EXPLORE: Chamber Music
Music experiments built upon an ever changing tempo.
What is Flowing, or Oscillating METER?
Meter is an usually conceived as a ruler-like, evenly measured timing grid upon which the timing of musical events are calculated. Like the ticking of a clock, the tempo is steady in order to keep the flow of the music’s rhythm from being distorted by compression or expansion, unless the style or common practice, i.e. rubato, calls for it. To our feeling perceptions, meter is congruent to repeated body movement and physically felt – like walking. The tempo of the beat of the meter is usually kept constant to provide a stable timing framework upon which logical multiples and subdivisions can be recorded and read. A regular frequency of the beat also becomes analogous to our physical movement, its tempo becoming the metric ‘feet’.
What would happen if tempo regularly changed asymmetrically – like the rhythm of waves meeting the shore or relaxed human breathing? These are examples of ‘organic’ meters which occur regularly but consist of unequal durations. The in-breath requires more time than the out-breath. Building to the peak-crash of the wave takes longer than the post crash. Similarly, flowing meter employs a set repetition of accelerandi and/or decelerandi employing standard practice notation. Musicians adapt to the ‘feel’ of the changing flow of tempo and they can correlate subdivisions to create a seamless compression and relaxation of time.
Such a series of rhythms described with flowing meter cannot be notated in a traditional straight meter. The modern notation of subdivision would make that impossible or impractical because of the complexity required. More importantly, the feel or groove of the music is most important – and that would be lost in a traditional meter. A horizontal line above a standard key signature alerts the musician that it is a flowing or oscillating meter. Information printed above the staff describes 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 Signatures
Flowing meter is created by defining accelerandi and deccelarandi upper and lower tempo limits. The rate and direction (vector) of tempo change is described by the composer with an extra line of information to the right of the standard meter signature containing:
- The traditional meter signature to define the number of beats and note values within a bar
- Tempo range: minimum and maximum metronome limits for each bar
- vector direction: up or down (“less than” or “greater than” symbols)
- if two tempi are used, a number coefficient indicates the pivot point placement. The total number of beats in the bar is multiplied by that number to define the location.
Each complete period of change is one bar, graphically separated with a standard solid bar line.
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 easier 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”. “<.5>” places the pivot at 50% in the bar. I placed a courtesy dotted bar line at the pivot point to help musicians visualize the pivot and stay together.
The third movement will employ an asymmetrical arrangement, with a pivot point placed at the golden mean.
Local Orlando clarinetist, Kevin Strang, commissioned me to compose this new work for his “Sunshine Quartet” in July of 2012.The group submitted the recording, made by myself in one of the new sound stages, as a part of their grant application for the World ClarinetFest 2013 in Assisi, Italy, and won.