Phil Salathé    


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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.



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

  • First of all, Collier is using a kind of metric modulation, briefly changing the primary beat-unit from quarter notes to dotted eighths, so that we feel as though the tempo has increased by one-third (or decreased by the same amount, if you prefer to hear the pulse as dotted quarters). In other words, we feel like we're in a "new" 4/4 with the dotted eighth-note as the new pulse-unit.
  • That, in itself, isn't too unusual, and happens all the time in (for example) jazz waltzes that transition into 4/4. But whereas dotted eighths divide bars of 3/4 into four even units, they don't divide a measure of 4/4 evenly, so -- as we'll see -- Collier's metrical dissonance can't be resolved without crossing barlines.
  • Another factor makes all this particularly hard to hear: Collier doesn't begin this modulation on the downbeat, but an eighth-note earlier on the word "thing". In a way this is dictated by the text, whose inherent accents on the syllables "pret-" and "thing" might otherwise imply triple meter. In the original arrangement, the metrical placement of "thing" is a funky syncopation just ahead of the "one", but Collier turns that syllable into a downbeat itself.
  • So, we have the drum kit playing a quasi-4/4 on dotted eighths. This goes on for the equivalent of 1.5 bars, or six dotted eighths, but on the seventh beat he returns to the notated pulse of quarter notes. In other words, just as we've gotten used to the new tempo, he pulls the rug out from under us again.
  • I think I could have picked all this up by ear were it not for one additional element: the hand drum Collier plays, which I initially thought was a simple "Carol of the Bells", 3:2 pattern that wasn't quite in the pocket. But no, it's far more fiendish than that: Collier is superimposing quintuplets on top of the dotted-eighth pulse, and playing against that pulse in the asymmetrical rhythm 3+2+2+3.
    In other words, he's playing a pattern whose "grid" crams five 16ths into the time normally taken by three, and is doing so in a context where we're already metrically at sea. At least in my case, attempting to parse that without computer assistance made me feel like a KO'ed cartoon character with "TILT" signs instead of pupils.

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...)