Top Down #4: Rhythmic Control and Moving off the Grid

One goal of writing from the top-down is to compose more expressively. Not that your melodies need any help to be expressive, but perhaps there’s a way to “open it up” more.

Thinking about your music with flexible rhythmic feel in mind might be just the thing to expand your writing.

Jazz writers are spoiled in a way–we rely on our rhythm section to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and there’s a temptation to let them do their thing and just go with the time, 4/4 feel, 3/4, etc. They’re laying down a grid, everything is sitting on top of that.

But even if the rhythm section is playing with a “free” feel, or not playing at all, the grid of the meter is still there. It’s a point of reference for the ensemble, the conductor, and something you hang your phrases on.

I’ve talked before about ways to move with and against the grid, how to use rhythms to create tension and resolution, and to invoke that “free”, elastic feel.  This sounds so basic, but it’s kind of zen: write rhythms the way you want to hear them. Notate (ie write out) rubato passages, ritards and accelarandos. Listen in your head to how you’d perform a passage, or how you’d conduct it, then figure out how to fit it into the meter you’ve chosen. Start a phrase off the beat, or on a different beat, and let it go over the barline.

You’re now writing “in-time” out-of-time music. Got free(er) music? Check!

Written-out rubatos slow or quicken the pace, add space, move us along–all without conducting. The band stays in time and focused, but moves “off the grid.” I have to use my work here due to copyright restrictions. Here is an audio excerpt of my tune for big band, “Dhyana”, from a rehearsal last year. followed by a melodic breakdown/reduction:

Ditch the conductor, write out rubatos and spacey melodies. Not only will the performance be just the way you want it, but you can slip in and out of the groove at will. The metric “grid” stays constant, the band moves on and off of it.

In m. 1-3 the melody from m. 15-17 is compressed to fit the descending bass line. Strong beats happen when the phrase is over, there’s a break, then a new phrase starts. It sounds like a conductor is giving a downbeat, and conducting the music. Then in m. 12 the rhythm section locks in to a 4/4 feel and we’re back on the real grid. Does it then sound like a new tempo, perhaps a faster version of what came before it? That’s the idea. No countoff, no head-scratching, just movement on and off the grid.

Opening up the framework with written-out, off the grid figures can give you space for counterlines, and immediate development of ideas. Since we’re not married to any chord progressions or other expectations/restraints, maybe there are some extra notes, phrases, echos, extensions, or new material you want to throw in between the “strong beats”.

“Dhyana” measures 1-11: counterlines and inner movement right from the beginning; an inner line rises and falls, and is passed around by various instruments. Even though the rhythms are “off the grid”, they flow from and breathe with the bassline. This gives the feeling of “downbeats” or strong beats marking the beginning of phrases.


As I’ve mentioned in earlier “top-down” posts, let your phrase/gesture/melody be your guide. Let it play as long as it has to. Let it breathe. If you listen hard while you’re writing, other lines, accompaniment and counterpoint might filter in from the ether. Since you’re free from  fixed grid and the chord changes, you can work new material in easily and spin your work out as far as you want.

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About Scott Healy

LA composer and performer.
Gallery | This entry was posted in Arranging/Orchestration, Harmony, Jazz Composition and Analysis, Jazz Theory, Theory and Harmony, Top--Down Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Top Down #4: Rhythmic Control and Moving off the Grid

  1. Nick Collis says:

    Thank you Scott for giving much food for thought. I have been trying to find a more organic approach to my music and your ideas for top down writing resonate with me !
    Cheers,
    Nick

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