Dealing with Irregular Beats in the Music of Chip Michael

Performers sometimes glance over my music, find it really straight forward and fairly simple. That is until they start to get into actual rehearsal when they find the irregular beats quite challenging. Here are a few tips on why the music "feels" and "looks" straight forward yet is challenging to count. Here is how to approach it in rehearsal.

When we studied music we learned the basics of counting duple and complex meter. We might have even had advanced courses on how to approach divisions of five or seven. All of the basic subdivisions, two and three, were pretty easy. Our brains could grasp the concept of one beat being divided into two parts --one and two and. Three was a bit trickier --one ee ah, two ee ah. Still, these divisions don't cause much problem.

It was more of a struggle when we were asked to beat on the desk in three while we spoke in two (or the double division of four, two divided by two). Yet, by the end of the semester we were able to grasp the basic concepts of subdividing beats. My music is no different, with the complication that it doesn't follow subdivisions consistently. When working one of my compositions, you can't divide a beat into three and just repeat that over and over. The divided parts are the same, but the beat changes.

A pianist once told me the key to understanding difficult music is to find the patterns, so let's look at the patterns in my music:

For example:

In this 9/8 bar, the beats are not divided into three, three and three, but rather three, two, two and two. If you think about this bar in four, you have one slow beat and three faster ones -- one.... two, three, four, one.... two, three, four.

The 10-8 bar isn't a 5/4 bar, divided into two-three-two-three, or three-two-three-two. Rather begins like the 9-8 bar, three, two and two, but adds a hesitation to the final beat changing the two into a three, creating a three-two-two-three bar. The sensation is still four beats to the bar. Now it is long, short, short long.

Still in the same piece of music we move to a sympatico section -a shifting of the beat. It normal tango music this would just be a change of stresses within the measure. Here, I extend the final long even more, creating a three-two-three-three bar. This shift in the music gives a sense of the dancers 'milking' the passion of the final two beats, drawing out the flourish to emphasize what they're doing before returning to the first beat of the next bar.

The divisions throughout the music are simply dividing the beat by twos or threes, or rather grouping the eighth notes into twos or threes. The patterns are there, repeating over and over to create a sense of 'normal' rhythm even though they are broken up into irregular beats. When you've mastered that concept the rest should fall into place.

The music is written where the 8th note is the division of the meter, but the actual beat is mutable, constantly changing throughout the music. Standard Tango music is written in 4/4, but the pulse is long-short-short-long. Tango musicians often take liberties with the rhythm creating a sense of hesitation or impetuous toward the beat, shaving off bits of the beat here and adding bits there. For Flown the Coop I have taken this same sentiment and put an underlying consistent pulse to it. In this piece, the underlying pulse is the eighth note, in other pieces I use sixteenth and thirty-second notes. Regardless of what the underlying pulse is, grasping the over-arching beat is important. The sensation of the expressive beat on a foundation of the "true pulse" is what I want the listener to feel.

Flown the Coop - a dance in irregular meter


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