Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Polyrhythms have so far bested me at the piano and in other areas when life demands I move in one direction while my mind plods steadily on its course. Or I may be marching along only to be distracted by the downbeat someone else is enjoying.

Picture fast, intentional walking with another person. You may need to accomplish half again as many steps as your partner. But you start together and together you end at the same spot. You are each walking alone together.

Hear a large group of people clapping rhythmically together to bring something about. They share the same downbeat. Let’s say one clap every four beats. Now insert a section of the auditorium clapping together but at a slightly different rate, say every three beats. In the following illustration with the accent on the first beat, there is a set of beats when both groups will clap in unison. But mostly they are working against each other. The downbeats are different but the result reverberates with interesting, complex and multi-faceted sound.

1    2    3    4    1    2    3    4    1    2    3    4    1

1    2    3    1    2    3    1    2    3    1    2    3    1

This intrigue with polyrhythms came to me while we were listening to Lang Lang play “La Campanella” from Grandes √Čtudes de Paganini, S 141/3. His mastery of the intervals reached by the right hand (two octaves and a second) and even larger with the left are amazing.

The complex rhythms and musical themes written by Stravinsky have always fascinated me. A favorite is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One.

Polyrhythms lead me to consider the differences in people. As we transition throughout life we meet people vibrating and bobbing to a different beat. They look at us and see the same. Their movements may be complex and difficult to understand. As long as our conflicting downbeats follow basic rules and we agree to accept the variations, we create harmony despite the tension.

Many roads lead from here to there. The footfalls vary, but harmonious companionship can be enjoyed and the variety appreciated when we accept differences. We may be pleasantly surprised by the goal we achieve.

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