Volume 17, June 2023
Learning Strategies for Complex Rhythms: Approaching Richard Barrett's splinter for contrabass solo (2018-2022)

by Kathryn Schulmeister

6. The process of rhythmic translation

At the start of my learning process, I found that the most immediate and acute challenge of preparing an interpretation of Barrett's splinter is learning to understand and technically perform the rhythmic material in the score. I say this because the notes themselves are not unknown values to me, and at the beginning of the learning process I immediately understood how to play the notes on the score, but I did not immediately understand how to approach representing the rhythms.

The rhythmic challenges posed by Barrett's score far surpass the traditional range of complexity that is typically encountered in contemporary music, although not unprecedented as earlier discussed in this paper. The challenge lies in the multiple layers of rhythmic information within the score that the performer must decipher, intellectually understand, and physically be able to execute with an accuracy that can be perceivable by a listener. As percussionist Professor Steven Schick writes in his essay on learning Ferneyhough's notoriously rhythmically complex Bone Alphabet: "Learning is measured by a palpable change of state: you have learned if you can do, think, realize, or notice something that you formerly could not."18 As Schick eloquently points out, the goal for my learning process with splinter is to be able to intellectualize and physically represent the material on the score. The research question lies in how to get to the point of understanding and execution, and there are multiple paths that one could take in getting there.

Since the starting point of the learning process creates a situation where a performer cannot initially intellectually understand and therefore cannot physically represent the rhythmic material on the score, the learning process must take on a strategy of rhythmic translation for the performer to be able to understand and learn to reproduce the information. Rhythmic translation, meaning to express the rhythms notated into different, more comprehensible terms19, can work in different ways. As complex rhythm expert Edwin Harkins explains, meter, tempo, and notated rhythm can all theoretically be interchangeable to produce the same sounding result.20 Therefore, a performer could use this knowledge to translate one of these terms into another. For example, a performer may not be able to simultaneously calculate multiple layers of polyrhythmic relationships, but they could translate a single rhythmic ratio into a tempo value equivalent calculated to accurately represent one layer of polyrhythmic information.

In the case of addressing the rhythmic challenges of Barrett's splinter, I decided to use multiple methods of rhythmic translation to help me learn to interpret and perform the rhythmic material. The methods I used included translating meters of single measures into multiple shorter sub-measures, translating polyrhythmic ratios into tempi, and translating the durations of groups of notes into rhythmic subdivisions of tempi. All these methods combined allowed me to strategize how I would learn to translate the rhythms of the score into my performance on the contrabass. In the section that follows, I will provide detailed examples of how these specific methods of rhythmic translation worked in deciphering the rhythmic challenges in Barrett's splinter.

Although these processes of rhythmic translation may seem to conceptually diverge from the ideas presented in the musical score, Barrett himself thinks of the musical ideas in terms of tempi relationships, and I would argue this approach is not only efficient and precise in the learning process for the performer, but also philosophically aligned with Barrett's intention for the rhythmic profile of the work. Regarding his compositional approach to rhythm, Barrett writes:

The presence of "complex" or "irrational" rhythmical subdivisions, sometimes nested within each other, is a frequent (although not omnipresent) feature of my notated compositions. Usually, they function to generate flexible rhythmical grids, [...] where streams of activity (different instrumental parts, or different voices or layers within a single part) might be coordinated with or discoordinated from one another to varying degrees.21

As Barrett writes, his compositional intention is to create flexible rhythmic subdivisional grids which allow for moments of coordination, non-coordination, and heterophony among multiple ensemble parts or within a complex/polyphonic solo instrumental part. Barrett applies two principal systems to create this musical structure: a hierarchical approach and a non-hierarchical approach. For the hierarchical approach, Barrett takes inspiration from Clarence Barlow's book, Bus Journey to Parametron (1980), and systematically generates a probability gradient22 between simple subdivisional ratios, which are then expressed as metric modulations of a consistent pulse. For his non-hierarchical approach, Barrett composes subdivided durations that are distinct in tempo from their adjacent notes, using a logarithmic scale of durational values to generate rhythmic values. In both cases, the perceivable musical effect is a sense of rapidly changing tempi, from note to note and from measure to measure as well.

With this understanding of Barrett's compositional intentions, I needed to decide how I would strategize learning and performing the score as it maps highly detailed notated material onto a flexible rhythmic subdivisional grid. I needed to find a way to communicate a common pulse and a sense of notes flexibly aligning with or swerving around that common pulse in a highly varied and unpredictable way for the listener to potentially be able to perceive. I believe that Barrett is inspired by the freedom of movement that exists in the natural world and emulating that with his highly complex rhythmic material. Therefore, my task as a learner was to find a way to be accountable for both the rigorous structure that the score provides while also embodying the spirit of freedom and possibility that inspires Barrett's work.