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This 19 message thread spans 2 pages: [1]  2  > >  
  time signatures  Team Gaughan at 08:07 on 07 November 2008

Recently I have found less and less use for time signatures in my pieces. Solo piano works or pieces for voice and piano seem pointless having them, and I am considering not using them at all, of course it is somewhat harder to deal with when there are more perfromers.

I find that time signatures simply just bar groups of notes together and have no reflection to rhythms or the flow of the music, actually they hinder the flow of the music.

I would be very interested in any thoughts about this. I am aware of Lutoslawskis free rhythms and people like Morton Feldman etc.

  Re: time signatures  BillyJardine at 16:37 on 09 November 2008

In my current work I have been using time signatures as a 'frame' in which the music is 'hung' like a painting. So recent pieces of mine have been in 3/4 throughout or 5/4 depending on how it has been composed (I use time-point systems a lot). My music is highly abstract so there are no strong beats or weak beats within the bars. They are just used as a guide for performance.
I do want to start using time signatures that reflect the pc set used although I haven't worked out an adequate method of doing this yet.

  Re: time signatures  Team Gaughan at 07:35 on 10 November 2008

Thank you, interesting indeed that you said you use time signatures as a frame to hang the pieces on. I tend to do something similar. Often for the performers to know where they are too. I always end up saying that the time signatures do not indicate beats or pulse.

  Re: time signatures  MartinY at 09:05 on 12 November 2008

It is fine to have no time signatures, even better no bar lines, in small pieces but remember beyond a certain point someone has to be able to conduct the piece. Even small ensemble pieces of 4 or more players can be impossible to play accurately without a conductor. It saves a heck of a lot of time if you have thought deeply about the practical layout of the playing parts, (cues, extra lnes of the other instruments, no impossible turns, etc.). It also makes for better relations with the players if the practicalities have all been thought through before the rehersal starts! Good luck.

  Re: time signatures  Misuc at 18:28 on 12 November 2008

I have not written in 'strict' time for years now. I write in a sort of compromise between traditional and graphic notation with bar lines to indicate frequent but not necessarily exatct coordination points. Performers do not usually find this ttoo hard to follow and the emphasis on responding concretely to musical events and to other players rather than purely to an abstract fixed regular metre lends an atmosphere of spontaneity, reality and also tension/fragility to a performance which I could not get so well by conventional notation (which would sometimes be impossible anyway - even in principle). Butit does take a particular effort and some work with composer and musicians. Sometimes things can go very wrong. [My 'Dizzy Spells' on the 'show case' gives some of the best and worst of this....] Reading panels, juries etc. seem to hate/misunderstand this sort of thing. It looks amateurish to them - not stylish or smart. But it is important to keep up the idea of music as an overwhelming experience not a commodity: an object in the form of a score [or even of a recording]......

  Re: time signatures  scott_good at 20:01 on 12 November 2008

some good points.

for me, the choice is all about the sound and efficiency of achieving that sound. time signatures indicate a hierarchy of rhythm, but it doesn't have to be strict - there can be rubato with meter.

one solution is to have the meter constantly shifting to accommodate flexible phrasing - very effective. i am always amazed at the number of "modern" pieces by young composers that just stick in large sections of the same meter...there is much room for creative expressiveness by having varying meters with various rubatos.

if you do not use time signatures, than that means to me that things do not need to line up exactly - rhythm is free to a certain extent based on how things are further notated (stems? lines? boxes? etc.). i find it quite annoying if one does not include meter but expects everything to be performed metrically in the horizontal relationships.

i am just at the tail end of a tour performing a new work for solo trombone and electric guitar + chamber orchestra called shock therapy variations. the entire form of the work can be regarded in terms of it's play with meter, non meter, and tempo. of the 5 movements, only one is composed entirely with meter - meter does appear at various sections throughout - at times for only 1 bar! but when we get to the 4th movement, the strictness of the meter has immediate impact due to the lack of meter in the previous 3 movements. + i go from a 4/4 rock to 7/8 to 13/8, and then mixed, then back to 4/4 but very fast, so the meter evolves with the emotional intensity. one composer came up and said it was scary as it got faster and driving (which is good - it was supposed to be) - i think that the impact is not just the music at that moment, but because of where it came from - it's context.

