Friday, 26 October 2007

Fishing trip goes adrift in Seven

Third rehearsal yesterday. We hacked our way through that 7/8 round about Joe and his infernal relatives going fishing, which was clearly stolen from a Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, written 20 years later.

Actually, it went relatively well. We started together and finished together, many people sang when they were supposed to, Tim was still smiling at the end, and instead of looking desperate and miserable, Nan only looked deeply worried, so we're up on this stage last year.

It interested me that we had less trouble with the asymmetry of the time signature than Nan expected. I think it's because pop culture has embraced asymmetry in an occasional, but often memorable, way; so anyone younger than, say, David Bowie, has grown up with it, if fleetingly.

Now, Peter Grimes is full of passages in such odd time signatures (usually disguised by being written across the bar in 4/4, though there is a long hymny bit 15/8 sung in church by the Borough congregation). And classical composers had been banging away in all sorts of lopsided rhythms for ages (Shostakovich could get a big rollicking 7/8 going very nicely thank you - think of the hurtling section in the Piano Concerto No. 2).

But popular music has always been suspicious of it. Or at least, the producers have, ever worried that the feet of the great unwashed are unable to tap along to compound times. Dave Brubeck's Take Five in the 1960s was nearly spiked by the pradoocers, it's said, but the piece's three-two switching became the epitome of white-cool jazz. And what since then? Well, prog-rock used such arithmetical legerdemain all over the place: Yes were particularly famous for it.

I remember the theme tune to BBC's Look North being a clear Brubeck ripoff in the early 1970s, with a chunky piano stumbling along in 5/4 and everything. It seemed in the 1980s that unusual beats were a prerequisite for a TV theme tune with a punchy, thrusting, current-affairs, new-techie cachet (morning news broadcasts had quavers urgently going missing everywhere, and Tomorrow's World's theme was in 7/8, I seem to recall, though I was more concerned with looking at Maggie Philbin's knockers).

And the Stranglers' single Gordon Brown - sorry, Golden Brown - had three bars of three followed by one of four, which makes 13, which is pretty impressive for a punk band, but then they were always cut above the usual gobbing power-chord thrashers who, frankly, just scared me. I bet Maggie Philbin wouldn't have been impressed by the Pistols. No, more of an Abba fan, I expect.

And I'm now sitting at work listening to, the fantastic online radio station that generates playlists according to songs you say you like, and have been enjoying all sorts of spikily-rhythmed pieces from long-haired 1970s stalwarts such as Yes, King Crimson and UK, to mysterious modern bands from Quebec or Colorado with names like Miriodor or Thinking Plague or Godzik Pink. It's just fab.

Maybe I like all these odd rhythms because I'm so rubbish at dancing. If I try to waltz it comes out in five anyway.

So not many sevens flying around in pop culture to establish the idea of uneven rhythms in our young heads; but at least a few. So I wasn't entirely surprised that we could repeatedly count to seven en masse with reasonable reliability.

The only thing that worries me is the remaining 95 per cent of the opera.

No comments: