Avant Garde: Polymeter

Today we look at a simple method for adding complexity to your songs. We’re going to play around with the idea of polymeter. Why choose between writing a song in 4/4 or 3/4 when you can do both at once?

THE EXERCISE
There are many ways to write polymeters into your music, but we’ll be focusing on one simple approach in this article. This will get you started and will hopefully lead to some interesting results.

Begin by coming up with a part in 4/4 time. If you’re not sure what this means, just count out “one two three four one two three four” over and over, emphasizing the one. This is the most common time signature found in pop music, so you should be able to feel it out. Now write your part to fit the rhythm. Record that part. I would recommend using a metronome or beat to help you keep time in this exercise.

Your 4/4 part can be a chord progression, a repeating riff, a looped melody, or whatever else you can come up with.

Now it’s time to have some fun. Listen to your first part and write a new part over it. This new part will be in 3/4 time. That means you’ll be counting “one two three one two three”.

One thing you’ll immediately notice is that the two parts will repeat at different rates. Different harmonies and accents will emerge as they play out against one another. As you can see below, it will take three 4/4 measures and four 3/4 measures before they line up again:

Part 1: 1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1…
Part 2: 1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1…

Explore a variety of combinations. Try the exercise first with a 4/4 drum beat and then with a 3/4 drum beat. Play chord progressions in both. Play a chord progression in one and a melody in the other. Play looped melodies in both. Have fun with it.

TAKE THINGS TO THE NEXT LEVEL

Of course, sticking with 3/4 and 4/4 is only the beginning. Try different combinations if you’re in an experimental mood. And if you really want to go crazy, why not throw in a third part in 5/4?

Part 1: 1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3   …
Part 2: 1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3   …
Part 3: 1  2  3  4  5  1  2  3  4  5  1  2  3  4  5  1  2  3  4  5  1  2  3  4  5  1  2  …

As you can see, it’s going to take a while before they all line up again! (Fifteen 4/4 measures, twenty 3/4 measures, and twelve 5/4 measures, to be precise).

I encourage you to submit your polymetric results to help break the rest of us out of the 4/4 straightjacket we spend most of our time in.

Avant Garde Techniques: Composition by Subtraction

This exercise is in some ways related to the last one. However, it is going to allow us much more direct control and rely less on chance.

Composition by subtraction is an idea explored by Brian Eno on Before and After Science, an album that marries pop with avant garde experimentalism, and one I highly recommend. The idea is simple: sculpt your song out of a mass of tracks, eliminating one track at a time.

So here’s how I’m suggesting you proceed:

STEP ONE: LAYERING

Start by recording a basic idea for a song. It doesn’t matter where you begin. It can be a simple beat, a chord progression on the guitar, a sung melody, a series of licks, or weird percussion. That’s up to you, and I recommend trying this exercise with different kinds of starting points.

Now start layering parts on top of your foundation track. Unlike the Blind Recording exercise, you should keep all of your tracks unmuted.

So far, this just sounds like the normal process of writing a song track by track. But now things get a little crazier. Keep layering tracks; don’t stop when the arrangement sounds filled out. If possible, try to use as many different instruments, sounds, textures, etc. as you can.

Now keep layering (even as the arrangement becomes more and more cluttered). Don’t worry about how noisy it’s getting; just keep writing and recording new parts. Try to make each new one unique.

There will come a point where you’re not sure how to fit things in anymore. Don’t let that discourage you; just keep going. If your new ideas start to sound random, keep them anyway.

It’s up to you how many layers you add. I recommend putting down quite a few. The more layers, the more you’ll have to work with in the end.

STEP TWO: SUBTRACTING

When you feel you’ve completed your massive noisy masterpiece, it’s time to move to the next stage. This is where the composition by subtraction comes in.

The process is simple: just start muting tracks one by one, seeing what different combinations sound like. The real work is in demoing different arrangements.

Think of your wall of tracks as the stone from which you are carving your song. Hidden in there is a number of really interesting combinations you would never have written off the top of your head. Your goal is to get in there and find them.

When you’ve come up with some interesting results, be sure to submit them so I can enlighten the world on the merits (or demerits) of this approach.  

I can’t promise you’ll come up with the next Top 40 hit this way, but you might just discover something you love.

Next: Polymeter

 

Avant Garde Techniques: Recording Blind

To kick off the avant garde techniques series, I’m going to describe a simple experimental recording method that might just surprise you. The idea here is to discover some rhythmic and melodic counterpoint that you might never have written otherwise. I call this method “blind layering”. You’re going to need some kind of multitrack recording device, whether a software DAW or an analog machine.

STEP ONE: THE FOUNDATION

Your first step is to lay down a foundation track. This can be a simple beat repeated ad nauseum. Use a drum machine plugin if you’ve got one.

You’ll need to choose whether or not you want your foundation track to include harmonic information. Including some will increase the chances that the final product will be coherent. Leaving it out will be riskier but increase the chance of really strange discoveries.

I’m using “harmonic information” as a fancy term for adding a single note to every measure. So you can just play a C at the beginning of each one. If you’re using a DAW, you can then copy and paste this note over and over.

Your foundation track is going to remain untouched for the rest of this exercise.

STEP TWO: LAYERING

Now that you have your foundation, it’s time to record your first layer. Simply improvise a chord progression, melodic line, sung vocal, percussion part, or whatever while listening to the foundation. When you like an idea, lay it down. That’s layer one.

Now mute layer one and forget it ever existed. Listen to the foundation again and improvise a new chord progression, melodic line, etc. When you like an idea, lay it down. That’s layer two.

Now mute layer two and forget it ever existed. Got the idea? You just continue this way until you’ve built up a bunch of layers.

STEP THREE: SCULPTING THE LAYERS

Now it’s time for some weirdness. Unmute all the layers at once and press play.

Depending on how many you recorded, it’s going to be noisy. Start taking some away. Pull some back while muting others. See what you have there. The hope is that some combination of tracks is going to strike you as musically interesting.

And that’s blind layering. If you come up with something you like, submit it and I’ll add it to the site with a link to your music page.

Next: Composition by Subtraction