From Metagroove to Transparency
I’ve always been interested in the overall sound of a music & in the relationships that organizational strategies evolve with sound, a perspective that I’d consider a compositional one; and within dialogical structures, what “composers” do is propose specific systems of coordination in conjunction with particular areas of sound.
The sculptural potentials of motion fascinate me, which is one part of what’s drawn me for so long toward designing situations for the rhythm section. In conjunction with that, I’ve explored how the rest of a group might better highlight and engage with rhythm section language & dynamics.
Trial & error taught me that a purely “free” style of organization rarely lends enough support toward a focus on particular sonic regions or modes of development and musical thought. To foster long term developments at an ensemble level, I needed slower moving components that could provide interfaces that would stimulate a group to explore very specific sonic and conceptual areas.
I was wondering how to mix different frequencies of motion, for example: the anchoring, inwardly spiraling, alert readiness conferred by repeating figures; the leaping forward motion of walking patterns; contrary pockets that stop or pull backwards; simultaneous multiple tempos & patterns with metric modulations; zig-zag, cut & paste stop time; non-linear, unpredictable sequential development & so forth. I was wondering how this could be accomplished without the fixed grid of a repeating “tune” cycle & without having to conduct or direct.
Part of this was in response to other musics that exampled such possibilities: Ornette Coleman’s democratic bass & drums up front rhythm sections, Charles Mingus’ basscentric subversions & metric modulations, the dynamic polyangularity of the post Love Supreme Coltrane quartet, the high speed conversant plasticity of Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch rhythm section & especially the early 70s CJQ, whom I heard live dozens of times in Detroit.
I observed the CJQ applying what I call metagroove (a compositional strategy that parallels the influence Sam Rivers’ explorations of substitution exerted on the ensemble interaction of Miles Davis’ mid-60s quartet by way of his protege, Tony Williams). Some of the CJQ’s working platforms were constructed from strings of short episodes, each offering a sharp kinetic and textural contrast to the others. The shifts among these contrasting motion states rhythmicize a harmonic timespace (a meta – groove) emitting from the reciprocal tensions among these constituent groove-cells.
Building matrices out of short cells allowed me to define polyrhythmic conditions melodically (through contrasting bass & treble lines) in identifiable ways that an entire band could hear and apply as cues for spontaneous transitions from one zone to another. The cells in sequence could speak as a long stanza able to incorporate the poetic linearity elaborated by Charlie Parker’s generation, while each cell repeated as loop can accumulate the dynamic stationary, both of these without excluding any of the uncharted varieties of development & extension accessible in contemporary practice & without foregoing the options of close, deliberate sonic tightness.
I began experimenting with transparencies as an organizational method around 1994. As with metagrrove, transparencies are built from superimposed counter-rhythmelodies. Whereas metagroove cells gained clarity through strong contrasts. Lines in a transparency construct may often, but not always, intersect as pitch unisons, meaning that they may partially blur into one another, or that these crossroads may occasion the possibility of suddenly switching from one to the other.
The first transparency construct I came up with, circumspect, is composed of 6 or 7 overlays that work a little like the old game of telephone. Line B complements line A, but points in a different musical direction. Line C comments on line B, but without a direct reference to line A. Line F could sound simultaneously with line A, but there’s be no immediately apparent connection between them (which opens to a wide, stretched & diverse soundscape), although there is a connection that can be felt.
There’s a deliberate organizational parallel with polyphonic drum structures, where individuals may jump in and out of constellations at will. The distribution of melodies across an ensemble bears some incidental kinship with gamelan organization as well. The layers identified alternative options or sequential episodes within which players would be able to reference any of the others.
20 years & a number of transparency constructions later, I had the opportunity to hear rough hue played through as a wind trio in the company of trumpeter Brian Groder & clarinetist Patrick Holmes & started to actually hear the orchestral opportunities that I’d only imagined possible. Shortly afterwards, I heard Either/Or perform Morton Feldman’s For Phillip Guston at the Issue Project Room & was alerted once again to how effectively Feldman could refract melodic figures across the timbral diversities of the participating instruments. Pitches would repeat in a way that especially emphasized the palpable tone color of each instrumental sound.
I noticed that transparency frameworks allowed for similar qualities of variation & that instruments could, through improvisation, flexibly vary the composite timbres of unison melodic lines in way that would bring these elements up front.
The way musical information channels within an event is one of the most distinguishing components of musical composition. Metagroove can facilitate sharply focused but flexible decentralized organization with small groups. However, internal communications complicate (if they don’t just diffuse) as ensemble populations increase. In these situations, the usual recourse is a resort to averages either through notated or memorized monological formats, reliance on well ingrained convention or on more laissez faire, “free” alternatives.
