Temporality and Microrhythm in Groove-Based Musics. Analytical perspectives. Anne Danielsen, University of Oslo.
[abstract] The state of listening to groove-based music has been described as a condition of heightened presence in the musical here-and-now. This experience is often ascribed to the rhythms’ circular structural design and the groove’s repetitive form, which can last from several minutes to several hours depending on the context. However, also the presence of subtle microrhythmic features is crucial to the experience of groove. How can we analyze microrhythm in groove-based musics? And what can be said about form in groove-based music, which often seems to be completely devoid of form in the traditional sense? Last but not least, how can the analyses of temporality and micro rhythm inform us about the particular experience of time linked with dancing and listening to a groove? I will start with a discussion of previous empirical and theoretical work on rhythm within musicology, ethnomusicology and music psychology. Then I present a framework for analyzing groove-based music inspired by the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, and apply it to various groove- based musics. Here, I propose to engage with rhythm as an interaction between two analytically separable levels—virtual reference structures and actual sounds—that evokes the interaction between syntax and actual speech or writing in linguistics. I will use auditory analysis and various visual representations of sound, such as waveform curves and spectrograms, to explore the rhythmic design in detail. Finally, I touch upon how digital music technology has changed the feel of contemporary groove-based music.
Anne Danielsen is Professor in Musicology at the University of Oslo. She has published widely on rhythm, groove and music production in post-war African-American popular music and is the author of Presence and Pleasure: The Funk Grooves of James Brown and Parliament (Wesleyan University Press, 2006), for which she received the Lowens Book Award from the Society for American Music. She is also the editor of the anthology Musical Rhythm in the Age of Digital Reproduction (Ashgate, 2010).
Anne’s opening question (inherent in much of her research) ‘how can we analyse micro-groove?’ and although she focuses on musical analytical perspectives today, she asserts that this does not preclude a cultural analytical approach. She starts with a brief discussion of previous work in musicology, ethnomusicology and music psychology.
The central theme is how rhythm is a play with musical structure – that structure is not fixed but can change in real time. The idea of a beat being ‘early’ or ‘late’ can only exist in relation to a structural reference, and if that structure is not fixed, this creates a problem for analysis. Noting the necessity of popular musicology’s analytical inclusion of rhythm, she dismisses the tacit implication that art music is non-rhythmic.
She laments a lack of analysis of groove in popular music studies 20 years ago, and notes that there are still very few examples of research in this area. This is perhaps because of traditional musicology’s historical focus on harmony, melody and form. It has generally concerned itself entirely with those aspects of rhythm that are captured by a score.
Anne moves on to a working definition of micro-rhythm – via subtle variations of timing (when the beats hit [against the rhythmic grid], duration, shape [I infer amplitude envelope per transient, but perhaps form within form?], timbre and intensity. She then discusses listener perception and ‘non-sounding schemes’ and basic perceptual schemes (such as pulse) work together to frame actual sound schemes in the ear of the listener. We now look at systematic variation/SYVAR / structure – expression (Clarke) / synthax – process (Kvitfte) and participatory discrepancies/PDs (Keil). She notes that the relationship between sounding and non-sounding events is widely accepted in contemporary musicology. With appropriate modesty she then includes the figure – gesture paradigm (Danielsen). A figure presents a schema for understanding a musical gesture. Following Gibson, she notes that a given gesture affords the listener the opportunity to perceive structure. She speaks of a sounding gesture as a ‘virtual figure’ “as though the object had one part of itself in the virtual” (Deleuze 1994:209).
The keynote now turns to some musical examples, beginning with the ‘four against three’ [4:3] figure [a half-bar version of what I usually call the 3:3:2 rhythm, followed by a half-bar of rest]. She notes that the ‘tendency of cross-rhythm’ does not continue its cycle, and ceases as soon as it is established [that is, after three transient hits]. We now hear two examples – from James Brown [track?] (1974) and The Underground by Datarock.
