Fulbright in Norway: Uneven Beats and the Berlin Conference
While living in Norway, I've developed an interest in the uneven, lilting three-beat groove found in some Norwegian folk music, and how I can achieve this organic feel in my own music. I started working on a new arrangement of my piece Edvard, as ideas have been brewing for this piece since its premiere. I plan to incorporate an uneven feeling of “groove" that isn't stuck metronomically to a pulse (i.e. syncopations against a 4/4 or compound grid). Groove is cyclical and pulse-oriented, but it becomes interesting when the subdivisions, or the pulses themselves, are somewhat uneven. This is where we get the basically shuffle, or swing (which is closer to a 5 division than a 3 division of the beat). It’s the unevenness of the pulse (or, paradoxically, the CONSISTENT unevenness) that gives it its swagger and unique loose feeling. This is true for much of hip hop (Chris Dave, J Dilla, Questlove, etc.)—often 5 or 7 get the subdivision of the beat (a theorized version of playing behind the beat). The first time I heard this concept explained was in a YouTube video by Jacob Collier, where he described hip-hop rhythms and Ganawi rhythms from Morocco in a theoretical perspective.
Uneven beats have been in Western composed music since before Stravinsky and in unnotated folk music for thousands of years. But Stravinsky didn’t try to create a new pulse grid in his notation, instead, he used changing meters, some of which were uneven (i.e. 5/8 and 7/8, hemiolas and polyrhythms, syncopations, etc.). Instead, in the kind of “groove” I’m imagining, the music sits in a new pattern, where the pulse of the bar itself is modified. For example, one bar of 2/4 is typically divided into two quarter and four eighth notes, etc. Instead, what if you moved the second quarter note a little later or a little earlier? You would approximate a shuffle feel. This is what the MPC drum machines did for hip hop—created a delayed, or anticipated, second subdivision. If you were to break it down theory-wise, instead of dividing the bar up into four eighth notes, you can divide it up into 5, 7, 9, or 11… uneven pulses.
The difference is that you’re not counting all of those subdivisions. Instead, you’re picking two beats to land on so it creates a slightly uneven balance. For example, the “hi-hat” can fall on pulse 4 in 5 (dividing the bar into 3 and 2), pulse 5 in 7 (dividing the bar into 4 and 3) pulse 6 in 9 (dividing the bar into 5 and 4), pulse 7 in 11 (dividing the bar into 6 and 5). Each one of these subdivisions is slightly different. It’s in between the total shuffle (dividing 3 beats into 2 and 1) and even (dividing 4 beats into 2 and 2) and creates a real tilted flavor. But again, you’re not going to count all of those subdivisions out, you’re going to feel the pulse, with the subdivisions gently ticking in the background, but rarely played—they’re more “felt.”
I’ve found that every time I’ve written, in text, “play behind the beat” or “swing” it doesn’t quite have the specific effect I want (which failed in a jazz context in a piece I wrote called 200 IM—it was overlooked and we never found a groove). So I was looking for a way to notate this music specifically. My friend Richard Köster explored this in his Mastodont tune Vigelands Albtraum, and was able to notate it—he created a 5/8 groove but notated it where each bar got a pulse, allowing people to feel the uneven subdivisions. This inspired me to try my hand at this rhythmic concept in a more through-composed context. Groove is often missing from contemporary "new music," and when it’s there it’s more of the square, choppy rhythms typically found in contemporary classical music, not necessarily the loose lilt from hip-hop, jazz swing, or certain kinds of folk music. Figuring out how to notate this musically was a challenge, in a simple way that allows performers to understand and “lock in” without counting the subdivisions and getting wrapped up in the details rather than feeling the dirty swing of the thing. I’m exploring this in my composition for Pierrot ensemble for the Aspen Music Festival, where I’m combining aspects of Norwegian and Korean folk music (with a 7/8 4+3 feel as outlined above).
