Negative Rhythms?

Hey Mr.Coleman,
Thank you very much for the class yesterday at SIM. It was very intense, and the most engaging masterclass we have had so far. I thought it was very well organized as far as playing vs. explaining, and I had a great time clapping and singing through everything. I am writing because you told us outside the SIM building to email you with any questions we might have. I have one: what did you mean by negative rhythm? Did you mean taking a certain pattern and playing it backwards? or some sort of palindrome cycle? What are some examples of negative rhythm?

The term negative is just a polarity term for positive, and it may not be the best word since it has ‘bad’ connotations for most people. What I am really into could be best described as correlative thought (associative thinking) and polarity.

The negative rhythm thing is a matter of balancing. The temporal things that I talked about in the workshop, (3 2 2 3, etc.) these are forms, not rhythms. Forms are the imaginary structures that the actual rhythms can reside in. Just because you have a 3 2 2 3 form (which is just a kind of 10, or 5 in cut time, but with the weights distributed in another way than the 5 you normally hear) does not say anything about the actual rhythms involved.

A discussion about 4/4, 5/5, etc, is not a discussion about rhythm really, no more than a discussion about scales or modes is a discussion about melody. However in former times (ancient Greece, Middle Ages) discussing modes was closer to talking about melody because a mode was not just the assemblage of pitches in the structure but mostly a ‘way’ of playing a particular group of pitches and the relationship these pitches had to each other. This way of thinking still holds in the raga system on the Indian subcontinent. In ancient times a tetrachord was not just a group of four pitches, these pitches has dynamic functional relationships to each other, that is there was a system of movement tendencies associated with the group of pitches also. And since tetrachords (and in the Middle Ages pentachords also) were the cellular structures that formed the modes, then these dynamic pitch relationships got transferred to the modes also.

On to rhythm. What I call rhythmic modes (i.e. 3 2 2 3, 3 2 3 3 2 2, etc.) are kinds of forms that you can use as a way or organizing time. Using one analogy you could think of the rhythmic modes as the body and the rhythms as the soul. Or we could say that the rhythms are the meat, the actual sounded musical material, whereas the rhythmic modes are simply imaginary structures in your mind that are used as organizational devices used to help keep your place, tools that you use to negotiate time in the same way that we use a watch as a tool to negotiate time.

You see, the human sense of time is based on reality, that time is relative. So our sense of time is relative and the musician relies mostly on a relative time base which is flexible. Not much of an attempt is made, especially in spontaneously composed music, to use absolute time in music. In composed music you see absolute markings that relate to seconds or minutes, but unless you are using a computer, the human relative sense of time takes over once the music starts and the time is variable from that point onward. Of course even so-called absolute time is based ultimately on cycles in Nature. The most obvious of these cycles are the rotation of the earth about its axis (the day), the lunar phases resulting from a combination of the revolution of the moon around the earth and the revolution of the earth around the sun, all creating the angular relationship of the earth-moon-sun system (the month) and the revolution of the earth around the sun (the year). You can see that the day and year are simple relationships that are basically one cycle each, but the month is a more complex relationship resulting from the combination of two cycles.

Our own sense of time is relative, based on how long we have been alive and other factors. Children have not been living so long so that everything is relative to their current lifespan. So one month in the life of a child is a relatively longer period of time than one month in the life of an adult (you frequently hear older people talking about how ‘time flies’)

However we use internal references also such as the beating of our heart, which generally beats slower as we get older. One of the reasons an older person, for example saxophonist Von Freeman, are better at playing ballades is that

In all of my teaching one of the main things I notice is that young people (who make up most of the class when you are teaching) tend to rush when playing music. Young people have less patience, and the tendency to want to push the beat is greater. So you have to make a conscious effort to relax and lay back. This tendency is counteracted in some cultures, especially in the African Diaspora. This may be because initially in these cultures it is frequent for much older people to play alongside younger people and the ‘way’ of playing may more easily be transferred to the younger musicians, but I’m just speculating here. My own experience is that I picked this up from playing with much older musicians. I remember when I first joined the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra that I was always ahead of Thad in terms of where I felt the time (this was true when I played alongside Von Freeman also), so I had to consciously slow down – and after some time this became a habit.