The role of improvising conductor shows yet another way to participate in a music’s development from more macro-organizational perspectives. This allows musical redirection & immediate dialogical responses to unforeseen circumstances, (this in addition to the lateral interactions among going on among performers). Butch Morris’ example especially has been on my mind for over 2 decades; but I was wondering what alternatives there might be to the single conductor who foregoes playing his instrument. It occurred to me that there might be several conductors in an ensemble who take turns the way soloists do. Even further than that, what about 2 conductors at the same time who each differently conduct a separate part of the ensemble in dialogue with each other?
How might it become possible to gather people to generate music at a high level without having to settle for jam session conditions (using either “standards” or free-for-all reference systems) or one-off sight reading sessions? Appropriate circumstances would pay musicians well enough that adequate time for music to be developed and understood in depth could be available. transparency kestra’s modular organization is one response to the sometimes long moments in between these opportunities. The pilot version of transparency kestra is operating closest to a community music model where musicians participate primarily because the musical processes & possibilities are felt to be worthwhile in themselves.
The use of a relatively limited reference system (notated or memorized material) helps minimize necessary preparation time. Modular organization of this material (its arrangement in transparencies, or superimposed layers) makes the participation of each instrument equal and interchangeable. This means that it’s never necessary that everyone be present at a rehearsal, nor does any single musician have to present at any one performance. This allows for flexibility in scheduling, some reduction of individual stress and an opportunity for sonic variety from performance to performance. What’s also key to this is engaging a larger pool of musicians than is necessary for a performance, which ensures a kind of structural redundancy that promotes the long term resilience of the project. Yet another component of this structure is that it doesn’t limit participation to musicians of any particular genre, which allows for an even wider diversification of sound & interaction.
This is then an experiment in community among musicians, not only a dissemination of new musical ideas, but an occasion where a large number of musicians can collaborate when they can on a common project, where the weight of obligation is minimized. The structure is light and mobile enough that it has the potential to travel to other musical communities as well. Conceivably, there could evolve a wide network of transparency kestras across the world.
What’s important in a situation with such potentials for complexity, both musical & social, is to start light & to let musicians’ familiarity and confidence with a language evolve gradually before introducing even more ideas.
In this regard, the working concept is to begin with only one reference matrix (aka “composition”) & to stay with only that one for at least 6 months. The NYC project did its first performance in October, 2014 & is currently scheduled to perform about once or twice a month.
rough hue was originally designed in about 2001. In a way, it’s a response to the complex vamp constructions I’ve heard in Steve Coleman’s music where I’ve wondered how to engage repetition and coordinating points without being so obviously repetitive about it. I was also interested in less determined ways of engaging metric modulation if drawn from a polyrhythmic template, & I specifically wanted to focus on fairly accessible fractal time relationships, where the same relationship may be scaled up or down in tempo.
I worked with flipping a 2:3 time relationship. One pulse is counterstated by a slower pulse which happens twice in the time it takes 3 to happen in the faster pulse. That quicker pulse is then harmonized with an even faster line that sounds 3 pulses to 2 of the initial one. Thus the 2:3 harmonic can be heard at 2 different interlocking tempo strata.
Complex as this might sound, these relationships are basic to some notions of swing time & not unusual among other African constructs. For example, Elvin Jones, especially in 3/4 contexts, would vary among this entire spectrum: 2 dotted quarter notes to a bar, 3 quarters and potentially 9 triplet quarter notes stretched across 2 measures. The beauty in Elvin’s application of this was that it was never rote, dogmatic or literal. These marked accent points and implications he could allude to as he sculpted his phrases.
With rough hue, I chose to work with a similar matrix, laying out a cycle of 3 lines in ratios of 4:6:9 (both 4:6 & 6:9 are compounds of a 2:3 harmonic). If notated, this could be mapped in 6/4: 4 dotted quarters superimposed with 6 quarters & once again with 9 dotted quarters. I chose to repeat these 3 times, but lopped off the last beat of the second measure to reduce it to a 5/4. This introduces a tension into the repetition that keeps the pattern from becoming so smooth that it retreats into background awareness. It doesn’t become a vamp.
I wanted each of these tempos to sound as identifiable melodies that could help to clearly shape each location in the cycle (which helps the listener’s orientation but also functions as structural cues for the musicians). These melodies had to each work in one on one relations to each other & as a composite whole. All this assembled what I call the construct’s core matrix.
Parallel with this is an extension of this material that draws somewhat unpredictably (in other words, to my own taste) from the melodified 3 tempo strata to develop longer melodic statements that carry the rhythmic information without their phrases being bound within the 3 measure format of the core matrix. 2 of these lines are then set in counterpoint with each other, shifting in their polyrhythmic ratios among the available tempos.
For the ensemble, any measure “1” is interchangeable with any other in additions to composites invented by the musicians themselves. The same goes for the other 2 cells. Even though there is a constant common reference system here, how it is voiced at any moment depends on the immediate compositional decisions of each participating musician.
Musical notation of can be seen on the musician resources page, where there are also mp3 midi mock up versions of these constructs to listen to. Other development strategies can be checked out via the video examples of the evolving conduction language on the same page.