We now hear another version of the 4:3 pattern, from James Brown again, but earlier (1971). She notes that the 4:3 figure is indicative of James Brown’s move towards funk in the 1970s, and observes its function of breaking up the beat, often in the context of a riff, but never competing with the main underlying beat. Anne notes that 4:3 can be found in many different cultures and genres, and that the rhythm sounds very different in each context. This, of course, means that transcribing the rhythm is not analytically useful, given that it appears in the same [macro-rhythmic] form in all cases. The differentiation, of course, is micro-rhythmic. Anne’s view is that micro-timing has been incorrectly regarded as a matter of expression rather than structure. She cites her primary research (and name-checks the relevant colleagues) regarding computer analysis of structural micro-timing in 1970s funk grooves.
We then look at the ‘downbeat in anticipation’ (Brown’s term), describing downbeats that are played a little earlier than the barline but are not a straight syncopation. She notes that this has become a stylistic trademark [I actually hear these as a form of syncopation, albeit with a ’24 shuffle’ groove grid. I think I may not have fully understood the density of the grains in Anne’s micro-grid]. The ‘downbeat in anticipation’ becomes a new norm on which other groove elements must be based.
Anne notes the shortness/transience of a groove’s duration, and stresses the usefulness of computer tools (e.g. Praat) in confirming groove perceptions from ordinary human listening. She has recently used these tools to check her earlier (pre-digital) findings, observing that computer tools and human ears have a strong degree of analytical correlation [further supporting her case that micro-timing is important precisely because it is so perceivable by listeners].
The presentation now discusses clashing subdivisions of rhythms, noting that such ambiguity can be achieved through analogue (musician) or digital (sequencer) means, and that this ambiguity is an inherent part of the groove. Most of the second half on Anne’s keynote is devoted to Destiny’s Child’s Nasty Girls, with several levels of [my own inferred word] ‘hierachy’ of groove.
Waveform analysis reveals how the shift to a shuffle feel is achieved in Nasty Girl and notes how the vocal moves to a shuffle feel over a two-bar section, drifting between binary and ternary beat subdivisions. [JB comment – the audio examples are extraordinarily powerfully illustrative of Anne’s points – it is possible to hear Beyoncé’s vocal outlining the tuplets, triplets and broken triplets. For me, a clear beauty emerges when hearing the vocal in this context, although Anne acknowledges that they are relatively easy for the human voice to achieve].
Nasty Girl’s drum groove also features the 4:3 cross-rhythmic pattern, noting the kick drum’s exactly metric groove on the downbeat (quaver 1), plus quavers 4 and 7. Being played by a machine, these are ‘perfect’, establishing a matrix that in unchanging against the flexible shuffle of the vocal. Anne suggests that this makes the vocals open to ‘creative hearing’ from listeners (see Locke). She now looks at crotchet triplet patterns in the synth bass part, and speculates how we hear this part in relation to other referent structure elements (e.g. the kick drum and the vocal), observing that as listeners we will sometimes ‘search for the beat’, noting that when our ears ‘lock in’ to a groove our entire perception of a groove can change.
Anne speaks of a ‘tilt’ that makes us hear parts of the groove as slightly swung, reflecting how the different elements – particularly the vocal’s triplets – can realign our perception of the pulse against the (programmed) synth bass.
She now suggests we suspend the metrical matrix of groove and wonders how we might analyse the listener’s experience outside this context. She notes the mediating transients of a vocal and the soft-ish attack on the bass sound [implying also, I think, that there is a potential timbral element to analysis?].
She suggests that really the structure exists in the listener’s experience, and that neither duple nor triple rhythmic schemes can provide a useful basis for understanding the listener’s experience of groove. Returning to the theoretical framework, she suggests that ‘virtual figures’ are present here. The vocal can be seen as representing two different variants of the same metrical structure.
Lastly, Anne notes that the groove is a temporal phenomenon. It is not heard one bar at a time in isolation; rather, it is heard as part of a continuous [and continuing] form. When we are in a state of groove, we move together with it – figuratively (as we follow it with our ears) or literally (we dance). We, as listeners, are co-producers of the groove.