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Old 12-10-2004, 01:04 PM   #1
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Polyrhythms in Nature

An interesting snippet from a Modern Drummer interview with Steve Smith ...

Here is the idea: First of all, let's look at why do we have 12 pitches, 12 tones to work with in music? The reason that we have them is that they exist in nature. If you got back to Pythagoras and how he discovered (as far as the Western world is concerned) the overtone series or what is know as harmonics, he discovered that if you divided a string by 2/3rds you get the fifth (or the dominant). If you divide that dominate by 2/3rds you get another fifth, and so on – what we now call the cycle of fifths. You go through the cycle of fifths until you come all the way around again to where you started, let's say you started at C, you end up at B# and you've played 12 notes. In those days the B# was a different note than C, but after the scale was tempered they became the same note.
The Western world developed harmony so eventually the scale was tempered so we could play chords and play in all the keys on one instrument without retuning between songs, in nature as you continue up the scale the notes are sharper and sharper. The twelve tone tempered scale is a man made creation based on the fundamentals present in nature. So the reason we have 12 tones is because they exist in nature, they were "polished" by man, but they are not an arbitrary creation.
The reason that we have rhythm is based on the same phenomenon -- rhythm exists in nature as a result of the overtone series. What is a pitch but a vibration that occurs at a certain speed? A440 means a sound pulsing at 440 beats per second. If I could play 440 beats on the snare drum in a second, it would sound like the pitch A440. If you slowed that down, you will start to hear the pulses present in the overtone series. That's rhythm.
Rhythm is the same as pitch... but slowed down. If you speed the pulses up fast enough you get radio waves and even faster they become light. As you slow the pulses down, you hear them as pitches (well, the pitches us humans can hear) and as you slow them down more they become rhythm. You can slow them down even more but you can't keep track of them unless you have a watch or a calendar.
With the overtone series first you hear the fundamental, next you hear the octave, then the fifth above that, then the fourth above that, then a major third and a minor third above that. When you slow them down to a point where you hear them as rhythm, the fundamental is beat one and the octave is twice as fast. So you have "one" and then the octave being twice as fast is "two over one" which is basically "one" and "two." The fifth vibrates one third faster than the fundamental, which is "three over two," then the fourth above that is another octave, which is four times faster than the fundamental, it's the rhythm four over three. And the major third is five over four and so on.
That's why we have what we call quarter notes, triplets, 8th notes, 5's, 6's, 7's, etc… again they are present in nature. But they are not tempered, that is why African drumming sounds so loose and funky to us. But our Western ears are now becoming used to the sound of "Tempered Rhythm" which is what quantizing and having "perfect" time is all about, tempered rhythm.
In the master class we talked about this phenomenon, that rhythm is essentially and naturally polyrhythmic because it occurs that way in nature. The whole concept of linear drumming is an intellectual fabrication. It doesn't exist in nature. Polyrhythmic pulse exists in nature. Or polyrhythm is vibrations slowed down to the point where they appear as rhythm and since harmonics are multi-layered, they sound polyrhythmic. So it's a natural principal that rhythm and pulse is polyrhythmic... that's why African music developed the polyrhythmic base that it did, it was just a response to nature. It wasn't a fabrication... "Ok, we're gonna play three over two here." It's just the way pulse is. It's the way vibration and frequencies work.
When we look at all the music that was derived from the African diaspora, it's essentially all polyrhythmic. The foundationary rhythms are based on the most basic polyrhythm that exists in nature, three over two... the polyrhythm of the perfect fifth. So it all makes sense. And we U.S. Americans have our interpretation of that, which is the swing rhythm. The Afro-Cubans have their interpretation, which is clave, just as the Brazilians have their interpretation of it and the Africans themselves have their own interpretation of the same phenomenon.
We talked about that idea. I do demonstrations of that on the DVD but I don't get into the theory behind it. Paul, Rob (the DVD producers) and I thought that was a little too much, but I may pursue that in the book. Efrain Toro is the person who has deciphered this mystery for me. I had already derived that the nature of U.S. pulse was polyrhythmic, the 3 over 2 polyrhythm, but Efrain was the one that put the harmonic series into the equation.
Howard Levy had deduced that as well, independently, and he talked to me about it a few years ago, but at the time I didn't "get" it. Since then I did some more research into the actual mathematical equations of the perfect fifth, perfect fourth, major third and minor third, etc. I could see that they are mathematically the same as what we learn rhythmically when we study music. It's about whole notes, half notes, triplets, quarter notes, fives, sixes, sevens, eighth notes, and so on. It's just another way of going up the rhythmic scale.
But the interesting thing to me is that it all happens harmonically, not linearly. It all happens at the same time so all the rhythms vibrate simultaneously and work together. That's why jazz works, and that's why the early rock and roll rhythms worked. You had somebody playing the three and then the two on top of that. Straight eighths over swing is just two over three, it works because it occurs in nature.
MD: And you build up vertically from that... like Dixieland or Ornette's harmolodic theory.
SS: You'll have to figure that one out. But I think it's interesting to point these ideas out because it helps one's point of reference as to what's important to focus on. And so it takes polyrhythm out of the concept of the intellect and puts it into nature.
MD: It's not a fabrication, it's an organic connection.
SS: Yeah, the idea that rhythm is not flat, that rhythm is multi-dimensional, multi-layered. Because it's especially mysterious and problematic to players that are younger and have grown up with the click track as the measure of time, it seems like they learn patterns and then they play the patterns in time to the metronome, which is not the concept I'm talking about... the concept being that you develop a pulse that's based off of polyrhythm and like I point out in the DVD, time is simply keeping the pulse steady. As U.S. drummers the polyrhythmic pulse I'm talking about is the swing pulse, all of our music is based on that. You have to have a good feeling swing pulse in order to have a good feeling foundation to the music. And then, OK, great, you want to keep that perfectly in time, OK, we'll do that. But that's different than just working on time, just trying to keep patterns even. That concept won't have the depth, the feel that you would get if you approached it from pulse.

That would make Virgil a Naturist then ...
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Old 12-10-2004, 01:13 PM   #2
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Wow that was very interesting. Thanks for posting it.
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Old 12-10-2004, 01:58 PM   #3
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Steve Smith is the man. I love his DVD.
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Old 12-10-2004, 02:07 PM   #4
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Interesting to say the least!!

Although I have to say this will not change the way I play the drums, or my approach to music..

Maybe I don't really get it..?!
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Old 12-10-2004, 02:36 PM   #5
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I think he draws a false antithesis between nature and the intellect. Things produced by the intellect are not somehow "false." They are the result of artifice; the human mind imposes order upon disorder. That's creativity.

Or, to use the language given to Adam, "subdue the Earth."

Other than that particular nit-pick, I think it is a very interesting and useful approach.
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Old 12-10-2004, 05:13 PM   #6
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My washing machine makes some cool polyrhythms :P I like to drum along with it hehe.
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Old 12-11-2004, 11:09 AM   #7
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Wow, that was a very interesting article, I never even realized half the stuff Steve talked about.
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Old 12-11-2004, 11:17 AM   #8
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Originally Posted by frank
Although I have to say this will not change the way I play the drums, or my approach to music...

Good point, obviously Steve knows something we don't about how it can help our drumming ...
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Old 12-11-2004, 01:13 PM   #9
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Thank you for posting this, jimi! That was very interesting and educational. I think I'll need a few days to reflect on possibilities of the frame of mind.
I would have to agree with Johnny, though. I believe the intellect is our most effective tool to help us understand this complex "philospohy". So to say that the reasoning of the intellect is artificial - or "false" - is somewhat paradoxical to me.

But great stuff, endeed!
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