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Irregular-Polyrhythmic Play

In this article, I will discuss experimenting with irregular polyrhythms; an aspect of music that (other than basic, intuitive polyrhythms) I have never consciously placed at the forefront of my composition or production process.


What is a Polyrhythm


Put simply a polyrhythm is two different rhythms performed at the same time. A common example used to demonstrate polyrhythms is "Hot Cup of Tea". This is exampled below, where a beat of 3 (drum) is played against a beat of 4 (woodblock):

Simple polyrhythms like the one above are commonplace in most forms of music and maintain points of rhythmic coalescence, for example: in "Hot Cup Of Tea", both the drum and woodblock strike simultaneously on the "Hot", coalescing to create emphasis on the four down-beats of the bar.


However, what I'm more keenly interested in is irregular polyrhythms. These are polyrhythms with which there is little to no distinct coalescent pulse, resulting in an ongoing and evolving rhythm that's has an ever-changing point of coalescence (or dynamic emphasis). It's an area of music commonplace in a number of cultures and musical styles, but one I've never explored in my own work.


The Inspiration

Nahre Sol is a YouTuber that I subscribe to. She makes informative videos about life as a professional classical pianist and also about her creative journey, as she learns about musical styles and technologies she was not exposed to in her musical training. She's not afraid to explore, experiment with and discuss aspects of music she is unfamiliar with or hasn't played before. She approaches new topics with open-minded curiosity and is unafraid to have a go at new things, even if her attempts don't quite execute as planned. To see someone so talented and capable have such honesty and willingness to show and discuss things they don't yet fully understand (alongside the learning process) is wonderfully refreshing; hugely encouraging for aspiring musicians and a big motivator toward my own approach to blogs and how I discuss my creative processes online. I highly recommend you check out her videos, they're very insightful.


A while ago, she posted this video in which she purchased a loop pedal and with the help of some musician friends, was experimenting with creating music by layering multiple loops.


One thing in this video that really caught my attention was at 10:30. Whilst jamming with Adam Neely, he hadn't quite pressed the loop pedal exactly on the beat. This caused that part to develop an irregular rhythm, counter to the other rhythms that were looping. She noted that, as the spontaneous composition evolved, the irregularities became normal; the irregularity became regular (in terms of human perception, at least).


This innocuous moment of the video made me ponder:

  • Could I compose using short, looped, irregular measures in order to create pleasant and enjoyable irregular-polyrhythmic pieces of music?

  • Furthermore, could the sum of the irregularities ultimately begin to feel regular?


The Plan


I decided to work with the same process as I did for my Pianos project; four pieces of music across four days (one piece a day). I planned to work on one song an evening, not waste time procrastinating; simply make decisions and live with them!


In order to simplify the process, I used a no-frills 808 drum-kit from Battery 4 (my drum sampler of choice - with the one alteration of a non-808 snare drum sample that I prefer to often use). I also used the same bass sound for all four pieces (a Moog derived filtered sawtooth on my Roland Jupiter-50).


The Process


I setup a project in Logic Pro with a 4/4 time signature and made regions that weren't one bar, but rather odd measures, such as 3 beats, 5 beats, 7.5 beats, etc. I wasn't calculated, but nor was I completely random. I threw a few things together and only deleted or changed things if they really weren't working.

Above is a screen shot of my drum arrangement. Notice how the regions (the green and orange boxes) are all different lengths and therefore loop at irregular points. In a typical production, the small indents on the regions (which indicate the loop point) would line up more evenly.


With an irregular, somewhat unusual, but useable rhythm in place, I set about composing a bass line (as per my usual process, discussed in my article Bottoms Up). I composed the bass line in two parts (two separate tracks). One to start and the second part to join the piece later in the track, so as to allow for space and dynamics. With the drums and bass in place, I began working on harmonic and melodic content.


This proved a little more complicated. Conscious not to accidentally induce dissonant and/or discordant tonalities, I had to think carefully about what each part did. I was able to achieve polyrhythmic harmonic rhythm, but at first they sounded overly simple and too repetitive. After a little experimentation I overcame the simplicity, making use of chords derived from methods discussed in my article about layering multiple chords to create lift and sensations of floating.

Above are some of the electric piano, synthesiser and guitar parts from the first piece I made. Like the drums, notice how the regions (the blue boxes) are irregular in length, meaning that parts play counter to one another at some points and coalesce at other points.


Below are multiple piano parts layered to create overlapping and interesting polyrhythms within the same instrument (it's worth noting that the piano samples I used here are from PianoBook; a very worthwhile, open-source community who compile beautifully authentic and rustic sounding piano-sample libraries).


Practice (sort of) Makes Perfect


Over the three following evenings I grew more adventurous with the harmonic content, as I felt the first evening's composition (whilst a pretty piece of music) was rather unadventurous. I composed chords and melodies first and added drums and bass once the harmonic content was in place. It seemed in the instance of this project, a harmony-first approach gave me greater command and control over ensuring reasonably interesting harmonic content that didn't clash or become dissonant once looped (irregularly).


I allowed myself one non-looping (or semi-looped) part for two of the pieces. This afforded me the luxury of establishing a sound-bed that I could then place small improvised lines over to interweave between the shifting emphasis of the polyrhythms.