i use a variety of techniques in meterless music, much rooted in lutoslawski concepts because they work very well. the movement of the music can be based on the pacing of a single instrument from which next sections can be cues from the line (very effective and promotes good ensemble playing), or, just use time lengths to delineate sections. in one section i used 4/1 time at 0=20 (3 seconds per beat), so, huge beats for which the rhythmic interpretation within is loose, but a general pacing could be organized. it all depends on the sound you want, and devising the proper solution that implies what you want in both an intuitive way and an emotional way - not willy nilly and "clever". please, do not write without meter if you want things to be precise. experiment with the meter and tempo to find the best solution. i have performed too many works in which we have had to construct our own meters to facilitate a performance - waste of time - this is the composers job.

the last point is know who you are composing for. shock therapy was composed for a modern music performing group - they are good at this stuff. orchestra is a different beast, and any forays into the realm of non meter should be done with extreme caution - that is, if you want people to play your music.

but, good topic. this is a very under discussed and under exploited area of musical notation that deserves more attention.

  Re: time signatures  IanTipping at 23:04 on 12 November 2008

Good discussion. Really interesting stuff. I think the points that Scott makes are all really valid. I do a whole lot of freelance transcription/arranging work, often of very simple pop/rock music in order to keep the bank balance ticking over. The important thing about this is that in the vast majority of cases, this music was never notated until I came along and took it down from the recording in order that a group of performers can play the piece with the minimum of fuss. As a result, one has to make sure that everything you present on the chart has to be intuitively clear to the performer. This obviously is not always possible in complex compositions, where some explanation is almost inevitably likely to be necessary, but the point stands. Over time, writing out transcriptions/arrangments, combined with scoring in the serious music composing side of my life, it has become obvious that notation exists for the performer, not the composer/arranger. It only has a point when it is to communicate your wishes to the people who intend to play it. Now this may lead you down the route of removing time signatures/bar lines or utilising graphical notation and that may indeed be the best way to indicate what you intend, particularly in terms of the types of composition referred to by both Misuc and Scott. Please bear in mind, though, that if you do go follow that path, you're likely to end up with long periods in rehearsal when the performers, having screwed up a passage go 'right, let's take it from... erm, right, count from the beginning, one two three four minims....'. I've played in and witnessed too many rehearsals where something along these lines has happened, and not just in contemporary music. Singing early 'barline-free' music has also led to similar results, and it's telling that an awful lot of commercially available printings of such music has 'artificial' barlines added in order to make the music rehearsable. The resulting parts invariably lead to less annoyance, even if they can result in misinterpretation by ill-advised emphasis on incorrect notes (due to barlines giving the impression of 'strong' beats etc.). From the performers' point of view, keep the parts neat, clean and in 'standard' notation until it becomes impossible to indicate your intentions with those notational devices, or you may find that your music is cursed with being deemed 'unplayable' without any other reason than it's legibilty.

  Re: time signatures  Team Gaughan at 14:20 on 13 November 2008

So far I have used time signatures as it seems easier to do so. But recently I have been writing a lot of solo paino music and songs for voice and piano where the use of time signatures just seems totally pointless. The last piece I completed I simply wrote a note in the score saying the time signitures are simply a way of grouping phrases, but now even that seems a waste and easier to leave them out totally.

Of course the problem arises when the piece is for a large ensemble. When I am composing time signitures are the last or one of the last things I put in. I sketch the shape and phrases and contours of the music and only then add in time signitures to simply keep everyone together and so a conductor or director keeps eveything in one place. I am working on a piece at the moment where the soloist uses a form of space notation and no bar lines while the orchestra use 'normal' notation, it is an interesting way to compose.

All the comments are fasinating on the site on this subject

  Re: time signatures  MartinY at 11:28 on 30 November 2008

Can I make a suggestion of how to produce scores which use a time system not amenable to traditional barring.

You invent your own meta language which really suits what you want to do but can be expressed in alphanumeric characters. It is then relatively easy to write a computer program which transforms this into the input for one of the typesetting programs. A non WYSIWYG program like Lily Pond might be better than the WYSIWYG program because then the whole thing is just an alphanumeric transformation.

The meta language need not be marvellous or intended to be permanent. It must just be as suitable as possible for describing the note sequences and times you want. This process could be quite coarse, and the program crude because once in the conventional music typesetter all the usual markings, expression and niceties can be notated and added later.

Come to think of it your meta language might be translatable by pencil and paper so a program is not needed. I suppose this process is more or less what people do anyway so I might not be giving useful advice but I am thinking about doing this myself.

  Re: time signatures  Misuc at 14:53 on 30 November 2008

This sounds very interesting, but I don't believe I can think abstractly enough for that. By the time I'd worked that all out - if I could at all - I'd have lost the music/magic. Perhaps this is because I'm just basically second-rate.

