Sunday, January 25, 2015

"West Side Score-y" Pt. 2: Lenny's Got Rhythm

Part 2

This post is part of a multi-part blog series I'm calling "West Side Score-y" (A Score Study of West Side Story). Part 1 addressed something I called the "Smush Chord." This second post will delve (excessively?) into the nitty-gritty of what makes Bernstein's music so rhythmically engaging.

The West Side Story score is rife with rhythmic riches, so to avoid being overly ambitious, I will focus here on 3 big ideas:
  1. Syncopation
  2. Polymeter
  3. Hemiola
To do so, I'll share some song excerpts and discuss their relation to one (or more) of the above concepts. (All right, here we go!)

1. Syncopation: It's where you'd least expect it.

Syncopation can basically be described as a rhythmic device in which notes are placed in unusual, unexpected spots within the bar. For example, instead of quarter notes on beats 1 and 3 (so-called "strong" parts of the measure), moving these quarter notes instead to 2 and 4 (the weaker "off-beats" of the bar) would result in a syncopated feel. This version of syncopation, in which 2 and 4 are emphasized instead of 1 and 3, is the foundation of jazz and rock grooves.

Another way to achieve syncopation is to shift a note slightly within a measure, from its usual spot to a less-expected spot. Take a look at this excerpt from "Jet Song":

When you're a Jet, you syncopate.

The time signature here is 6/8, which is a compound duple type of meter. This means that there are 2 main beats (duple) and each of these beats can be further divided into 3 (compound). This being the case, the notes which fall on the main beats are considered strong, and those which do not are weak in comparison.

In this example, the right hand is playing on weak off-beats, just an eighth note earlier than the left hand's strong-beat notes. This gives the song a slightly off-kilter, swinging feel. Cool!

*Note 1: Good examples of syncopation are in just about every measure of Lenny's score. That is to say, most bars of Bernstein's music are syncopated.
*Note 2: Do not confuse "Bernstein bars" with the ursine children's book series by a similar name. I apologize for this joke.
*Note 3: All three of these italicized Notes were added SOLELY for the delivery of that awesome joke and are  of ZERO educational value.

2. Polymeter: 2+ meters for the price of 1.

A polymeter (not to be confused with polyrhythm) is exactly what you think it means: literally, "many meters." In a polymetric piece of music, the beat is constant between the two meters (but each meter's measure size differ, resulting in periods of de-synchronization).

It's what's happening when your band is playing in 4/4, but at the same time, your goofball drummer is for some reason playing in 7/8. (We'll give him the benefit of the doubt here in that he's not just leaving notes out willy-nilly, but rather is showing off his polymetric powers...)

Although it might happen accidentally in your garage band, Bernstein uses it intentionally—and to great effect—all over West Side. That is to say, there are many polymeters (poly-polymeters?)

Example 2A: "Scherzo"

This scherzo is written primarily in 3/4, though it actually reeks of 5/8 (or 5/4, depending on your math) for much of its duration. Since we've got 5/8 and 3/4 going on simultaneously, we can say that we're dealing with polymeter here.

It's not a bad idea to do some arithmetic in such polymetric cases, to see how many repetitions of the odd time signature it takes to line back up with the primary meter. In this case we consider 5 eighth notes (from 5/8) and 6 eighth notes (from 3/4). Least common multiple = 30 eighth notes, meaning it will take 15 quarter notes (five bars of 3/4) before the first note of the pattern falls on the original downbeat again. (And this is precisely how Bernstein divides his beats in the scherzo. It all adds up, phew!)

Example 2B: "Prologue" bass line

This one's groovy. Here we have a bass line in 7/8 placed over a 2/4 meter. Essentially, it's just one eighth note away from being the bass line you would expect. So close. 

LH fingerings shown above. Note: The eighth rest
is not part of the repeating pattern.

The effect of this is two-fold: 1) The position of the accented first note of the pattern gets constantly shifted to the left (earlier) on each successive measure. That's pretty neat. 2) It's kind of gnarly to get your left hand to play it when your right hand is simultaneously playing syncopated stuff in the original 2/4 meter. Gnarly, but not impossible.

In order to solidify the pattern, both intellectually and physically, I broke the 7 notes into smaller groups (based on their chromatic proximity with nearby notes). That made it much easier to manage. From there I could go ahead and add in the right hand and begin thinking of the longer lines.