For example, on the third piece, I improvised some Wurlitzer Electric-Piano around the accidental dynamic swells brought about by the irregular-polyrhythmic nature of the piece. Notice in the picture below that the "Nord Wurly#01" (Wurlitzer Electric-Piano) does not loop (although it does play a repeat chord pattern in the latter part of the piece).

For the forth and final piece I attempted to be even more adventurous with my chord progression; creating a long chord-sequence to be looped, including some borderline dissonant, Jazz-like chord phrasing. Whilst I managed to make it work within the length of the song, the piece ended up being noticeably shorter than the others, and this is partly due to it being a more complicated chord-progression, that in retrospect, I believe, limited what I could do; the complexity would eventually result in harmonic clashes and dissonance when looped irregularly.


Post Production Evaluation


I typically approach composing with a fairly conventional, even Pop-esque mentality; that of A/B/C sections; clear signposting and demarcation between sections, etc.


Building music as I did here; by gradually increasing and decreasing the number of loops was a relatively unusual and new experience for me. I found this process gave the pieces an evolutionary quality; growing from one or two simple parts into a complex piece and (in some cases) back down to one or two simple parts again. I feel this gave the music a slightly hypnotic, entrancing quality similar to forms of House and Trance. Where it differs from House and Trance however is in the use of irregular timing on every part removing any notion or moments of clear resolving coalescence. It's at this point we should refer back my initial questions.


Firstly:


  • Could I compose using short, looped, irregular measures in order to create pleasant and enjoyable irregular-polyrhythmic pieces of music?


Whilst this is largely subjective, I'm satisfied that I have achieved in making four relatively interesting and listenable pieces of music, and furthermore feel that yes I have proven to myself that I can compose satisfactorily with irregular measures, looped in irregular ways.


Secondly (and perhaps more interestingly):


  • Could the sum of the irregularities ultimately begin to feel regular?


Nahre Sol suggested in her video that what seemed (at first) to be an irregular timing phrase, soon became perceived as regular as the composition developed and the listener became used to it. In the case of my four pieces, as the music's creator, it's impossible to objectively address this, so I sought the opinion of others.


I explained the nature of the project and played the four pieces to two music students. They noted the following observations:


  • The lack of coalescence created tension that didn't resolve, which when focused on, had the potential to became a source of emotional frustration (i.e. they yearned for a conclusive resolve). However they also noted that there were interesting and unexpected moments of real interest that could also be examined in detail and provided very satisfactory, expressive elevations.

  • The music contained an ambient quality as it was arguably best presented (or consumed) as "background music"

  • They acknowledged that the different parts were irregular, but noted that the music didn't feel irregular due to the looped nature of each part in the arrangements (BINGO!!!)


Together, we looked through the projects in Logic Pro (my music production software of choice) and I pointed out how irregular the initial structure is. They concluded that whilst the initial form and arrangement was irregular, bordering on random at times, the sheer act of looping created a perceived regularity. I.e. the music did not feel irregular. Whilst this was a very small sample group of only two people, for sake of this experiment, I was satisfied that I had gone some way to achieved my intended outcome.


What followed was a discussion about whether irregularity in music is in fact a moot point; if the irregular quickly becomes perceived as regular, is there truly any discernible basis in labelling musical phrases as "irregular"? This however, is a deep philosophical discussion and best left for another time.


It's a Mood Thing?


Overall, I find this irregular-polyrhythmic lack of coalescence heightens the hypnotic/trance-like quality and is very powerful with regards to setting an ambiguous mood/tone of each piece. Each piece has its own distinct tone, yet I've found it very hard to pinpoint exactly what that is. Some might consider this a negative aspect, however if you've read some of my other articles, you'll know that this is my favourite place to be (musically speaking), as I find chords, melodies, rhythms and tones that have emotional ambiguity some of the most intriguing and potentially powerful tools to work with.


What Next?


I will definitely be carrying over some of the lessons from this exercise into future music creations. I doubt I'll build entire songs out of irregular-polyrhythmic parts like I did here, however I will look to embed them within sequences or passages to further exploit any emotionally ambiguous elements.


I'm intrigued by the observation above relating to Ambient music. Ambient music is something I know of, but have never really explored. Following this polyrhythmic exercise, my interest in the ambient genre has firmly been piqued and I'll make Ambient music the focus of my next experimental blog.


The Finished EP - Propensity to Feel


If you want to listen to the music I created for this irregular-polyrhythmic exercise, you can stream and/or download it here.


I hope this article has been of interest and perhaps encouraged you to try something similar with your own music. If so, I'll be keen to hear what you create and learn from the process. Furthermore, I encourage you to share your irregular-polyrhythmic exploits and findings, as I've done here. After all, the more we share, the more we can learn from one another.


Lastly, I want to say just how much I really enjoyed this project. It made a great change from the kind of thing I usually work on, gifting me some much needed room-to-breathe (creatively speaking). If for no other reason, I recommend undertaking projects of this nature from time to time.


I hope you enjoy listening to my polyrhythmic experiments and keep your eyes out for an ambient project of a similar nature in the near future.


Happy music making :)

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