The Dance of Eternity
One of our reading assignments concerns the free exploration of the full range of tones available, without regard for adhering to standard conventions (scales). I support doing this in the practice room. (The performance isn’t the time to get cute.) The other fundamental part of music that has a standard structure that is often ignored is rhythm. “Common time” (4/4) is four notes to a beat, the standard “1 2 3 4” that everyone knows. It is also somewhat common to play with a rhythm that is not at all like 4/4.
Go to YouTube and watch a music video for “The Dance of Eternity” by Dream Theater. (In fact, listen to that whole Scenes from a Memory album, and while you’re at it, listen to every Dream Theater song that’s posted, particularly “Under a Glass Moon” and “Stream of Consciousness”.) In a few places, the rhythm is fairly normal, no matter how bizarre it is to hear a ragtime piano solo in the middle of that song. Most of the rest of the song is not in standard four-four time, but rather “chaos-four” time. I do not quite consider it free time, as there is a clear structure and plan that they’re following (at least clear to them), but I’ve thought about how I would write the music, and I’m clueless about what kind of time signature I would use for most parts of the song. They at least have the decency in “Stream of Consciousness” to play in 5/4 for a while, and “Under a Glass Moon” isn’t even that weird.
I have a transcription (by someone else) of “The Dance of Eternity”. Here are the time signatures of eight consecutive measures: 3/8, 7/16, 2/4, 7/16, 5/8, 7/16, 2/4, 3/8. For the few seconds of music in those eight measures, the choices make sense to me. At the same time, the meter is supposed to be a guide to the performer about what the rhythm is, more or less. It will mathematically work out (eventually) to write something in 4/4 even if it really lasts five beats (after 20 beats, everything works out), but it would be extremely misleading in my opinion to write the Mission Impossible theme in 4/4 time, expecting the performers to catch up every five measures.
I don’t know how to handle something as bizarre as the Dream Theater example. The best I can do is to use something like a dotted vertical line to denote the end of a measure, suggesting to the performer to take my notation with a grain of salt: don’t expect the time signatures to be at all helpful in learning the song.
Now consider Tool’s song “Schism”. I’ve always seen the main riff with the quick triplet written in alternating 5/8 and 7/8. That is not the least bit helpful in clarifying what the rhythm should be, though it’s completely correct. However, combining 5 and 7 to write the riff in 12/8 is probably worse. There’s no triplet rhythm as 12/8 typically indicates. (The “triplet” to which I referred is just a quick flash of three notes; it is unrelated to the triplet rhythm suggested by 12/8 time.)
I think one sign of a good songwriter is the ability to write something good that is difficult to notate.