Time Out

Dave Brubeck’s classic LP Time Out presented an experimentation with complex time signatures to both the jazz world and to the general public. (Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” sold hundreds of thousands of records in 1959. We may never again see straight-up jazz break into the pop music mainstream like that.)

We church musicians have very little of this. We have the free flowing music of plainsong, of course. Well over 95 percent of our metered Christian repertoire is in either three or four time. An occasional tune in 2. Very occasional in 6/8, though perhaps a bit more in contemporary music.

I confess I like a tune with a compound meter. The first Marty Haugen song I was ever exposed to was “Burn Bright” from the LP With Open Hands. The verses are in ten-eight time (2+2+3+3) and the refrain is in 7/8. I like seven. At the Newman Community, the trick was to keep the vocal line legato, and let the instruments maintain the tempo with a minimum of drive. When I was involved with a prison ministry in the 80’s, the group’s music director utilized the song–she really liked it. The prisoners sang it. I mentioned this to Marty when I met him in 1988. He was amazed. I got the idea it was a fun piece to compose and play, but the publishers didn’t seem to take it seriously. The song never made it into GIA hymnals. And I’ve never been to another parish that sung it–aside from my university parish, the church I attended while in grad school. And the county jail, of course.

My new parish’s musicians and singers have a challenge this Easter. Brought back (from Christmas) by popular demand (of the music directors), is Howard Hughes’s Joyful Alleluia (number 262 in Gather Comprehensive, first edition). How easy it is for the seven-eight time to slip into a syncopated 4/4. I first heard and sang this piece as a guest musician in my friend Mike’s church well over twenty years ago. I remember seeing a four-part arrangement for this 1973 composition (I remember Mike singing the bass line), but when I called GIA, they had no record of it. Maybe Mike’s director arranged it. Lacking a published choral version, I harmonized the acclamation myself.

Do you know the piece? The cantor leads a double alleluia in four different pieces. We use the Gather Comp chant tone from the LBW set to Easter verses. The compound meters inject a bit of fun into the liturgy. Easter would seem to be ideal for it. I’m fortunate to have musicians who can handle this, and not draw too much attention to the unusual. What about you?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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6 Responses to Time Out

  1. Todd,
    If you or your trad choir director wanna have some metric fun, try doing John Rutter’s arrangement of “The Donkey Carol” in 7/4. It is both a bear and a hoot.

  2. Todd says:

    I’ll look it up. You jogged my memory for an arrangement of “On Jordan’s Bank” in 7/4. I tried a variant on it one year in Kansas City. Interesting.

  3. Liam says:

    English polyphony in the age of Tallis, Byrd and Gibbons was particularly splendid in playful off-center syncopations, rhythmic interplay, and harmonic cross-relations. (I won’t get into the massive canonical intricacies of pre-Tridentine polyphony.)

    Here’s a wonderful example (especially between the :35-:56 marks) in Byrd’s setting of Haec Dies (This is the day the Lord has made, et cet.):

  4. Liam says:

    And, more soberly but also splendidly, a classic text for the Transfiguration set by Tallis:

    These works by Byrd and Tallis are very distinctively English polyphony – you’d never find Palestrina or Lassus writing quite this way. The text-painting is more playful, the deliberately counter-intuitive stresses, and the sometimes outright dissonant cross-relations (the last phrase of the Tallis is perhaps the most famous, as it’s a double-layered dissonance, both involving the second tenor line but in relation to different voices).

    I bring these up because this music is not entirely unrelated to what the English brought with them across the Atlantic when they planted there empire here. Sure, the folk music of the British Isles is the foreground, and it’s hard to see obvious connections in what the Puritans barked as English psalmody for worship in the 17th century, but in Tallis-Byrd-Gibbons one sees at a high level of art some things that are characteristic of a national idiom, and it has residue in what developed here in later centuries.

  5. Tony Barr says:

    What a refreshing review! Instead of trashing the work, often courageous, of our contemporry song writers, such an internal review of rhythm and melody is a much-welcomed addition to our liturgical critique.

    I am a published composer, better known in the UK, Canada and the Australia than in the US. I have been writing songs in compound rhythm most of my life, inspired by Benjamin Britten, Bill Tamblyn and especially Bernard Huijbers, I’m a rabid Pink Floyd fan (my icons of abnormality) and have sung everything from Plainsong to Howells, Durufle, Messiaen.

    I see rhythm as inherent to text. Text is of prinmary concern and cannot be shoe-horned into pre-existing rhythms. Text is a living language and via use of compound rhythms, syncopations, and respect for accent can put a living song into the hearts, minds and mouths of our assemblies. Dull music abounds, which results in less than inspiring liturgies.

    I have been in the game since the mid 1960s. which according to Mike Joncas makes me an elder. But my music is youthful, bold and compelling. Imagine! Can’t say that about most of the songs in our Catholic hymnals

  6. Heavens to Betsy, TONY BARR!
    Nice to hear from and about you. I just hit 40 years in service this last January, but you and Bob Fabing (and the SLJ’s) are the real greybeard deal! Keep posting.

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