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To beat or not to beat

November 4, 2011

Animal keep beat... always.

With arranging the episodes of PL, we, unified, approached it with the goal of staying as true to the text as possible and changing the music as we wanted, drawing inspiration from the various recorded versions and “scores” we could find. This presented us with the questions: How much of the beat is given to us in the words? How much do we want to be true to that original beat?

To be sure, Ashley has laid out very clearly that each episode of Perfect Lives is strictly metered at 72 bpm. Transcriptions from his talks at Mills College, state the following:

Park – 13 beats per line (8+5).

Supermarket – 5 beats per line.

Bank – 9 beats per line (alternating 5+4 and 4+5 sections).

Bar – 7 beats per line (alternating 4+3 and 3+4 sections).

Living Room – 4 beats per line.

Church – 4 beats per line.

Backyard – 6 beat sections + 5 beat sections (but in this one the beat changes to 48 bpm dotted-quarters)

Original cue card score from the Supermarket episode

Funny enough, we have tried to stay true to the original keys of the episodes, but we all had different ideas about whether the beat should be kept. In the example page of the original Supermarket score to the left, the underlined syllables indicate where the beat falls. Occasionally the beat falls between words, and that’s indicated by the underlined star. This is extremely metered recitation. This would seem odd if you consider that Ashley’s original performances of the opera were extremely metered and that one would disregard this when mounting a performance.

So naturally, I was puzzled when the libretto didn’t line up with the video recording.

I thought at first that the Burning Books version was a poetically licensed reprinting, with new line breaks chorus parts and punctuation, based on artistic license.

Turns out, just the opposite. The libretto, the cue cards, the documentation, was all centered around the initial collaboration, the live performances that took place in the late 70s and early 80s. When the video was made, with the same collaborators, it seems that more liberties were taken with the meter. Blue Gene Tyranny’s piano and tape parts remained very metered, but Ashley’s reading, and the chorus parts became freer.

For example, the first three lines of Supermarket go like according to the original:

this shot is called remembering  the enormous
field the fence  *   we are on the inside 
looking out *   moving left *  it takes all day

You can hear this snippet on Peter Greenaway’s documentary found here. Go to 11:17 in the video to hear it. It gets spliced with a later section after “looking out” so you don’t get to hear the rest of it, but you get the idea… very very metered.

In the TV version (considered the definitive version by most) the first lines are delivered like this:

this shot is called remembering  the enormous field
the fence  we are on the inside
  looking out  moving left it takes
all day…

You can hear this snippet here. You can hear that Ashley’s not reading in the same meter as his original markings, nor is he sticking to following any 5-beat reading of any kind. Instead, he’s going for a new representation of the text, with new ebbs and flows, new stresses and inflections. This keeps it fresh.  (This doesn’t mean he disregards meter in all of his recitation throughout the TV version, it just means he’s more free with it here than in the original scores)

Originally, I thought version 1 = badass. A kind of musicianship that made incredibly structured recitation appear free. But then I heard the alternate recordings: Private Parts (released on Lovely Music) and MusicWordFire and especially the Bar episode. Plus I got to learn what the other Varispeed members were doing with their interpretations.

I decided to split the difference in my version, staying pretty true to the downbeats of the 5-beat measure, but speaking the rest of the line freely:
 *   this shot is called remembering  the enormous
field the fence  we are on the inside
looking out moving left it takes all day

You can hear that snippet here.You can also hear the complete bedroom demo recording and the score I made of the supermarket here in this older post.

So, how are the other members treating this idea of meter in their arrangements. And if this section is gone in a few days it’s cuz they don’t want me to divulge their secret recipes. Big deal, the Click says.

In the Park, Gelsey, chose to disregard the meter entirely, going more for the structured improvisation model, hinting at some of the original harmony, but certainly free with that as well. This is a great way to begin the day, everyone at ease, just listening to each other, feeling out pauses and breaths.

For the Bank episode, Brian has chosen to create a structured improvisation as well. This episode has two distinct sections: the verses and choruses. Because the radio You Coo Coo choruses are metered in 4 + 5 anyway, the 9-beat measure is very strong here. The verses consist of us keeping beat, some of us are keeping 9, some are not. Doesn’t matter, the whole thing’s in Ab anyway, so it works, and there’s a great momentum to this movement.

The Supermarket has two sections. One is exactly metered in 5, with a specific chord progression, we all follow this. The second is the free structured improvisatory section, taking material from the first section, but following my totally free recitation above all. Because of the need to a score for this episode, Brian will have to carry a giant posterboard score on his back as he moves around the supermarket. Some would call this a CON, but it’s fucking PRO in my book.

The Church is in 4, so it’s fairly easy to keep that beat throughout without thinking about it too much. The arrangement, created together after initial individual drafts didn’t work so well, plays more with timbre and repeated, easy-to-remember chord progressions than meter itself.

Aliza’s arrangement of The Backyard draws heavily from the original Private Parts recordings and features the tabla keeping a 6 beat pulse throughout (but disregarding the original 72 bpm) There is also no switch to 5 at certain sections, instead, Aliza has a lovely way of playing with when she reads in meter and when she reads freely. The chorus parts and final keyboard parts are strictly in 6.

For the Living Room, Dave has a fully notated score, with page turns and everything. Crazy! He has chosen to reorchestrate the episode for the new instrumentation, but to keep the section changes pretty similar. Though he introduces fermata and meter changes which enhance the flow and form of the episode.

Finally, the Bar is a big jam. Everyone has their own rhythm ideas for this one. Mr Dave Malloy holds a steady 7 beat piano riff throughout. Brian (as the narrator) and myself (as Buddy) read very differently. Brian more free, and me in 7 as often as I can confidently do it.  The glitzy little chorus and dapper-dressed instrumentalists just follow us and Dave. There is no score. There is no score in the Bar.

I could talk for Ashley’s meters forever. And I will update this post with some sources and suggested reading after my dog stops begging me to walk him.


One Comment leave one →
  1. November 5, 2011 12:02 am

    Personally, I’d say that the four beats per line of the Church only come up towards the end, and that in the reading of it, I’m playing more with the tempo of the reading than anything metrical. But that’s a whole other discussion.
    There’s a line somewhere where Bob wrote that he thought of creating some Carter-like metric modulations throughout the operas, but instead went with subdivisions of 72. It’s like we’re doing that but not with numbers. Or something.

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