April 7, 2016

Yesterday, a colleague posted a link to this astonishing cover of Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T." by Jacob Collier:

Besides my amazement at the sheer virtuosity of it -- instrumental, vocal, compositional, and technical -- I was particularly struck by the elegant games Collier plays with rhythm and meter. This is what Harald Krebs (among others) would call "metrical dissonance": introducing a pulse that contradicts the written or assumed meter, as a means of adding tension, confusion, or dynamism to a piece of music.

I've always been drawn to rhythmic and metrical trickery, whether in the classical tradition -- say, the Menuetto from Haydn's Symphony No. 65, or the famous "Danse des adolescentes" from Le Sacre -- or in progressive rock and adventurous jazz, like this track from the criminally underrated band Happy the Man. By now, when a composer or performer attempts to pull the metrical rug out from under me, I can usually unpack what's going on before too long, especially in groove-based music with frequent repetition and explicitly periodic rhythms.

But the breakdown at 2:12 in Collier's arrangement left me completely stymied: was the new beat-unit triplets, or dotted eighths, or something else? How was it dropping so tidily back into 4/4? And what about the hand drum part: surely there was something going on there too?

After considerable effort -- including a couple dozen listens, many at half-speed, and some manipulation with Audacity -- I think I've finally figured it out, as seen below (click to enlarge). Again, this starts at 2:12 in the song.

An analysis of Jacob Collier's performance of P.Y.T., beginning at 2:12.

So let's break down what's going on here:

In my transcription, I've used the time signatures 7/8 and 9/8 for notational convenience, since it's pretty much impossible to transcribe the hand drum's rhythm otherwise. In reality, though, the whole passage maintains the underlying 4/4, while presenting a second, simultaneous duple pulse on top of that. An alternative transcription might use multiple, simultaneous meters (or tempi) and non-coincident barlines to clarify the relationship between parts, in much the same way that Henry Cowell notates several examples in his landmark text New Musical Resources.

Tricky stuff! But just as Penn & Teller love it when a young magician is able to fool them, so too do I love the exhilaration of being thrilled by an unexpected metrical twist whose details I can't quite pick up -- it really is akin to seeing a new magic trick. It's a pleasure to see a young musician with the skills and drive to explore this kind of metrical and rhythmic complexity.

(And I haven't even mentioned the 7/16 section with which he concludes the arrangement...)

Phil Salathé







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