In much Norwegian music, particularly the springleik tradition from the Gudbrandsalen valley, the music grooves in a three pattern with uneven pulse (short-long-middle, or short-long-short). As a result, it has lightness or “lilt” to it. My method for notating this in the first section of Edvard (which features Norwegian folk elements) is writing a 10/8 bar with uneven subdivisions—3, 4, 3. But instead of counting all of those 8th notes, you feel it in 3/4, or in compound, 9/8, with the middle beat being slightly longer. As a result, it has a sway to it. I hope this musical idea conveys a more authentic rhythmic feel of Norwegian folk music, rather than being in a metronomic 9/8, a problem for most “concert” versions of folk music. In a way, this fitting of regional musics into a grid is bastardization, a “colonization” of the form through appropriation and modification of the music, in the tradition of Debussy, Grieg, and Bartok. An attempt to approach the feel of the “real thing” is a good thing, I think, and does justice to the music.
Since Edvard features a large ensemble, there is a risk to notating it unevenly, and I hope the ensemble can feel the pulse together without falling apart. It will be my responsibility as a conductor to manage this. In addition to dealing with this rhythmic transformation of the music, I’m also piecing together all of my recorded samples into a fixed interlude for the middle of the piece to help tell the story of Edvard, blending timbres of waterfalls and rain to create a continuously evolving thread of sound to accompany found footage of Bergen, Norway.
I’ve also been busy with significantly less “heady” musical activities. In early March, the continuing studies jazz composers met in Halden, a small town with a fortress on the border of Sweden and Norway, where a few of them had their music read by the Norwegian Wind Ensemble (Det Norske Båseensemble). Seeing this group read music was something totally different for me – they have their own studio, office and rehearsal space, and a concert hall, and many are very positive and upbeat when it comes to reading new music. After the first read-through and some minor polishing, the rather difficult music (by Stefan Merkl, Heidi Ilves, and Åsmund Ødegaard) was nearly performance-ready. The ensemble is an institutional organization—a scheduled funded ensemble much like a professional orchestra in the United States, complete with an intense production team and administrative department. However, there is a refreshing aspect to the ensemble, as they enthusiastically take part in new music and creative interdisciplinary projects.
The Dutch composer Jos Heutmekers, for example, composed a piece for group improvisation, which incorporated a MaxMSP-generated graphic score projected on a wall that instructed the entire ensemble in a guided group improvisation. This kind of approach to music making would be incomprehensible in the majority of large institutional ensembles, in the U.S. or even Europe. There simply isn’t enough funding, and risk-taking, to have the music widely heard and disseminated.
We reflected upon this idea—composing for institutional ensembles—in the follow-up session with Helge Sunde and composer and conductor Geir Lysne, who conducts the NDR big band in Hamburg, Germany. Geir brought a very wide array of experiences to the table (he has lead over 30 ensembles and orchestras in the past few years), including ensemble etiquette, part writing, and other insights from the professional world. He stressed to us the importance of rehearsal time, clean parts, and an appropriate attitude when it comes to sharing recordings—these themes echoed some things I had learnt during the American Composers Orchestra Jazz Composers Workshop (see earlier on my page for blogs about this). Either way, this pep talk was crucial for preparing with a professional radio big band and making a good impression as a composer in front of the band for the first time.
In the meanwhile, I got to sled for this first time in Oslo at Frognersetern, saw the famous haunting mausoleum by Emmanuel Vigeland, a must-see for people visiting Oslo, and managed to find pretty good Texas BBQ in Oslo with my roommate. The following week, my friends Richard Köster, Åsmund Ødegaard, and I decided it would be nice to get together a string quartet for Musikkbaren, a casual concert format where people sit and eat while listening to music of a variety of genres. We are on the same bill as a trio of folk singers exploring contemporary compositional ideas, including microtonality (they performed laser-sharp straight tone with quarter tones!), and an experimental improvising quartet. Richard and Åsmund’s pieces were short but full of character, and I conducted Hylestad (featuring storytelling narration from Bethany Forseth-Reichberg and Mike McCormick and trumpet by Richard). It was my first time conducting publicly for a while, but I was comfortable, and since I knew the piece, my conducting was a lot smoother than in previous performances, complete with cues and multiple tempo and meter changes.
