May 2, 2013

Meter Mad Playlist

By Michael Zwiebach

A musical rhythm usually implies a regular grouping and dividing of beats, which is called the music’s meter. Now there are dozens of ways to organize musical meter, but only some of them are common in Western classical styles. About a hundred years ago, musicians like Igor Stravinsky began to incorporate meter into their compositions all the uncommon meters and ways of organizing rhythm. The results are sampled in this playlist.

  1. “Mars, the Bringer of War” from The Planets (Gustav Holst), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
    The ominous rhythm in the bass in this tune is grouped in five (twos and threes and their multiples are most common in classical music.)
  2. “Glorification of the Chosen One” from The Rite of Spring (Igor Stravinsky) National Youth Orchestra, Simon Rattle conductor
    Crazy music for a dark ballet about human sacrifice. Regular rhythmic groupings are simply absent. The music is organized by rhythmic motives that repeat with lots of colorful variation. This ballet opened a lot of ears when it premiered 100 years ago, in 1913. Musicians are still teasing out all those possibilities
  3. “And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out)” from Evita (Andrew Lloyd Webber/ Tim Rice)
    In the 1960s and 1970s, art rock and jazz composers began to work with unusual meters. This example, from a 1978 musical based on the life of a political leader from Argentina, is mainly in groups of seven.
  4. “Blue Rondo A La Turk” (Dave Brubeck), Dave Brubeck Quartet
    In this famous jazz piece, the meter is in groups of two and three, but in the pattern 2+2+2+3 followed by 3+3+3. Counting it can give you a headache, but listening to it is a whole lot easier and more fun without that assignment.
  5. Piano Trio in A Minor, first movement (Maurice Ravel)
    Maurice Ravel’s mother was from the Basque region of Spain and this piece is based on Basque dance rhythms, which, like the Turkish rhythms in “Blue Rondo A La Turk,” are in groups of two and three added together in a larger pattern.
  6. “Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm” from Mikrokosmos (Bela Bartok) Jeno Jando, piano
    And here’s a quick piece in additive meter from a composer who also extensively studied the folk music of Eastern Europe.
  7. “Habanera” from John’s Book of Alleged Dances (John Adams), Kronos Quartet
    The dances in this suite by contemporary composer John Adams are wildly rhythmically complex, but the interesting thing is that that doesn’t stop the pieces from having a groove; they just have been knocked off kilter in enjoyable ways by having different rhythms layered on top of one another.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.