As artist in residence at the Antwerp concert hall Rataplan for season 21-22, I was invited to program five evenings with new projects, my own projects and projects by others that I am a fan of.
For two of the five projects, I wrote compositions with rhythm as the building block. To compose these compositions, I experimented with material from my earlier research "A drummer's mindset" and with newfound methods from the book "Creative Rhythmic Concepts for Jazz Improvisation."
TROMBONE ENS II (December 2021)
In February 2022, my brand-new project the Trombone Ensemble came together for a creation week in Rataplan. For this project, I composed and arranged new music. For one of these compositions, I focused mainly on rhythm as a building block. For example, in the composition Trombone Ens II (working title), not only is the harmonic rhythm based on the D.R.O.P. system, but also in the trombone solo accompaniment I used rhythm as a very important element.
When you create a new composition, you can always start from different angles. For Trombone Ens II, I heard some simple chord colors. But soon I got the feeling that only those chords would sound rather simple or boring.
In my earlier research, the American jazz drummer described that a composition should be the perfect balance of harmony/rhythm/melody. Only one of these three elements can sound complex to allow the listener to process it. But also, at least one of the three elements should be a little more challenging to keep the listener interested. For this composition, I chose to keep the simple harmony for the theme and spice up the rhythm into something more complex.
To spice it up I used the D.R.O.P. system (Dynamic, Rate, Orchestration and Phrasing). The D.R.O.P. system offers four elements that influence your rhythmic motif and consequently provide new fresh musical ideas. For this section, I primarily used the element of Phrasing (where in the measure does my rhythmic motif begin?)
As a starting point, I create a rhythmic motif. In this case I have a motif of one 6/4 bar length:
If you look at the whole form you will see that there are some bars where the rhythm is a little different. You have the basic rhythmic motif that you find in bar 1, 2 and 4. And then you have two variations in bar 3 and bar 5.
In bar 3, the first dotted quarter rest is divided into 3 equal eighth notes and here I chose to have a rest on the first and last eighth note.
In bar 5, at first glance, not much of the original rhythmic motif seems to be found. But if you look closely, you will see that this time the motif begins on the 3rd beat.
I wanted to make the Gbmaj7 a kind of hook that kept coming back at the end of the chorus. I chose to make it last 2 beats. That way the Gbmaj7 falls on the 6th beat instead of the 6 and:
Beside the harmonic rhythm in the theme, rhythm as a building block also returns later in the composition in the accompaniment of the trombone solo. This accompaniment is also based on the D.R.O.P. system. For this part I used the element Orchestration (where on the instrument do I play the note?).
The D.R.O.P. System is a drumming method by the American drummer Mark Guiliana. The orchestration question, "Where on the instrument shall I play the note?" refers to: "do I play the note now on the hi-hat, bass drum or snare,...?". One of the big actions I took in my previous research was to translate this drum system into a harmonic or melodic instrument. Then you end up with questions like. "Do I continue to play the note as a C, B, F# or ...?"
For this section, I first created a rhythm of 10 bars in 4/4 length. I use eighth notes as the rate and have added rests. This is a very theoretical technique, where you experiment with the technique until you get something nice. I wrote some of the eighth notes as fourths because it reads easier.
It is a loop but the 10 bars makes it harder for a listener to hear it as a loop. As listeners we expect a loop to repeat after 4 or 8 bars not after 10bars.
Next comes the implementation of the D.R.O.P. System element orchestration. I divided this line on drum into snare and bass drums and on double base into the 1st and 5th (or 4th) of each chord.
This entire section repeats itself over the entire trombone solo. It harmonically modulates but the concept remains the same.
To build up the trombone solo, I started this section with even more gaps. In this way, the drum and bass line support a build-up for the soloist
The second project where I experimented with composition with rhythm as a building block was for the trio with Stephane Galland and Jeroen van Herzeele.
Not only was I curious about the possibilities with a trio consisting of tenor saxophone & FX , trombone & FX and drums. But I also chose two Belgian musicians who played an important role in my previous research. Stephane and Jeroen were closely involved as peers in my research process and gave feedback on several occasions. So I found the opportunity of Rataplan in combination with these musicians the perfect opportunity to work on new compositions with a rhythmic base as an experiment for my research.
In this phase I describe the composition process of the compositions Trio I and Trio II (work titles).
TRIO I (April 2022)
The bass line of ‘Trio I’ came to me while waiting in the backstage before a concert. The bass line kept reverberating around in my head, so I quickly recorded it vocally in the hallway with my smartphone.
A few weeks later I wrote out the bass line. I noticed that there were strange rhythmic patterns in it that I couldn't immediately home in on a 4/4 measure. Nevertheless, I tried to do so and so sought rhythmic compromises to make it fit into a 4/4 measure.
A few days later, while listening to the transcription, I changed my mind and decided to go for the most exact notation of what I had sung backstage. I ended up with a highly unusual 19/8 time signature.
The bass line was now fully written out. The next step then is the melody. Initially I heard fast melodic lines over the bassline. This is how a melody line of 16th notes came out over the first two measures. But it soon became clear that the fast melody lines just made it more complex both harmonically and rhythmically.