What I was referring to when I mentioned negative rhythm was motion in the actual rhythms (not the rhythmic mode forms), that is the manner in which the rhythm figures move. For example take this rhythm where the lower pitch is a bass drum and the higher is a snare…

Negative Rhythm

In my opinion the rhythm goes negative in motion for a brief moment in the second measure, because of the forward motion that was set up in the first measure. In the beginning all of the sounds drive towards (or get pulled towards) the downbeat, in terms of feeling. However in the middle of the second measure this feeling shifts to getting pulled ‘away’ from the downbeat (or towards the upbeat). Now this is a very simple example, but from this kind of directional thinking, toward and away from a particular nodal point (not necessarily forwards and backwards because we don’t move backwards in time, in this dimension anyway) and also another balancing idea that deals with masculine and feminine rhythms (another subject for another day) you can get a kind a analogous feeling towards a rhythmic symbolism that accomplishes the same kind of functions as its tonal counterparts, or even universal counterparts.

Now for a more complex example, take the bass and drum part to a composition of mine called ‘Black Hole’ recorded on the Dave Holland CD called ‘Extensions’…


You can hear a little of the composition here.

This is just one of many possible ways to approximately notate this. There are several things happening with this composition symbolically, but I will just discuss the rhythmic elements that pertain to this conversation now. The musical effect that I was going for here was that of energy being pulled back into a ‘Black Hole’, so I was trying to generate a perpetual forward and backward motion. The backwards motion starts because of the shift in the relationship of the drums and the bass at the end of the first measure. Now without the help of a first class drummer (in this case the incomparable Marvin “Smitty” Smith) this effect would not come of as sounding very natural. “Smitty” gives the drum chant a very natural feel enabling it to breathe and flow. I just want to stress that for me it is the relationship between the two parts that gives the feeling of the backward or negative rhythm here. You could say that the drums ‘sit’ on the opposite side of the pulse in relation to the bass. However this effect is complicated in ‘Black Hole’ because the pulse gets flipped because of the odd number of elements in the S S S L S S rhythmic mode (i.e. 2 2 2 3 2 2). So we are talking about a rhythm sitting on the other side of a group of pulses (expressed in the drum part), where the thrust (forward motion) of the pulses themselves (expressed in the bass part) could be perceived as changing in polarity. Now I developed a theoretical language to speak about this kind of motion but it is too much to go into this here. However I can say that it is a kind of rhythmic counterpoint that I developed from years of listening to mostly West African drum music.

Another question: the cycles i have heard from your cd’s and the one we did in class dealt with combinations of 2 and 3 note groupings. i know that those two groupings can be used to express all other subdivisions, but there is definitely a change in feeling when one is playing over a beat subdivided in 5 equal notes, as opposed to 3+2, or 2+3 (for example). Do you deal with larger beat subdivisions which are not broken down into arrangements of 2 or 3? I’d like to go in that direction, and have cycles made up of sparser, farther apart beats than 2 and 3 can allow. Any thoughts?

Sure, you could do anything that you want to do, whatever you feel like doing, go for it. I have reasons for using 3 and 2 that are symbolic of something else, and its just expressed as music. Of course I have thought about using other divisions and it does pop up occasionally. There are a few things we do that use 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc., but I guess you can see that what makes a beat 2, 3, 5, etc. is the proportion of it to something else. In other words if all your beats were 5 then you could just as well call the beats 2. And of course any beat can be subdivided any way you want it to be. So in the end all of this is just illusion, its just the way you organize the time in your mind. Because in the end these things don’t really exist, they are figments of our imaginations. But if they help you to get close to whatever it is you are trying to express then its all good.