To see this longer line, I'm once again referring to the pattern being repeated x number of times, 'til the pattern's first note once again falls on the 2/4 bar's downbeat. In this case, it takes 7 repetitions. Here's half of that (click to enlarge):

Notice how the accent's position within each 2/4 bar changes as time goes on.

3. Hemiola: Not a scary blood disease.

The word hemiola represents the ratio of 3:2. With respect to rhythm, this ratio occurs by way of grouping 6 notes either in three groups of 2 or two groups of 3. An oft-cited example of this rhythmic hemiola is from none other than "America."

"I want to live in A-mer-i-ca" / "I want to subdivide quar-ter notes!"
The song alternates between compound duple (6/8) and simple triple (3/4) meters. I'll spare you any more needless math. The sheet music, I think, shows the alternating groupings rather clearly.


The big takeaway? Heck, I dunno.
  • You can always "count" (HAH) on Bernstein to jam-pack his music with rhythmically rich stuff. Lenny's got rhythm, indeed. And now you do, too.
  • Don't let the math of it put you off. Once you understand the basic numbers/groupings of a meter, you will easily be able to switch on a sort of "rhythmic auto-pilot." This is when you can freely and enjoyably just let the music happen.
  • Remember that "Bernstein Bars" joke? That was pretty funny.

Friday, November 14, 2014

"West Side Score-y" Pt. 1: The "Smush Chord"

West Side Score-y

One of my current jobs is as a rehearsal accompanist for a production of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. This means I attend rehearsals with the singers/actors/dancers and play whichever piece of music they are working on. And that means that one night I may be teaching pitches for a new song, but on another night, I might be playing an entire dance number so that the dancers can work on their choreography along with live music.

All of this meaning: I have a lot of music to learn, and it's to the benefit of everyone involved that I learn this music very thoroughly. I'm up for the challenge! Part of this thorough learning, on my part, means that I'm analyzing some of the music theory behind Bernstein's music.

Knowing the motifs (recurring musical ideas) and harmonic structures of the music helps a great deal with learning it more efficiently and more thoroughly—at least for me, anyways!

The "Smush Chord"

I'm calling this blog series "West Side Score-y" (A Score Study of West Side Story). Hilarious, I know. This first part addresses what I am calling the "Smush Chord."

Here's what it looks like on the printed page:

Excerpted from "Jet Song"
As you can see, the chord took a fair amount of black ink to print on the page. It's not a pretty looking thing, nor does it sound pretty.

The visual and aural harshness of the chord is part of what made me want to analyze it a bit deeper and try to wrap my head around it.

(To be honest, sometimes my instinct when seeing a chord like this, is to just smash my hand down onto the keyboard and hope for the best. This more measured, analytical approach is an effort to avoid that tactic.)

Pitch Inventory

Here's the chord's pitches re-ordered according to ascending (G major) scale order. Above each note, I've attached a scale-degree label, based on the G major scale. I have used some enharmonic spellings in the analysis.

*Notice the tritone (diminished 5th) interval between A# and E. West Side Story is riddled with tritones (Think: "Ma-ri-a").

Major + Minor = Smush

I noticed that the chord's pitches can be divided into two separate groups, one of which forms a Major 6 chord, and the other of which forms a Minor chord (with a flattened 6). Keep in mind, I'm adding the bass note "G" in order to create these chords (indeed, G is the root note).

G6 + Gm(b6) = G smush
When these two chords are combined, the result is a clashing of major tonality against minor. And that, ladies and gentlemen, just sounds pretty unattractive to the ear. When I realized that this chord can be thought of as two chords superimposed, my mind leapt to the word "smush," meaning that the minor tones (minor 3rd, minor 6th) are "smushing" against the major tones (major 3rd, perfect 5th, major 6th).


Why discuss this? Frankly, because it helps. Personally, knowing where the chord tones come from, and how they relate to a familiar tonality helps me wrap my head (and my fingers) around the chord. Furthermore, I knew it was a chord worth exploring because I noticed it shows up at other places throughout the score.

More generally, the half steps (and tritones!) found within this chord are extremely characteristic of Bernstein's intensely chromatic writing throughout the musical. (More on that later.)

Stay tuned for additional installments of "West Side Score-y," which will be created the next time I run into a similarly intriguing musical morsel!
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