The Rhythm is Gonna Get You

An Exploration into rhythm in the music of Chip Michael Clark

Note: Scores discussed in this article will be posted soon

When I first began thinking about my music back in September 2007, I felt what I wanted to write about was what made my music unique, the quality that people describe as having a "Chip-ness" about it. Many of the composers I admire have a recognizable personality to their music. Dmitry Shostakovich has a Russian strength to his music (even though he was in and out of popularity with the Soviet Union throughout his life), his music embodies the aspirations of the people of his time. Aaron Copland is often described as the Dean of American composers. His blend of American folk tunes and modern music became known as the American Sound. Leonard Bernstein's use of cultural iconic themes and warring rhythms typify the social clash of the mid to late 20th century.

These composers are all influences in my writing, but not the only ones. I grew up in the midst of the disco era, and began playing the trombone at the age of seven. This exposed me to a variety of different styles of music, from the Latin sounds of Gloria Estafan and the Miami Sound Machine, to the rhythmic jazz of Dave Brubeck. I played in concert band, jazz band and orchestra - everything from standard classical repertoire through arrangements of the Beatles. Taking influences from popular music styles is hardly unique. Michael Finnissy uses influences of jazz and Negro spirituals in his work. Philip Glass speaks about influences of rock on his brand of "music with repetitive structures." Bartók used influences of Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian and Bulgarian folk music; these are the forms of music he grew up with. It is no surprise that some of my own influences are found in the music I listened to and played as a child.

So, what is it that makes my music mine? Probably the most notable feature is the rhythm. I love rhythm, and as Gloria Estafan says in her song of the same title "The Rhythm is gonna get you," it certainly got me, so much so it permeates my music at every level. The Latin influence in this music really gets my heart going; the intricate rhythms reverberate with something deep inside me. This love of rhythm is reflected in my music. I enjoy changing time signature or playing with the pulse of the music while still maintaining a sense of rhythm, something I think is core to music. Offbeat rhythms, upbeats and syncopation are other aspects that appear in everything I write, whether it is in a jazz or a classical piece. Ultimately I layer these elements to integrate the use of rhythm even further. There are probably a lot more aspects of my music that also give it a sense of being mine, like the lush orchestration in my symphony similar to that use by Shostakovich or the use of switching between melodic and motivic ideas as is found in much of Copland's music, or the intricate chromaticism and shifting modality found in Bernstein's music. But this paper is not an exhaustive examination of my music, rather a glimpse into what makes it work. And the rhythm works.

Time Signatures - their use and abuse

For the third movement of my Symphony No 1, Figuratively Speaking - You Can't Catch Rabbits with Drums (or Rabbits as I like to refer to it), rhythm is at the heart of the piece. The percussion section plays continuously for the full seven minutes. Their rhythmic structure, discussed later, is originally written in cut-time. The time signature doesn't change until just before rehearsal mark F (bar 98) for one bar and then moves to Common time. So, ostensibly no real shift at all, save the loss of one beat. The next change is at rehearsal mark J (bar153). This may not seem like much of a shift. However, the rhythm of the original motive (figure 1), is augmented at rehearsal mark I (bar 135) (figure 2), and again at rehearsal mark J (figure 3), this last one pulling the motive out of the rhythm of the time signature of 4/4.




Up to this point the audience has been lulled into the security of an even pulse, but five minutes into the piece the pulse shifts and continues to do so throughout the golden section of the music. At bar 165 the time signature shifts to 5/4, at 167 it shifts to 4/4, at bar 177 it is back to 5/4 for one bar and then begins a shift between 4/4 and 4/3 for until bar 198 when it moves back to 4/4 where it remains until the end. The effect of this shifting metre is to structure the piece into basically an A - B - A1 form, with the A sections being in Common time. The first A section is five minutes, the B section is a minute and a half and the final A1 section is only 40 seconds.

In Copland's Appalachian Spring, the primary portion of the piece is in Common time, however this is augmented with elements of 3/2, 5/4, 3/4 and 7/8, used to shift from one section to the next or to create an unstable section, similar to what I did in the B section of Rabbits.

Time signatures play a large role in the opera "It Must Be Fate" as I wanted to keep a continuous pulse moving throughout the piece, yet shifting it from one stress to another. Shostakovich has several sections in the first movement of his Symphony No 7 where the time signature is anything but static. The piece opens in Common Time, but just after rehearsal mark 2 the next six bars shift between 5/4 and 4/4, then the metre shifts to 3/2, to 3/4 and eventually back to another extended section of 4/4. At rehearsal mark 8 another section of unstable time signatures occurs. These shifts between sections of stability and non-stability build tension throughout the movement. In my opera I use shifting time signatures to create just such a sense of tension.

The opening portion of the piece is in 4/4, but then shifts to 7/4 with the "Weaving Song" giving the piece a sense of hesitation similar to the movement of a shuttle across a loom. At bar 72 the time signature shifts to 6/4 which is maintained for the bulk of the piece. There is a short 5/4 section used only to shift back to 7/4 and a return of the movement from the opening portion of this song, but then back to 6/4 to end the song.