I'm only writing this, however, because it so happens that my Sonata for 10 wind is up on the 'random listen' slot at the moment> I have found myself greatly moved by hearing it again. But then even 10th rate composers do tend to be moved by their own stuff, don't they? If it comes off it is largely due to the conductor (the late Lawrence Leonard) who insisted that I notate it traditionally, so as not to waste time in rehearsal. I tried - and this involved writing 10 in the time of 7 and 15:14 proportions etc. which, had they been part of a worked out 'system', would have been another example of the poncy, pompous, pretentious, written-note fetishism that I have more than once complained about. The way I did do it, however, the players took to like ducks to water. They interpreted the cross-rhythms quite freely (out of necessity) and found themselves floating with the stream, listening and responding, in cooperation with the clear flexible, responsive conductor's beat. Afterwards, Lawrence told me that he now saw why I might have preferred to write it in my usual relatively 'free' way - and that it might even have been easier that way.

Any 'algorhythm' or 'programme' that I invented would have to be based on players' interactions with one another as much as - or more than - with 'absolute' or even 'relative' durations as such. Somebody mentioned Feldman in this context - but his essays in this vein were early ventures in a potentially bigger and fascinating project.....

  Re: time signatures  MartinY at 16:16 on 30 November 2008

Do not worry about not thinking abstractly enough. That came to me from years of working on computer algorithms. Computers are so stupid that you must think everything out in complete and near perfect detail before they will work.... The private language to be translated can just be a modification of standard notation. I am sure this is what a lot of people do anyway.

We interact so strongly with the notation that we are not aware of it. I had to modify a lute piece written out in French Tablature earlier this year by composing more music. I found I could not do it.... even though I think of myself as being fluent in French tablature. I had to convert it back to normal notation in order to be able to write counterpoint. I could have written out an improvisation straight into tab but that composing procedure I could only do in "proper notes". Will listen to 10 wind instruments when I get to the quiet room..... Best wishes to all..... Martin.

  Re: time signatures  piargno at 16:50 on 30 November 2008

Great discussion - instead of adding on, I just have to say that the 4/4 time signature in Ligeti's piano etude "Autumne a Varsovie" can prove one of two things: time signatures can be useful for performers who can ignore them, and time signatures can be useful as an organization tool for composers who must also learn to ignore them.

In general, I'm a fan of using barlines without time signatures.

  Re: time signatures  MartinY at 19:15 on 30 November 2008

Barlines + no time signatures. It is great and very clear for the players in chamber music. I am a dodgy conductor about 4 or 5 days a year and this notation is a nightmare, as I can't anticipate the bar lengths. Either I should know the music (costs somebody time) or dare I suggest: time signatures (i.e. what beats to give), in the score and plain bars in the parts?

  Re: time signatures  MartinY at 19:34 on 30 November 2008

There is a notation which everyone can read, which plucked instrument players and viol players call "violin notation". Suppose a piece is in 4-parts. You write it all in one stave in the treble clef. Every vertical event is on only one stem. Notes are beamed in beats / groups, and every note is expected but not notated to ring on so there is only one voice which has lots of chords in it.

The music might look a bit like Bach's famous Chaconne in D-minor. Though crude this notation gives a clear representation of the time events and is compact for sketching out what is going on. An orchestral sketch in 3 staves of this notation could carry a lot of information and be both compact and clear, though a lot of voice information is potentially lost. Bars could be very irregular and not the same on each stave. Translation to score could be done into the clearest possible notation.

  Re: time signatures  piargno at 23:12 on 30 November 2008

With all of this back and fourth about performers needs and conductors needs, I think we all can conclude that IN GENERAL, solo and smaller chamber works don't necessarily need time signatures, barlines, or both. But works requiring a conductor (large chamber to orchestral) need some sort of information which the conductor can use to keep the ensemble together. Obviously Earle Brown's music doesn't need time signatures and barlines, but it has lines of section separation and cue numbers, and it has gestures which can be conducted.

I also think, and perhaps I'm jumping the gun by saying this, that composers using time signatures and barlines for music which doesn't really need it only for the conductors sake should stick to using easy time signatures (like 2/4 to 6/4) and any combination of these WHENEVER POSSIBLE. (Obviously there will be times when one might need a 5/8 or a 3/8, but these are still easy, "conducting-in-one-or-two" patterns.)

The music of Julian Silverman is fascinating.

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