Next, I tried the opposite as a solution. Long melodic lines with enough space for the complex rhythmic bass line and the strange time signature. By adding faster rhythmic ornamentation here and there, I tried to give the melody more direction.
The bass line consists of a one bar (19/8) rhythmic motif (based on sixteenth and eight notes). This rhythm always returns unchanged. In the A part, only the bass notes change from A, G, F to D. The top notes D, E always return to the same place.
For the B section the tones change twice as fast. Where it was first every other bar it now occurs in the middle of the 19/8. The notes of the bass line are now transposed down a small second and here and there a new bass note is added: Ab, Gb, Db and Bb. The top notes have also been transposed down a small second, only the Bb note gets two stapled notes (F, G).
TRIO II (May 2022)
Trio II is a composition I wrote after reading Ronan Guifoyle's book. It is a composition based on Ronan Guilfoyle's Creative Subdivision system.
The whole composition consists of two sections (A,B) and an interlude to glue both sections together.
In the A section, both the melody and bass line, are divided into the groups of:
3 5 7 5 7 5.
For the melody, the creative subdivision (3 5 7 5 7 5) is made with eighth notes. So the first melody tone lasts 3 eighth notes long. The second melody tone lasts 5 eighth notes third tone lasts 7 eight notes long etc.
For the bass line, I hand the same system. Only now the rate is quarter notes instead of eighth notes. Also, here each quarter note is played and not merged together as one tone. But the chord does change every 3 quarter notes, then every 5 quarter notes, then every 7 quarter notes, etc. You can see this clearly if you take a look at the lowest bass note. That lowest bass note (C, F, G, Bb, F, Db) changes based on the subdivision of 3 5 7 5 7 5
As Ronan predicts in his book, you suddenly find yourself with completely new rhythms for the melody and the harmony or bass line. I didn't immediately find the right time signature for it, but if you look at the bass line you can see that it is perfectly divisible into 8 bars of 4/4. I eventually decided to write the composition in 4/4 time signature, with the exception of the interlude.
The 3 5 7 5 7 5 subdivision with the rate of eighth notes returns in section two. The melody rhythm is now transported into a bass line. Only the rhythm because the notes are totally different.
In the piece, an interlude comes in between every now and then. Where I as a composer take the liberty to create a contrast with the rest of the melody. It's something completely different. But it is harmonically something very simple for the listening ear.
So as explained in the process this composition is mainly based on the Creative Subdivision system. But for the B section I went for a combination of Creative subdivision and the D.R.O.P. system.
The D.R.O.P. system stands for Dynamic, Rate, Orchestration and Phrasing.
For the B section I meanly used the elements Rate (which subdivision do you use eight note, quarter notes, eight notes triplets,…) and Phrasing (where in the bar do you start the motive).
This is the motive where the melody of the B section is based on.
I start the motive in the B section on different spots. The first time it starts on the 2and beat.
The second time it starts on the 4and beat. On the third time I start it again on the 2and but this time I don’t play the whole motive to create a surprise for the listener but also to stay in the 4 bars.
Some people would say I could have finished the motive and add an extra bar with another time signature. But the rhythmic motive on itself and specially the placing of it is already very complex for a listeners ear. That I try to offer a hold for the listener by keeping the expected 4 bar system.
Later in the B section, the bass line consisting of eighth notes in groups of 3 5 7 5 7 5 is added.
I thought it a bit lame to repeat these lines unchanged several times in the B section. Therefore, I chose to add the rate element of the D.R.O.P. system.
I keep the exact same melody and bass line, but I change the Rate. In this case I change it from eighth notes to eighth note triplets.
By starting from rhythm as a building block for these compositions, I arrive at composition results that are just a little less obvious.
While composing, in the absence of inspiration, I often revert to the rhythmic concepts or possibilities that I gained from the desk research. It is a very practical, even theoretical, way of composing which is almost at odds with the organic way in which I approach harmony and melody while composing. But it offers me a handhold to sometimes turn 180° in the composition process.
The balance concept where you have to keep the right balance between rhythm/melody/harmony. Remains the biggest challenge. Sometimes I can devour days in writing difficult rhythmic melody and then combining it with a punchy rhythm in the bass line that shifts all the time. Only to listen back two days later and conclude that it's too much after all. Then I throw all that work in the dustbin and try again to stick to the "balance" rules. Not because I have to, but because it clearly gives more room to develop a more complex melody or rhythm.
I try not to worry too much about the playability of the composition during the composing process. Of course I do look at the possibilities of the instrument, I'm not going to write impossible things. But for the rhythmic aspect I now end up with compositions in 19/8 or 21/16. And these are slightly more complex time signatures than the known 4/4. But for now, I have no better alternative solutions for it. So I do always assume as a composer that it can be explained in practice to the musician exactly what I want.
Here I definitely feel there is still room for improvement. How can I write all this down in such a way that you can, so to speak, read it. How can I ensure that the performing musician does not feel held back by the notation?