I was able to get some audience feedback on my piece, which I'm always curious about—many people enjoyed the piece but had difficulty choosing which element to focus on, the music or the narrated story. Some listeners found themselves tuning out of one to privilege and pay attention to the other. Ironically, it tended to be the music that got the attention, which is often not the case for these kinds of storytelling pieces, where the music often takes a back seat to the narrative. Of course, I highly value both, and want to resist the feeling of “background music” but I also want the narrative to be super clear and have the music support it. It’s something I will be more deliberate about in my future storytelling pieces—playing upon the typical dominance of semantics and words over music and playing upon selective focus between music and a word-driven story. It’s similar to balancing jazz improvisation and highly specific written material in a composition—two things I love that are often at odds with each other but that can often complement each other nicely. The live performance of “Hylestad” had me thinking this way, because in a live performance it’s much harder to control the audiences’ perception of a composition as it is through a recording (mixing, mastering, audio manipulation, effects, etc.).
After the performance of Hylestad and an extensive search for players for my April recital, I flew to Germany to visit my friend Jonas Gerigk, a bassist from Dresden also interested in free improvisation. We took a tour of Dresden, did some playing around the city, recorded for a radio session with Coloradio Dresden, visited the two major art museums in the city, and listened to a version of “Marriage of Figaro” at the Sempreopera. Dresden was mostly destroyed during World War II, but the city was rebuilt in a grand manner. The main church, Jonas lives in a local town, close to Dresden, called Pohrsdorf, where his girlfriend’s family owns a farm/jazz club/saxophone museum. He’s constantly surrounded by music where he lives. While Dresden is more musically conservative, it was nice to see Jonas leading a new jazz scene with some of his colleagues at the conservatory.
After Dresden, I took a bus up to Berlin for the Fulbright Berlin Conference, a conference bringing together over 500 Fulbrighers from Germany and around Europe. Fulbright Norway funded four of us to go, and I was selected as one of the participants. In Berlin, they filled our schedules with a variety of workshops and project presentations, mostly happening at the Hotel Riu Plaza, Urania, and the University of the Arts in Berlin. I was able to meet people working on projects as diverse as synthetic meat generation, experimental circus art, and English teachers in Andorra. Also, there was a strong body of artists and humanities people—sculptors, dancers, theatre directors, classical musicians, musicologists, and art historians (my hotel roommate was composer Warren Enström, who is studying in Sweden). It was nice to run into some old friends and mutual friends, including the oboist Dannielle Lynn McBryan, who I met at the Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival a few years back and who performed a refreshingly original work for solo oboe that was a crowd favorite at the conference. Every night was followed by a reception, where I was able to mingle with some brilliant people who are raising the bar of what’s possible in their respective fields.
The participants were very reflective and critical of some aspects of the conference, including most of the discussions and keynote speeches (which often avoided the challenging issues faced by American minorities living in different countries, or discipline-specific issues, instead focusing on general diplomatic, political, and historical concerns like the transatlantic relationships between the U.S. and Germany and the refugee crisis). Although sometimes conferences like this are prone to groupthink, the intellectual diversity among the Fulbright grantees was greater than what was presented externally during the official conference. I was able to attend a workshop on theater in Berlin and a gallery tour of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, featuring works of some of my favorite medieval and Northern Renaissance painters (Cranach, Breughel, Bosch, Van der Weyden, etc.) In addition to that cultural slice, I was able to see the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, and surprisingly, the North Korean Embassy, but I understand that this is just a small part of the enormous city that is Berlin. Berlin is huge, and has a rough-around-the-edges New York-like feel. It’s easy to get lost, and is totally different from the more digestible, small-city feel of Oslo. That being said, the culture and history there is so deep and expansive – and it’s crazy cheap, kebabs being only 3 euros and beer for half that price. For any American interested in 20th century history, Berlin is worth a visit, as it bears strong traces of a Soviet legacy, from architecture and infrastructure to certain cultural elements.
