Category Archives: The Museum of Rhythmic Oddities!

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.

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The Museum Of Rhythmic Oddities! Exhibit #1: Mozart String Quintet in G Minor

5tetThis amazing passage of music makes for fun discussion, perceptive listening, and exploration of hemiola, syncopation, perception issues, and more. I typically teach it in first-semester music theory classes, but also adapt it for non-majors music as well.

The music in this “exhibit” is all taken from the second movement (Minuet & Trio) of Mozart’s String Quintet No. 4 in G Minor, K. 516.

It starts off easy

This exhibit begins with a simple task: what is the meter of this example, and what would an appropriate time signature and rhythmic notation be? Try conducting along with the recording.

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