Equilateral for Four Clarinets, commissioned by Kevin Strang for the Sunshine Quartet, is my first attempt to create music that flows on a seamless compression and relaxation of time that I call “Flowing Meter.” The quartet premiered it at ClarinetFest 2012 in Asissi, Italy.
It’s worth an extra moment to reconsider rhythm and meter to understand the contribution of Flowing Meter:
Our universe is full of events, happening all around us, the vast majority of which we have no awareness. The small chunks of the electromagnetic, mechanical, and chemical spectrums we can sense are complicated beyond comprehension. As infants, we eventually learn to find order in all of that chaos by finding patterns in our sensory input – the gestalt, like recognizing faces or identifying a herd instead of solely seeing each animal in turn. Pattern-finding in all we see and hear mitigates our fear of the unknown with a sense of order and symmetry: knowing what is around us.
What is Rhythm?
A sound occurs when it passes by and is sensed through our ears. As we listen, we compare what we currently hear to our memory of what has just come before it, looking for organization. We use the word “rhythm” to describe qualities and relationships between the time durations between sounds we’ve heard. Natural sounds like rain, thunder, or babbling water are chaotic in their rhythms because their organization principles exceed our grasp and outside of our sphere of control. They do not have a simple, memorable beat. Wind through the trees, a chorus of frogs, and birdsong, we quickly recognize these as not-human sounds and often shut them out. We are predisposed towards ordered rhythms and sounds we can remember.
What is the underlying Beat?
Our cerebellum controls voluntary and involuntary body movements, allowing us to walk, talk, stand – and stay alive by beating our hearts. Our cerebellum’s intelligence is revealed in finding the common numeric denominator in a rhythm if one exists. It’s solution to the problem is the beat or pulse: a time grid on which the neighboring rhythms can be referenced. When you look down and find you are tapping your toes before you knew it, you see your cerebellum at work. You are ‘feeling’ the beat.
Pleasure rises when a section of a rhythm pattern repeats itself because each statement, recognized, invites the listener to join it. Once aligned, we reinforce it in/with our body, moving to it. Slower tempos are paired with longer sections of our body that take more time to swing. Faster speeds use shorter parts, like our heads or arms. We “become” the beat when we dance since we simultaneously 1) listen, 2) remember, and 3) move to the pattern. Mind and body have come together to join it. Now, the present moment in a repeating rhythm feels larger and more spacious because the moment and what it contains is happening and is known.
The more complex a rhythm is, the more memory capacity each repetition requires, called a “measure.” The number of beats within each measure is the “meter.” Most cultures prefer shorter meters of 2,3,4 or 6. Our species’ knack for pattern-finding in all we see and hear promotes a sense of order and symmetry. The neatness and predictability of manmade environments, evident in city design, architecture, homes, and landscaping, display this normal aesthetic tendency as does our music.
What is Flowing Meter?
Flowing Meter gives us a way to create music with tempos that regularly cycle through change. Accelerando (speeding up) and decelerando (slowing down) are new vectors added to the primary elements of meter, using standard practice notation. It is not a rejection of beat, but a sophisticated addition to it. Because it retains the cyclical nature of meter, musicians feel its shortening and lengthening of beat to correlate all of our familiar subdivisions on that curve. The result is music that flows on a seamless compression and relaxation of time.
FLOWING METER NOTATION
Music could simply use well-known methods of using accelerando and decelerando notations above certain passage areas with specific tempo targets. But this would continue through the entire piece.
I’m trying a notation addition, adding a thick, horizontal line above the key signature. This alerts the musician that the music is composed with a flowing meter in mind. Each complete period of tempo change takes a single bar, graphically separated with a standard bar line. An optional dotted bar line can be added in the pivot point in the bar where the maximum or minimum tempo apex in the bar. Other needed information is placed above the staff to describe the shape and detail of the flow speed and direction. Like any meter signature, it is assumed to be in force until changed by an ensuing meter signature.
Flowing Meter Notation
- The traditional meter signature still defines the number of beats and note values within a bar
- Tempo limits: the minimum and maximum metronome targets for each bar
- Vector: is the direction of tempo increase or decrease. The vector(s) are notated by the use of “<” less than or “>” greater than symbols. Flowing meters tempos are shaped either faster|slower, or slower|faster
- Two tempi limits are always specified on each side of the vector sign. Above them, a number less than 1 acts as a “coefficient” that indicates the pivot point placement in the bar. The total number of beats in the bar is multiplied by that number to define the location. A dotted or dashed barline can be used to graphically place this point in the music. If no coefficient is written, then it is assumed to be a .5, placed in the very middle of the bar.
The above example has one vector: bar begins at mm.60 and slows (“>”) to mm.40, creating a sawtooth shape. This is used in the second movement “Sawtooth: Slanted Calliope”.
For this example, the musicians start the bar at mm90 and accelerate to mm180 at the 6th eighth note (pivot point, halfway through the bar), after which they decelerate back to mm90 by the next downbeat. Bars containing two vectors are more comfortable to play if a dotted bar line is inserted at the pivot point. Such a dotted line provides a mental ‘target’ for the ensemble to reach while performing.
A symmetrically balanced accelerando and decrescendo are employed in the first movement, “Equilateral”. The “<.5>” figure places the pivot at 50% in the bar. A dotted bar line at the pivot point helps musicians visualize the apex resulting in tighter ensemble performances.