Music for Use

Music for Use

Swing (and things)

Cooper Ottum

Just so we’re clear:

I’m not an expert, by any stretch of the word, on this business. More like an enthusiast. I’m honestly fascinated by Swing (capital S!) and how it’s played, and how it’s written, and how the written Swing is interpreted by performers.

Swing can be a curiously visceral thing; it’s best “felt” rather than measured, best implicit and certainly not explicit. I’d say that, in my experience, swing tends to be either effective or painfully, yawn-inducingly mediocre.

And, by the way:

I can’t speak intelligently about the “French” dotted-rhythm swing business that people have to consider for early music performance practice, so I won’t. But I think I can address the Jazz-style practice of uneven beat subdivisions, at least in terms of my own observations. (note: someone ought to invent a word that is like “observation” but for hearing, so that we can get rid of these sight-centric noun things, and as a result sound less like morons when we want to discuss things we’ve heard)

Here we go:

A few Fridays ago, (January 27th, 2012, for those keeping track), composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel came to USC as a guest of our Composition Forum. I’d never heard his music before (nor had I heard of him), and was pleasantly surprised by it. There must be something to this New York “crossover” business. The music we heard while dutifully examining loose-leaf scores was this funky, gritty, unabashedly swinging large chamber ensemble piece called Three Rivers. And it was notated in 12/8.

The audacity! Using a triple meter to describe Swing is like cutting a bagel with a butter knife (you know, because it gets the job done but the bagel gets all squished out of shape and there are crumbs everywhere). But here it worked. I mean, his recording sounded great, and everybody clearly knew what was going on.

I’ve seen this before. And it’s akin to the “serious composer” practice of embedding swing with precisely notated triplets or quintuplets or accent patterns or whatever. And I’ve seen beginning-intermediate big band charts notated this way, especially for a piece in more of a “shuffle” feel (in which case it might even be appropriate). Here’s the thing: all of this presumes that Swing is quantifiable, and that we, as dutiful composers, can measure out the Swing feel we desire and map it out with our lovely proportional notation system.

We can do this. It is done. But to my ears, the music is not really Swing if you’ve fussed about it that much.

Here’s Dave Liebman, in one of his “educational articles”:

What is swinging or not is to some extent a matter of taste and acclimation. That which swings to the novice versus the educated listener may be entirely different, but even among so-called experts, the feeling of swing is so personal and subjective as to seem to be beyond discussion (though there is indeed much intense discussion about what does or does not swing). However, I think we could generalize that a feeling of swing has a drive or momentum in balance with a feeling of relaxation and effortlessness. There is a “lilt” or bounce to the music that is beyond words. It is probably easier to point out what doesn’t swing than what does!!

Granted, a composer with an interest in Swing or with “jazz” as a stylistic object may not care so much about a perfect rendition of Swing feel (or some kind of Latin feel, or whatever). There are composers who reference jazz, and then there are composers who are honestly trying to distill some element of jazz so it will blend nicely within the weird combinatorial world of new music.

Yet what I see is a somewhat irritating inconsistency — do we ask for a triple feel and hope for the best (as Bermel essentially does in Three Rivers)? Do we say “Swing 8ths” in some sections and write peculiar triplets with ties all over the place in others (as Frank Ticheli does in his popular Blue Shades, for wind ensemble)? Do we learn to fear Swing and try to capture something else nice about jazz in our own music, wishing for cleaner, more reliable communication methods (as I do)?

It’s probably safe to say that these choices are best left up to personal aesthetic motivations.

But this is all a diversion - when I asked Bermel about his use of 12/8 for a swing notation, he pointed out that 12/8 was most useful in the context of Three Rivers because of its many metric modulations. Very cool metric modulations, let the record show. This isn’t so much about performance practice or degree of precision in notation as it is about making choices in the unique communication from composer, to music page, to performer.

Now I’m interested.

Seems to me Bermel isn’t asking for Swing, and he isn’t asking for a completely-accurate-no-mistakes-fully-metronomic read — more like a balance of both. Maybe 12/8 in Three Rivers just means “Heavy Swing,” but it also means “hey, don’t get too involved with that Swing feel because it won’t be like this forever, or for everyone.” Bermel also spoke eloquently (when I asked him about this 12/8 business) on the topic of dealing with specialized idiomatic techniques that just can’t be communicated in a consistent or all-inclusive way. Not everyone knows how to Swing. Not all jazz musicians (who hopefully can Swing) know how to perform accurate metric modulations. But Bermel seemed interested in asking for a little bit of everything. Maybe this level of comfort in asking for musical breadth comes with compositional maturity. I suppose it could be a sign that some musicians and some ensembles place new value in breadth of idiomatic understanding, enabling new exploration of musical “boundaries” by living composers.

As usual, we could all benefit from a little less dogmatism. So, hat tip to Derek Bermel.