Rhythm is my business

A while ago I was standing in a bar with my son and a group of his friends. The juke box was pulsing out its message at very high volume. Now, I have very wide musical tastes and sitting in a trombone section right in front of five trumpets for much of my musical life means I’m no stranger to volume, either but my younger comrades perceptively picked up on the fact that I was approaching the boundary of my comfort zone. ‘Oh well, at least it’s got rhythm’ one of them reminded me, beating his fist on the bar top in time with the music to emphasise the point.

I didn’t want to wreck the atmosphere by pointing out that the thud, thud, thud of the music, which sounded like someone building a chicken pen, was merely the continuum, or scheme of reference, which gave meaning to the rhythms, so I simply said ‘That’s just the beat, not the rhythm’ and left it at that.

The most comprehensive treatise on this subject was surely the one written by Russian-born Joseph Schillinger who eventually landed in the USA and rose to the position of teaching some of the most respected musicians and composers around at that time, including George Gershwin.

Joseph has tended to be on the fringe of music education because, amongst other things, he attempted to create mathematical systems controlling ‘art production’ (to cut a long story short). For example, he claims that, had J.S. Bach been aware of his system, he would have achieved more consistent results! Such statements alienated many with the result that relatively few musicians, to this day, have availed themselves of the wealth of information and advice that is actually to be found in the two volumes that, together, comprise the ‘Schillinger System of Musical Composition’. I’m not sure if these books are still in print but I understand that Schillinger courses still exist.

If readers can ignore the naïve positivism that, to be fair, was typical of the era between the two great wars, there’s a wealth of important ideas and information in this publication. There are, understandably, in a monumental work of this kind (that had to be collated by editors after his early death), a number of errors in the text, including a couple of entire sections that are out of order. I shall be pleased to convey those I found to interested parties. It will save them a lot of time.

Joseph discovered that what we call ‘rhythm’ is the result of interference patterns between different periodicities. I still read statements that ‘we don’t understand rhythm’ (or words to that effect) but I’m convinced that he was right about this.

He goes on to show that rhythm not only governs individual phrases but it also gives shape to the order of formal sections, movements etc. Rhythm can also be serialized by means of permutations and patterns that give meaning to a subject that can become hopelessly subjective in the wrong hands. Do we go ‘doo-wap-be-doo-wap’ or should it be ‘der-doo-wap-be-doo-wap’? The point is that, relying purely on intuition, we might do it one way and then, later, do it another. Was there a reason for this or did we just not notice? The ‘choice’ might be governed by all kinds of circumstantial factors and this, to my tidy mind, just aint good enough.

My earlier blog on WordPress might be worth reading at this point: https://composerarranger.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/musical-form-why-do-we-need-it-and-where-does-it-come-from/

Google comes up with a wealth of information about Joseph Schillinger which will serve the reader better than this ‘introductory’ post, in fact there’s a very fair and, in my opinion, accurate assessment on Wikipedia.

It’s difficult to avoid comparisons with architecture when discussing musical form. Of course, music is a temporal medium, which raises important differences right away but the superstitious tendency to believe that music (because it is so abstract in nature) belongs in the realms of the inexplicable has done much to damage our efforts.

My own book is a hands-on, musician-to-musician journal that expects readers to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty but those who choose to approach the Schillinger System should realize that it is a scientific work and, as such, every statement has to be rigorously justified, sometimes with pages of lengthy examples. My only warning would be to avoid the belief that using the system is a short-cut to success (which Joseph never claimed!); a composer’s work still requires content, a word that I hope will suffice in the present context.

More than anything else, the system streamlines many down-to-Earth problems. For example, it becomes easy to predict when two or more schemes in composition will ‘come out even’. In fact, temporal planning becomes so manageable that it’s easy to understand why the system was so popular in Hollywood.

At the end of the day we shouldn’t think of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ because Shillinger’s work represents a theory and theories, as we all know, remain in force until they are superseded. The most quoted example is Newton’s inverse square law of gravity. This theory evolved in the 17th century and is still used today every time we launch a spacecraft or put a satellite into orbit. We had to wait around 300 years for a man of equal stature to point out that the theory is required to be relativistic.



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