When the piece moves into the next section "I'm Bored" the tempo shifts from crotchet equals 160 to dotted crotchet equals 107 as the time signature shifts from 6/4 to 6/8. The pulse in the last portion of the 6/4 section was actually in 4 or 4 dotted crotchets (which is roughly 107). So, the time signature has shifted to 2 beats in a bar from the simulated 4 beats in the bar, although the previous time signature was 6/4 - which had originally been stressed with 6 beats to the bar. In the midst of "I'm Bored" another shift happens taking the music from 6/8 to 4/4 so we lose the triplet feel for a regular 4 beat.

Another shift in the time signatures and pulse happens at "Ascending Mt Olympus" (bar 399), where we move from a slowed 4/4 at crotchet equals 100 to 5/8 where a quaver equals 250. The point of this shift is to give the feeling the 5/8 bar is equivalent to 2 counts of the 4/4 bar. But because the 5/8 bar doesn't divide evenly the feeling of being out of sync is inherent in the music. By the time we reach "Jarad's Lament" at bar 413 we are lulled into a sense of the unevenness, so when the next shift happens at bar 490 to 3/4 we hardly feel the added quaver. However, at bar 508 the time signature shifts to 4/4 and we do feel that change, just as Jarad sings of the changes Fate makes.

In "Come Back to the Cave" the shift in time signature is far more dramatic, but we are coming to the close of the opera. In this section of the opera the time signatures shift from 4/4 to 3/4 and back again. The point of this shift is to create a sense of the sisters of Fate being out of balance. They are not in agreement, so the rhythm is constantly losing a beat, propelling the piece forward.

But just shifting the time signature isn't always necessary. Dave Brubeck wrote a number of great jazz tunes, but my all time favorite is Take Five. Its irregular time, 5/4, allows the music to have a very unique feel, constantly keeping the listener moving with the beat. This piece, probably more than any other, keeps me coming back to irregular time signatures - although I find I tend to gravitate toward seven rather than five.

Shifting the Pulse - but keeping the beat

However, it isn't always necessary to change the time signature to shift the pulse. In my piece Weighting the Return, I use an irregular rhythm to keep the piece off balance. The time signature is 4/4 but the Violin II starts with a nine quaver figure at bar 5 (figure 4). This irregular rhythm is eventually shifted to a seven quaver figure, then a five quaver figure and then the length is broken and of indeterminate length adding to the instability of the pulse. Igor Stravinsky used similar irregular rhythms in his trois pieces pour quatuor a cordes (1914). Bernstein used the technique of broken rhythms in The Rumble segment of his West Side Story (1957) to build a sense of uncertainly to what was about to happen in the music. Philip Glass uses repetitive irregular rhythms layered on each other to shift the pulse as found in his string orchestra piece, Company (1983).

Similar irregular rhythms are layered on top of each other in Rabbits. The timpani starts a 13 beat rhythm, mostly crotchets, with 2 quavers added to shift the pulse of the timpani at different portions of the rhythm. The bass drum plays a 5 beat rhythm of 2 minims and a crotchet. The snare drum has an 8 beat rhythm made up of crotchets, quavers and semi-quavers, with occasional accented notes (figure 5). The bass drum is replaced with another snare drum at bar 61, changing yet again the sense of irregular rhythms. All of this takes place without shifting the time signature.

The purpose of shifting time signatures in "Come Back to the Cave" is to create a difference between the statements of one character and the responses of another. This is augmented by the change in the rhythmic style of the characters. At bar 803 the older sisters say "Please don't go down" basically in crotchets, but Chlotho (centre line) responds with quavers (figure 6). Earlier in the same piece (bar 757) the roles were reversed, with Chlotho singing the crotchet figure and the sisters responding with quavers.

In the music of "America" Bernstein shifts between vocals with the women singing a section then shifting to the men to "comment" on their women's statement. They then shift roles with the women commenting on the men's statements. Bernstein had a collaborator of Steven Sondheim, who used the same technique in his opera Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street to shift between the statement and comment of characters. Neither of these composers use the rhythmic difference or time signature shifting to the extent I have, but the concept of the voice interplay is the same.

Syncopation - keeping the music upbeat

Many of the shifting rhythms in my music occur in the form of syncopation, a stress on an unstressed beat, or a missing beat where a stressed one would normally be expected. Throughout Rabbits there are accents which fall on offbeat stresses. This occurs in the motive (see figure 1) and an accompaniment rhythm which eventually becomes a primary rhythm in the strings (figure 7).

Copland makes the common time of his Appalachian Spring more interesting by adding syncopated rhythms at rehearsal mark 46 (figure 8).


Latin music is inherently syncopated, with lots of up beat stresses. Much of West Side Story is filled with Latin rhythms because of the Puerto Rican subject matter. "Mambo" takes one of these rhythms to the extreme (figure 9). The mambo rhythm is of Cuban origin and the typical beat is the first beat of 8 and then the consecutive off beats to finish the 8 counts (figure 10). As you can see with figure 8, Bernstein doesn't have the same stresses - Bernstein's version is even more syncopated - and yet it still has the same flavor.




