Music

Polyrhythmic Etudes In Canon Form

I’m happy to announce a new offshoot of my canon writing efforts: a collection of polyrhythmic etudes in canon form.

For some time I’ve wanted to bring more polyrhythmic interaction into my canons but I’ve held back because my primary goals are clarity, coherence, continuity, and my earlier efforts to work with polyrhythms led to a greater sense of disorder than I was seeking. The 3:2 polyrhythm occurs in some pieces, like #52 “Pyrite” and #55 “Magnetite,” and there’s a bit of 5:2 in #51 “Serpentine,” but I haven’t gone much further than that.

On another front, I had recently been interested in exploring the potential of “forbidden” parallel octaves in counterpoint and when this new polyrhythm project began I was looking at ways to build a canon outline from a series of alternating simple and compound octaves. These experiments with parallel octaves morphed into a framework that — I soon realized — could be varied to create a series of canons showcasing all polyrhythms with divisions of 11 or fewer. I’ve included a more detailed description of this framework in the album notes on Bandcamp. The pieces feature simple melodic gestures using mostly chromatic motion, so the lines remain easy to track as distinct even as their rhythmic interactions get very complex.

For me these pieces occupy an interesting place at the border between the purely mechanical and the aesthetically provocative. As study pieces, they are schematic and repetitive, but the effect of the repetition differs from piece to piece: in some cases it may seem tiring while in other cases it is reassuring as the ear tries to grasp a very complex rhythmic relationship. Some of the pieces seem to reveal most of what they contain in one or two listenings, while others are intriguingly elusive and draw one back for repeated encounters. While I acclimate quickly to the 7:2 study, for example, and find it goes on a bit longer than I’d like, the 7:5 study, which is actually the same length as the 7:2, challenges my ear in a way that makes me want to hear it again right after it stops. 11:2 seems straightforward, but 6:5 is disorienting in a way where it seems to be simultaneously speeding up and slowing down at every moment — I’ve never heard anything quite like it. I hope other listeners might find some of the same variety in the collection and come across a few examples that are genuinely perception-expanding.

I wrote these exercises as part of my own study as a composer, as a way to expand my understanding of various rhythmic juxtapositions and I hope they may also be valuable for keyboardists who could use them for hands-on practice, and also for listeners who want to sample some exciting rhythmic phenomena that are not commonly showcased.

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