, or somewhere between these two rhythmic notations down below on the left, and there's an extra accent on the weak eighths, except when there's not, and that's all determined by context, which I can't really explain except to say you feel it. Give a saxophone section in a jazz band straight eighths, say "swing it" and they will play and inflect in lockstep. Give a woodwind quintet straight eighths and say "swing it" and you're on your own. If they haven't done such a thing before, you've added a considerable amount of rehearsal time while the constituent players discuss what "to swing" means to them. Possibly coming to blows (that was a pun, for those of you on the lookout for them).

Neither rhythmic representation is entirely accurate. And neither tells you much about feel at all — shuffle is a good start, I guess, but from the perspective of an outsider to jazz — such as a jazzness artisan like moi-même would be — the only helpful description to a performer who is also an outsider would have to do with what I perceive as an extra accent on the weak eighths when they are tied to the next beat — such as the C at the end of the first bar. From there you're on your own.

So, to explain. No, not enough time. I will sum up. If Davy is grooving on a little bit of jazzness, and he wants both to refer to himself in third person and get a performer to play in swing eighths, then either the rhythmic notation has to be straight — and thus entirely inaccurate — and he has to resort to words (swing the eighths) to describe how he wants it played; or he notates it a bit more precisely, and the appearance on the page becomes considerably more cumbersome — and it's still neither accurate, nor is it true to the desired feel of the music. Imagine a whole 10-minute piece forested with all those triplet brackets.

One possible solution — and the one I've used the most — is to notate the swingy stuff of jazzness in a compound meter. Thus the second of the examples up to the left would be renotated in 12/8 time, and the triplet brackets would magically disappear. But to this composers's third person musical metabolism, it just doesn't look as fast as it is supposed to sound. In pieces where I have used 12/8, 9/8, etc. for such nefarious purposes, the tempo in performance has always, always, always, been too slow. It's as if the notation of only quarters and eighths implies one has an interpretive license of incredible slowness. Put simply — quarters and eighths shonuff looks a lot different from all eighths.

And as I'll continue to say — the tripletty notation is also not an accurate notation either of the rhythm or of the feel.

Thus my solution has usually been to encumber the notation even more by halving the value of the note to which the pulse is given — thus separating the notation into the halves and the halve nots (slightly more enthusiastic rim shot). So this example to the right from my twentieth étude — the first of many études to be built from swing eighths — is in the very daunting-looking 12/16 time, with the pulse given to the dotted eighth note. Imagine, though, the cumberositudinousness of notating it in 4/4 with triplet brackets over every beat. Every. Beat. Forever. Well — as compared to the cumberosity of a part that simply hammers out the beat being all dotted notes.

A little bit of a caesura here as I explain that the first quasi swing eighths in this notation that I ever encountered were not in a jazz piece at all. They were in the third movement of Carter's String Quartet No. 1 (Associated Music Publishers), and, me being me (back in first person, apparently, though I've eschewed the predicate nominative), this was the part of the record (that's what they called vinyl discs) that I played the most. This, too, is notated in 12/16, since seven years before I was born. This part of the piece is both jazzy and not jazzy (in the same way that I am, at this moment, both enthusiastic and laissez faire), and the way Carter got into it and out of it is brilliant. When the rhythm returns later in the piece in a different metric context, durned if it doesn't have to be notated as triplets. And nowhere did Carter indicate "swing it". And is there a slight accent to the first sixteenth of the second slurred group? Yes, if you swing it. Is it different from the accent you'd use to begin the third slurred group? Whoa, getting cosmic. Breathe, breathe.

Another caesura. Around a hundred and thirty years earlier than Carter, Beethoven seemed to be trying to one-up him in his particular notation of swing eighths in his piano sonata Op. 111. Or perhaps it was a very early example of be-bop.

Thus have I become accustomed to writing swingy jazzness in 9/16, 12/16, 15/16 time, etc., even up to 21/16. Which is less daunting when you use your calculator to divide by three and get 7/4, except with the swinginess that only true jazzness can provide.

It does lead to a few challenging rhythmic notations, though, as to the right — note that the fourth and fifth notes of the lower two parts are on the offbeat, and the sixth note on the beat. The only indication on the score that the time distance between the fifth and sixth notes is longer than that between the fourth and  fifth is that teeny-weeny little dot. Written instead in 6/4, that would be more obvious, as the penultimate rest would be a quarter, and the others eighths.

This metric notation also confuses the terminology. Are the swingy things in the top two parts "like" swing eighths? Or swing sixteenths? The answer is the same answer that (double name drop alert) John Cage gave to Judy Bettina when she asked him whether a red line in one edition of a piece of his was right, or the blue line in another edition: they're both right.

And Beethoven in Op. 111 — why, swing sixty-fourths, of course. I mean, duh.
So what if I want both straight sixteenths and swingy sixteenths in the same piece? Can music do that? Is the system of musical notation up to the task?

Yep. But, as notated repeatedly above, it's fraught with cumber. Lemme splain.

But first, another caesura. Wouldn't you notate the groove of this classic hip hop tune as swing sixteenths? It's a shuffle rhythm, fer sher. But imagine arranging it for woodwind quintet. Oh, sorry for causing dry heaves there. But going beyond the dry heave stage of the argument. There's another level to the tune, since at 2:52 it samples James Brown, and the brass rhythms lock right into the shuffle — are those 1960s brass rhythms swing eighths? Shuffle? Swing sixteenths? And when giving the bass fill at 3:19 to the bassoon in our dry heave arrangement, how would you notate it?

So I go back to the commission from Merkin Hall in which I was responding to jazz. More precisely, the concert for which I was writing was entitled Writing Jazz: An Epilogue on Influence, and it was about notated jazz (or in my case, jazzness) for so-called classical players. Fair enough. The Merkin blog described the context of the concert in the season, and my part in it.

One idea for the first movement of the piece was to separate the musical materials of the three groups (string quartet, woodwind quartet, piano), and let the piece, or the performers, gradually "discover" the jazz inherent in the materials. Well, I had to start somewhere. To that end, sometimes I had to notate in straight sixteenths and sometimes I had to cumberize with their swingy counterpart. So as in the example to the left in the woodwinds, stuff is going along in straight sixteenths, when suddenly swing sixteenths take over, if briefly, starting in the fourth beat of the middle measure, where the clarinet's little figure seems to infect the piccolo. Swinginess doesn't stick, though. And that may be the first time in the history of the English language that that sentence was typed by anyone.

Once the piece discovers the swinginess, and everyone plays in swing sixteenths, and there are lots of syncopations in and around the swingy sixteenths, then the notation becomes extremely cumbersome. Yet it's the best way to express that which it is that I wanted. Imagine everything notated as straight sixteenths instead with "swing" notated on the parts. The problem, at least conceptually for third person Davy, is that it looks the same as the music that doesn't swing, thus it is conceptually not a feel that has been discovered. Although third person Davy supposes he could overcumber the direction to "swing as if you've finally discovered swing". But that sounds like an Air Freshener commercial.

Then third person Davy gets ready for his first rehearsal and himself rehearses the line he is going to utter most frequently: I know it's hard.

Yes, that rhythm in the strings could have been made to look much easier. But second person Davy says you wouldn't have felt it the right way.

On the other hand. They're both right.