Weighting the Return doesn't include a lot of continuous syncopation, but still, it's there in small doses. At the beginning of the piece, just before rehearsal mark B, again before rehearsal mark C, before rehearsal mark D and so on. Figure 11 is from the section just before rehearsal mark B.

Layering - it on thick


In Weighting the Return at rehearsal mark E, the piece has progressed to the point to start bringing the elements together. So, the cello has a series of pizzicato quavers every beat and a half. What previously was the irregular rhythm becomes a broken rhythm in the Viola, with lots of upbeat stresses. When the Violin I enters at bar 127, its melody is loosely based on seven quaver segments, so it doesn't fit nicely into a 4/4 bar, but keeps jumping ahead just slightly. Eventually, at bar 142, the three lower strings are moving mono-rhythmically although entirely on the offbeat, and it isn't until the last bar of this section that all four instruments play together.

The opera has numerous moments where rhythms are layered on top of each other. From the very beginning the piano sets the syncopated rhythm up in the first bar in the left hand. When the right hand enters at bar 9, the upbeat of two is stressed with both hands, but only the left hand stresses beat four. At bar 17 the syncopation gets more elaborate as the left hand has a two bar repeating figure, while the right hand has one line that follows the stresses in the left hand, but a separate line that has different stresses. All of these elements are found in pieces throughout the opera, as this first page encapsulates the rhythmic play the audience will be exposed to during the performance, setting the expectation from the outset.

There are basically three rhythmic elements to Rabbits, the motive as shown in figure 1, the drums and their irregular rhythmic interplay as shown in figure 4 and a syncopated series of semi-quavers as shown in figure 6. As the piece reaches the climax at rehearsal mark K, six and a half minutes into the piece, all three elements are present, with the motive mutated to an irregular rhythmic length of seven quavers so it is out of sync with the rest of the piece. The beginning of the B section, as mentioned on page 4, starts this integration of the layers first playing the mutated motive over top the drums irregular rhythmic interplay. Eventually, the syncopated series of notes come in, but initially not as semi-quavers but as dotted crotchets creating a melody over top of the other two layers. The length of the note durations for the melody eventually decreases to crotchets, then crotchet triplets, then quavers and to semi-quavers. As it decreases the tension of the warring rhythms continue to build. This piece doesn't use harmonic tension to create the conflict, but rather uses rhythmic tension to propel the piece forward until release at the final bar.


Rhythm is only one aspect of my music. Other aspects include the use of harmonies and modal movement within the piece, which I adore. Voicing and orchestration are aspects I spend hours crafting into my music. And word setting is something I feel is very important to get across not only the meaning of the words, but the meaning behind the words. The composers mentioned are only a few of the many composers whose work influences my own. Other composers I often refer to when writing include Holst and Debussy for use of harmonic color; Ravel and Stravinsky for superior orchestration techniques; and Brittan and Weir, who's use of language is among the best in the 20th century, have affected the way I approach setting music to words.

The list of influence continues as does the elements I could speak of, however, an aspect I have learned here at Napier is the importance in crafting a piece to the specific need. If a commission requires a 5 minute piece, writing something that is 10 minutes long does not meet the requirements. So, I chose to limit the discussion of my music to rhythm to be able to cover in depth that single aspect, yet still explore the various facets of rhythm - the shifting of time signatures, the utilizing of irregular rhythms and syncopation and the layers of these elements which further develops the rhythmic language inherent in my music.

Shostakovich, Copland and Bernstein were chosen for their very different styles and yet clear examples as to how their own music has influenced mine. Even with that, there is so much more about even just these composers I could speak of, their use of tonal color, melodic development and broad choice of styles in which they write. Again, there is not enough time in the limited scope of this paper to discuss all the elements. Hopefully, by exploring rhythm in depth, you have gained a better understanding of what makes my music tick, what makes me resonate with other composers and how I approach new compositions. For at least one aspect has my number, rhythm.

Volkoff, Solomon, Testimony, the Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, Faber & Faber, trans. Antonia Bouis (1979) (back)
Scherer, Barrymore Laurence, A History of American Classical Music, Naxos Books (2007), p112 (back)
idib, p169 (back)
Beirens, Maarten , ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE SELF: MICHAEL FINNISSY'S 'FOLKLORE', Tempo (2003), 57: 46-56 Cambridge University Press (2003) (back)
Glass, Philip, Music by Philip Glass, Da Capo Press (1987), (back)
Copland, Aaron, Appalachian Spring, Boosey & Hawkes (1945), p56 (back)
Bernstein, Leonard, West Side Story, Boosey & Hawkes (1994), p42 (back)


Rob said…
One of my favourite pieces with complex rhythms - and one I was very pleased last year to be able to play (though not in public!) with my quartet is the Tippett quartet No 2 in F sharp. The scherzo has pretty fluid time signatures, and at the start Tippett ratchets up the apparent tempo mostly by continually shortening the phrase lengths (though he uses time signature shifts to achieve that). Clever chap, Tippett.
Chip said…
I'll add that to my list of pieces I need to explore. Regrettably, I've not studied much Tippett.

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