Another important part of my Berlin experience was playing in the Fulbright jazz band, a group consisting of Fulbright current grantees and alumni. I was the only current grantee, and only person from the US. The rest of the band consisted of Tom Berkmann on bass, from Berlin, Sara Decker, on vocals, from Germany but now living in New York City, Felix Fromm, trombone, from Mannheim, Julian Hesse, trumpet, from Munich, Matthew Jacobson, drums, from Dublin, Ireland, Hagen Moeller, guitar, from Berlin, Stefan Karl Schmid, saxophone, from Cologne, and Martin Terens, piano, from Berlin. Martin and I shared the piano chair. The band played a combo of original tunes and standards at Salon im Moritzplatz, a small converted bank. The space was packed with Fulbrighters, relaxing and enjoying the music. We also played for the main ceremony and the after party and reception, before heading over to a jam session at Hat Bar, where we met musicians from America and around Europe who were passing by Berlin. Some Fulbrighters said the jazz band was their favorite part of the Fulbright presentation, since it presented ideas of “trans-Atlanticism” in an abstract, artistic way, rather than through words—often these ideas are hard to articulate in keynote speeches.
The final night of my Berlin stay, I met up with an old friend, Dylan Richards, who I met at the highScore Festival in Pavia, Italy two summers ago. Dylan’s work incorporates video and humorous conceptual tricks, like using algorithms from Youtube video playlists to generate content. We went to a concert as part of the Maezmusik series, which is similar to and directly inspired by Oslo’s Ultima Festival. The show started with a panel discussion on the future of diversity in music festival programming (incorporating more music from people of color and different genders). It was nice to see George Lewis on the panel, with whom I had a lesson two years ago and ran into in Oslo at Ultima. The concert featured Sonar String Quartet performing some pieces for electronically expanded string quartet by Ashley Fure that played with sound sources and abstract soundscapes. The second piece on the concert was a performance by video artist Terre Thaemlitz, critiquing his views on love through a postmodern collage of videos from multiple periods of time, from videos of lynchings, speeches from the Italian Futurist Movement, archival footage of photographs, to internet porn, old operating systems, and anime. The work explored notions of transgender identity and commercial culture.
After Berlin, I returned to Oslo for a brief two-day respite before flying out to Madrid, Spain for my spring break. In Madrid, we stayed with a friend, Alberto, who is studying theater directing and writing and is interested in contemporary opera direction, which made for some interesting conversations on the past and future of theater and opera, during our travels. In Madrid we got to see the Prado and Reina Sofia museums (“Garden of Earthly Delights,” some early Netherlandish painting, El Greco, and “Guernica,” along with some Dalí paintings and the Goya “Black Paintings”—a delight for an art history nerd). We took several side trips, including a day trip to Toledo, Salamanca, and Alcalá de Henares—the birthplace of Cervantes, a visit to El Escorial palace, and a multi-day trip to Barcelona. All are beautiful medieval cities with Jewish and Moorish influences with ancient universities.
Barcelona has a rich and colorful history that matches its rich and colorful modern aurora. Gaudí’s art nouveaux architecture flavors much of the city, giving it a beautiful modern-meets-historical vibe, surrounded by lush palm trees and warm weather. We had a bit of a Gaudí kick, visiting the Palau Güell and passing by Casa Milá, Sagrada Familia, and Casa Batlló, as well as trying to tour Park Güell, which was unfortunately closed due to the wind. Gaudí’s relationship with his patron and friend, businessman Eusebi Güell, had me thinking about how support from wealthy individuals whose tastes encourage aesthetic experimentation is necessary for art, architecture, and music. Finding people who share your vision who have a bit more money than you allows for ambitious, unconventional projects to be developed in spaces where typically those things would not flourish due to a conservative public. A similar experience happened with my dad and his Great Swamp film project, which was almost fully funded by the Kirby Foundation, who shared his vision. Likewise, larger public works or intermedia projects would not be possible without the oversight and funding from private individuals who care about experimentation and ambitious creative ideas not devised exclusively to “please” the market. Of course, these projects, while the risk to build them is high, often end up generating more visitors from around the world, and thus more money, and also have a lasting cultural influence, rather than the status quo that works only in the short term to get audience and quick commercial success. This also reminds me of Durand-Ruel’s supportive relationship to Monet and Renoir, or Diagalev and Stravinsky, etc.—the list goes on—these people were seminal in moving art forward. Barcelona also has a distinct Catalan flavor and is the site of national pride, especially now given the controversial question of whether Catalan should split from Spain.
