Take a few pitches; shake, strain

A rare photograph of Irving Berlin and David Lang taken ca. 1935 and 2005.
A rare photograph of Irving Berlin and David Lang taken ca. 1935 and 2005.

It’s may seem like a huge stretch to find parallels between the music of Tin Pan Alley songsmith Irving Berlin and avant-garde postminimalist David Lang, but here’s a great meeting point in two pieces of music separated by more than 60 years: the use of systematic rhythmic permutation.

Cheating, Lying, Stealing

[Listen to the music and see the first page of the score]

Cheating, Lying, Stealing (1993) was David Lang’s breakthrough piece, putting him on the map as a hugely influential composer. I remember hearing it for the first time back then and being dumbstruck by its visceral energy and rhythmic unpredictability. There’s something about its clangorous instrumentation — especially in its “rhythm section” of kick drum and brake drums — that I feel establishes a perfect balance of metric “orientation” and “disorientation.” I’m especially thinking about its first third (up to 3’50” on the Bang on a Can All-Stars recording) and its last minute (starting at 9’36”). For years, I never attempted to figure out if a pattern guided his process — I just marveled at the clanky rhythms.

There is a pattern under it all, of course, and it’s fun to figure out. SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to tell you what it is, so if you want to give it a shot first, here’s a tip. Skip the first two bars (the intro) and take the music in dictation, all in 4/4 meter, separating the treble and bass lines to consider separately. See if you can find what’s going on.

What you’ll find is that the music’s key elements are just a simple three-note bass line and a three-note treble line. Notating the rhythm using eighth notes and quarter notes isn’t as clear as just looking at where the attacks are relative to each other, so it’s helpful to look at the music using TUBS notation. Using that, the first musical gesture looks like this:

CLS Gesture 1

In my notation, letters D, R, M and S refer to scale degrees in solfege (DO, RE, ME and SOL; I use “DO-minor” syllables). For puzzle-minded people, that should be enough of a clue to help you proceed. Continue in this manner seven more times. [Hold music is heard… now continue].

A complete dictation of these eight gestures that follow the intro looks like this:

CLS - Whole pattern

SO: now that all is on paper, we can compare the patterns to see how they relate. The first observation I would make is that each pattern is just two bars of four beats apiece. Its hard to hear that (at least, it is for me) since there is so much variety of rhythmic activity and since each gesture ends with a big silent gap.

Within each two-bar unit, it is also easy to see that the pattern of pitches never changes, just the rhythmic distance between occurrences of notes.

Excluding the gap at the end of each gesture, it’s also evident that there are only two rhythmic possibilities between notes: they are either adjacent or separated by a single box (a half beat). In the first gesture, each pair of notes is adjacent, with a single box separating the sets: DoRe – MeDo – SolMe. In each of the following gestures, however, the gap between notes migrates systematically. In gesture 2, the first pair of notes has a box between them, which “nudges” the MeDo and SolMe pairs one position (one half beat) later. In gesture 3, this gap is in the MeDo pair, and in gesture 4 it is in the SolMe pair. Lang created a very simple system in which the gap migrates from left to right.

Gestures 5, 6 and 7 each have two gapped pairs. In gesture 5, it is the outer two; in gesture 6 it is the first two, and in gesture 7 it is the latter two.

Finally, in gesture 8, each pair is gapped, which exhausts all of the possibilities in this limited system. At that point, there is  a change in the music — there is a new prominent bass note, the cello begins to hold notes longer, and a new set of pitch patterns is used. I haven’t analyzed the next section of the piece, but I’ll bet there is a similar pattern at work.

I always thrill at the rhythmic propulsion of this piece’s recap, which begins at 9’36” in the recording (I don’t have the sheet music, so I can’t give good bar numbers beyond the first 18). It’s a fantastic compression of the first section in which each gesture, instead of having a “pregnant pause” filling out the remainder of the two bars, simply cuts out the extra beats and starts a new pattern right away. After a full cycle of eight gestures, the full pattern is heard again as it was in bars 3-18, and the piece is done.

Puttin’ On The Ritz

[hear on YouTube]

In David Lang’s case, this rhythmic manipulation springs from an experimental spirit, extending the simple processes used by his minimalist forebear Steve Reich in music like Drumming (1970-71). In the case of Irving Berlin, one can only imagine that his choices were guided by an intuitive nature of  making clever syncopations out of tiny fragments. In Puttin’ On The Ritz (1929), he used a four-pitch arpeggiated figure four times, each with a minute rhythmic tweak:

Puttin On The Ritz

Like Lang, he only used eighth notes and quarter notes (Q= quarter note, E= eighth note; quarters may instead be tied pairs of eighths if they go over a bar line):

  • The first occurrence of the figure (“If you’re blue and”): QQQE
  • The second (“you don’t know where”): QEQQ
  • The third occurrence (“to go to why”): QQQE
  • The fourth occurrence (“don’t you go where”): QEQQ

By viewing it this way, it seems that there are just two rhythmic patterns: two sets of QQQE and QEQQ. The sonic result, however, is much more interesting than that because of the syncopations created by having a seven eighth-note pattern against the metric backdrop of 4/4 bars. After the first figure, the second begins without pause, forming a syncopated upbeat. Once the third figure arrives, it now begins on the fourth beat of the bar. There is a polyrhythm created by hearing accents created when any given note recurs, such as the F (and the E it leads down to) that creeps earlier by a half beat each bar:

F      F       F       F       E 
>      >       >       >       >
If     you     to      don't   Har-lem

Because the lowest note of each arpeggio forms an implied accent, the low Cs seem to initiate each figure, and Berlin accentuates that lyrically, starting each textual clause on the low C. He also makes a big deal out of the high Cs, using them to form syncopated rhymes: blue / know / to / go.

Well done, Mr. Berlin.

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