In time, I found myself unhappy with the dullness of each individual strand of my Tapestry pieces – the combination of 7 against 6 against 5 against 4 can sound fascinating, but when each line is a steady stream of notes, or a simple, repeated figure, you are, in effect, creating a attractive babble in which each voice is saying next to nothing. While I can acknowledge a certain cultural resonance in that result, I couldn’t see myself pursuing it very far.
In the early 90s, I became interested in a different kind of rhythmic complexity: the complexity of spoken language. We learn the rhythm of our native language as toddlers, expand our rhythmic repertoire throughout childhood, experiment with other rhythms in adolescence, and refine our personal spoken rhythmic mix in adulthood. As a result, each of us speaks in a set of patterns we all can recognize, yet each one of us has a unique fingerprint, if you will, in the way we speak the language.
And what a fingerprint! Steve Reich pointed out some of the possibilities in works like It’s Gonna Rain and Different Trains, but he made his points through repetition, which doesn’t interest me so much, just as I don’t get very excited about anybody who says the same thing over and over again in any other context.
I’m more interested in exploring what spoken rhythms communicate, what our personal patterns say that our words leave unsaid. I think this is particularly pertinent in America, as opposed to Europe, because Americans tend to use rhythm, as opposed to pitch, to emphasize their points when they speak.
What we don’t do is speak in a steady stream of eighth-notes. Instead, we play off of the pulse in ways that are far too complex to track with conventionally notated rhythms and meters. And yet, I believe there is an underlying pulse over which our words provide multiple layers of syncopation.
This interest in spoken text has translated into my instrumental pieces. I’ve written a number of works that play with the idea of an implied pulse, sometimes establishing a regular, lyrical beat, sometimes throwing the beat through all kinds of nasty convolutions. But no matter how complex the result, I avoid using mathematical formulas – the sevens against sixes against fives against fours – that I used to rely on. Instead, I work with intuitive timing relationships, because they are more connected to a world I don’t understand and want to know more about, a world I experience every moment, yet can’t quite grasp. For example, I might ask for an accelerando that begins gradually, then picks up slightly, tapers off, then suddenly speeds up enormously – something seasoned musicians can do fairly easily, with a little rehearsal, but not something I can notate with an arithmetic formula.
In any event, the temporal push-and-pull I’m after is always in service of what I am trying to say in a given phrase, or a given passage, just as the rhythmic inflections I use in conversation are never random, they always are connected — sometimes in ways I hardly realize — to what I am really thinking.