The weather in Spain was certainly a break to the continual winter of Norway and Germany. The other thing about Spain that stood out was the signature food there—tapas, empanadas, paella, desserts and pastries, etc. It had me thinking that Norway, while it certainly has a few specialty food items, has a slim selection when it comes to unique comfort foods, aside from holiday food. And, the kebabs aren’t nearly as good. Or cheap. After my brief vacation, I returned to Norway for two days, where I laid down more plans for my recital on April 25th, findings performers and starting rehearsals. One of the pieces I’m having on my recital is a duet for pedal steel guitar and chromatic santoor—a sonic experiment with two instruments I haven’t written for before. My friend Mirsaeed owns one of the few chromatic santoors in the world, and it’s a pleasure getting to work with him. I also got to attend a masterclass/Beethoven lecture with Alfred Brendel. And with little rest, I immediately set off to Hamburg, Germany, with the other jazz composers, to work with the NDR big band. The fifteen-or-so jazz composers, masters and continuing studies, stayed together in a dorm-like setup with Helge. We had two days with the big band, with about four hours each day, and the session was recorded with individual microphones in NDR’s own beautiful recording studio. Geir Lysne conducted the band.
It goes without saying that the band’s reading was incredible, and the music was all very challenging, with lots of mixed meter, staggered entrances, aleatoric notation, etc. My tune, Störa Rös (later retitled Ymir's Bones), was an arrangement of a piece I had written for quartet in the fall. I arranged this chart more traditionally, but I played with color combinations of brass and saxophones and wanted the band to play through a punchy, groovy chart. After hearing our music, we got to mingle with the band and hear some feedback about the session. The NDR musicians have a “no-bullshit” professional attitude and want to do the best they can, and they’re all really sweet people. The whole endeavor was smooth—the band’s professional librarian had printed out clean parts and scores. The experience reminded me of the American Composers Orchestra readings back in the States (which I blogged about two year ago) in that the composers had to be really prepared for a short reading session and be ready for immediate feedback, be able to explain certain things in the music quickly to avoid too many questions, and being flexible to changing certain things in the music given the 20-25 minute time block for the reading. As with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble, I was impressed by the sheer organization of these institutional ensembles—everything is scheduled well, the musicians don’t work more than they have to, and they’re supported by a network of producers and administrators that keep everything flowing smoothly, including a separate score reader and engineer and in the studio, making overdubs and takes easy for the band (and NDR 2, of course, has their own cafeteria—that makes me happy).
After our readings with NDR Big Band, we had a meeting at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg, where we had a clinic with the big band and the professor Wolf Kerschek, who gave a perspective on work as a composer both in commercial music and jazz/classical crossover. Working with singers and performers from around the world, Wolf is open to conducting and composing music with pop singers in addition to contemporary classical music and big band. A standout moment was when he discussed string overdubbing techniques for film music and production (grouping string instruments off into locations around the room and doing multiple takes) and recording orchestras in Eastern Europe when the budget was low. Those lessons echo my time with the film composer Michael Bacon, who wrote for and recorded an orchestra in Prague for one of his projects, given a lower budget. Also, given the union rules are different in the US, Michael has to mix MIDI and live strings rather than re-record string overdubs, which is different than in Germany. Wolf also is able to compose concert works and more experimental music whilst teaching, which is good to know, provided I also plan to make a living in part off of commercial music while working on my own creative projects.
I had two free days in Hamburg, so I toured around the Elbphilharmonie, went to the Kunsthalle and Miniatur Wunderland (one of the coolest and largest model train dioramas in the world), and walked around the city including around the famous Reeperbahn where the Beatles hung out and where you can see (still legal) prostitution houses. Hamburg is a Hanseatic city—it was nice to see the familiar pointed, triangle-roof buildings similar to the Bryggens in Bergen, which is also a Hanseatic city. Hamburg, which is very close to the Danish border, has a certain Scandinavian flavor,. It’s a large, beautiful city, peaked with church spires, and it’s much less influenced by the Soviet past and the World Wars than Berlin, being in West Germany. Traveling so much like this is liberating, as I’m not restricted by work from here on out other than my own compositions and rehearsals.
DISCLAIMER: The account and opinions stated below are mine alone and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Department of State or the Norwegian Academy of Music.