Now when I say “these things don’t really exist” I am referring to these organizational tools, the time signatures, rhythmic modes, etc. The actual sounded material (which could be interpreted in any number of ways) was what I was referring to in the class at SIM. For me there is a big difference between the sounded material and the mental constructs that we use to organize this material. I keep repeating this because I feel that the actual sound is not stressed enough and we get hung up in things like the various means to organize the music (which changes based on training, culture, etc.) and even more secondary concepts like transcription and notation. Basically I choose various musical tools because these are the tools that I need to develop and express certain principles. I try to focus on the principles, then I select the appropriate tools, so that the principles are guiding which tools I use.

In conclusion, I have always had a fascination with temporal matters and for me this cannot be divorced from tonal concerns. There is a very interesting article somewhat related to this where the different kinds of metaphors used to address time are discussed.

Anyway, thank you again for your class. It really gave me a lot to think about and excited me to see I am on the right track (as far as rhythm is concerned) in my playing of rhythms like yours.

Well, I cannot say that I am on the ‘right track’, and I certainly cannot say if you are or not. I’m not sure there is a right track, but I try to follow that voice from within as much as possible.



4 Responses to “Negative Rhythms?”
  1. Twister says:

    Hey, back to the tetrachord. I ve found something interesting in this stuff, so I’ve posted in another of your pages about it. Can you tell please about in greater detail? Or can I just post some of my thoughts here? Will it be in the pocket in this blog?

    Waht about this rhythms.. I call this effect of the spinning whell, you know just the moment when it spins so fast that you can see like it goes in the reverse direction.

    “masculine and feminine rhythms”.. hmm.. i’ve been thinking of it, too. Did you hear smthn about spinning mantras, and the connection between the “gender” of a deity and the direction of spinning? The same for the “channels”, as they has different directions for men and women.

    Another trick I do like, is the rhythm overlapping, as if you have, say, a common JB break of 4/4, and cut off its final eights. So it becomes shorter, but not obstructly – in the way similar to some of arabic rhythms.. So that it HAS its swing inside, but it takes several cycles for the beat to be “resolved”. Do I talk nonsense? =)

    • mbase says:

      No you are not talking nonsense, but you are mentioning so many things I don’t even know how to respond. But I’ve thought about all the stuff you mentioned, especially the spinning stuff and all. But you will have to settle down a little and deal with one thing at a time. Its not possible to talk about all these things at once, I just don’t have the time.

  2. Lee Gerdes says:

    Hello – All music is ultimately produced by the brain. And, when that music is strongly representative of the human condition, it seems to have a transformative effect – exactly the effect that you, Mr. Coleman are seeking to create.

    We at Brain State Technologies have created a method to allow the brain itself to create the music without the person – with all of our human filters and prejudices we each carry to get in the way. Totally non-invasive sensors are placed on the scalp to record the brain in a computer, and there the actual dominant frequency of the brain is translated to a musical note. We have over 70,000 clients from over 200 providers around the world who have benefited by helping themselves to re-set their brain rhythms when they was previously “stuck”. The stuck patterns produced symptoms – PTSD, post-concussion, insomnia, pain, hot flashes, speech impediments, autonomic nervous systems malfunction, etc. – and these symptoms were mitigated when the brain became more balanced – was unstuck – and played an entirely different set of sounds.

    Since the brain functions hundreds of times faster than a thought from the brain, it seems to make sense that a composer such as yourself who wants to capture the transformative sound of music in a composition may be able to take our technology, think about a genre/history/or human condition, and then allow your brain to actually write the music by providing the dominant notes/frequencies in only 8 milliseconds instead of hundreds of milliseconds needed to think about those notes/patterns/rhythms needed for the creative process.

    If this sounds interesting to you, please contact me so we can discuss how we could facilitate you trying this to see what you could produce. And, for a sample, please note where Scottsdale Community college produced music and a dance performance based solely on the sounds made by the dancers brains.

    Keep up your important work – I feel it is important to the world. Best. Lee

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