Metre and metric stratification in Kampflieder

I’m (still) in the planning stages of Kampflieder for chamber orchestra (ok ok, I’m a little behind schedule, but I’m doing my best alright!). I’m up to that bit where I work out the basic metric approach of the piece and each of the lines (here ‘groups’) within it. Since I haven’t written for a large ensemble since developing my current compositional approaches (and since I’m dealing with a group of musicians who, while no doubt very skilled, aren’t specialists in complex new music), I’ve deliberated over this quite a bit.

After outlining some basic possibilities in a previous post, and thinking each of these through a bit, the basic question came down to whether the common metric structure would consist of relatively stable durations (e.g. 6/8, 6/8, 6/8, etc) as in my third motet, or would be more fluid as in much of my other work recently, like Si el clima. The advantages of the latter are that I can define some common tendencies across the whole ensemble (i.e. expansion and contraction of overall time), I can easily have much more irregular rhythms, and it provides me with a compositional provocation at each new bar. The advantages of the former are that I can much more easily create sturdy tempo strata, and thus also mensural canons.

I sat down and worked out a whole bunch of different linear relations to these two metres as I have done in the past.

Regular metre

Metric functions2

Different possible approaches to rhythmic stratification with a consistent metre (see bar 2 for the simple capacity for mensural canons). The second from the bottom replicates a shifting metre (see below example) in one line and is in a way related to the ‘hyper-metric’ approach I suggested in previous posts; the bottom gives a ‘relative’ or ‘spatial’ or ‘fluid’ notation that is more indeterminate but allows for very fluid accels or decels in one line.

Irregular metre

Metric functions1

Different approaches to rhythmic stratification with an irregular metre. Note the second from the bottom which is essentially the substitution of a consistent metre.

(Naturally each of these should be explained, and I should explain why I’ve selected these particular approaches and not others, and why I’ve made certain distinctions between approaches that in some ways could be said to be the same… That will have to wait for a future post, or publication, or for the dissertation itself).

I ended up deciding that the former would be the best in this instance, at least in part because I think this will be easier on the musicians (this isn’t to say that there won’t be irregular measures thrown in as an interruptive device). But as I said above, it also affords some particular opportunities (there’s also the challenge of bringing rhythmic dynamism to the whole-bar tuplet strata – something that I don’t think that Carter ever fully dealt with).

So, here’s the thinking for the metric stratification between the four main groups in the initial set up in Kampflieder (the fifth is a ‘shadow’ group intended to give resonance, and will adopt the metric approach of whatever group it is shadowing at any moment) – this is all subject to change throughout the work, but this is more or less the setup at the beginning.

Line 1: Group 5; Line 2: Group 4; Line 3: Group 2; Line 4: Group 1. (I'll explain more about the groups in a future post).

Line 1: Group 5; Line 2: Group 4; Line 3: Group 2; Line 4: Group 1. (I’ll explain more about the groups in a future post). I’m not 100% decided on 7 as the basic metre, but it does afford a very non-polyrhythmic stratification (that is, it won’t sound like hemiolas or whatever).

An important thing to note here is that I’m thinking of the whole-bar tuplets as basic tempi, not audible polyrhythms (which means that each unit of subdivision will itself be subdivided, sometimes with nested tuplets). The idea is that groups will coordinate within themselves so that members of a given group are in time with each other, and they’ll watch the conductor (and listen to what else is going on) so they are aware of the general time of the ensemble (e.g. down-beats, obvious cues, etc). Of course this means there will inevitably be a degree of indeterminacy with regard to the precise coordination  of relations between groups (especially in a non-specialist ensemble). However, this is fine, since in general, the groups are conceived as distinct, independent strata. Where important interrelations between group-strata are composed, they will need to be marked obviously and coordinated by the ensemble, but outside these moments, a degree of accidental coincidences and non-coincidences between groups on the very micro-scale doesn’t worry me, since they will likely not be particularly audible in the complex stream of polyphonic information.