Most everyone can find the beat, but can the beat find you? Does the beat sneak up on you and trip you as you’re walking down the stairs? Has the beat ever slide-tackled you off the stage? Or perhaps thrown a cymbal at your head to try and decapitate you?
Everyone can follow the beat to some degree; even deafies and the rhythmically-challenged end up locked in the world’s ubiquitous groove. Just let it penetrate your open ears and entrain your brain, so you can comfortably bop your head along. We are ‘children of the riddim’ after all; our hearts kick like kick-drums at an even pulse of 60 beats per minute.
However, after playing drums for several years, I find it hard to forgo the beat, if I were so inclined. I long for that blissful ignorance of the novice, stranded in a chaotic sea of time and sound with nothing to hold onto.
So, we let the beat find us by letting go and losing the beat. We set it free. What professional musicians call “to be tripped up,” similar to that feeling of a phantom step at the end of a staircase. Author Vladimir Nabokov describes this childlike experience in his autobiography Speak, Mnemosyne.
Another part of the ritual was to ascend with closed eyes. “Step, step, step,” came my mother’s voice as she led me up—and sure enough, the surface of the next tread would receive the blind child’s confident foot; all one had to do was lift it a little higher than usual, so as to avoid stubbing one’s toe against the riser. This slow, somewhat somnambulistic ascension in self-engendered darkness held obvious delights. The keenest of them was not knowing when the last step would come. At the top of the stairs, one’s foot would be automatically lifted to the deceptive call of “Step,” and then, with a momentary sense of exquisite panic, with a wild contraction of muscles, would sink into the phantasm of a step, padded, as it were, with the infinitely elastic stuff of its own nonexistence.
I’ve always loved songs that can evoke this phantasmal feeling, either through an odd-time meter or the lack of rhythmic context. The latter can be heard in the Phish song “It’s Ice”.
The guitar riff seems to begin on the One, but it actually doesn’t. The drums enter on an off-beat fill, which makes for a brief delicious moment of rhythmic chaos, before the drums settle into a syncopated 4/4 beat. The phantasmal feeling remains for the next bar or two, washing over us like a wave, while we realign ourselves to the correct beat. (Also, notice the Benny Hill bass-line.)
A recent example of an odd-time phantasm can be heard in “Hack or Shack” by the Argentinian band Fernandez 4. The piano and vocals sound like they’re on the beat, but they’re actually playing a polyrhythm of dotted quarter notes, floating atop three measures of 7/8 time, which is the backbeat defined by the entrance of the drummer.
One measure of 7/8 = 14 semiquavers
Fourteen dotted quavers = 42 semiquavers = three measures of 7/8
Can you think of any musical phantasms that trip you up or throw you off? Please put them in the comments below.