Unsymmetrical times

Music from south-eastern Europe often uses times that differ from our all too familiar three-four time waltzes and common time marches. An interesting example is on the soundtrack of the film Gadjo Dilo, track 5, "Mama Me", sung and played by Adrian Simeonescu, accompanied by Orchestre Marin Ioan.

I could hear very well that there is something strange about it, but found it difficult to pinpoint exactly. So I started to experiment with Midi, to try and find out.
At first I just couldn't get it right just by varying the starting moment of the notes, and began to think it really had nothing to do with that, but that the trick was in the contradiction of making louder notes shorter (counts one and three) and longer notes quieter (two and four). A kind of dynamic rather than temporal syncopation. To my amazement, this does produce something like the real effect, without the need to involve any shift in time as you can hear in this midi file.

Later on, I tried again, and found it is actually a matter of times: The second and fourth notes start later, or in other words, the time between the start of the first note and the start of the second is longer than the time between the start of the second and the start of the third. (This of course is independent of the actual duration of those notes: the first note is shorter than the second).
The length ratio could be 6:5, or maybe 5:4. 5:4 seems more likely, because I suspect I sometimes think I really hear the cimbalom play the first 5 ticks. That would make it an 18/16 time, in which the first and third note occupy 10 counts, and the second and fourth 8 counts.

The combination of both temporal and dynamic syncopation, as could be expected, works best. In this version, I gave the 1st and third 3rd notes Midi velocity of 96 (max. is 128), and a length of 48 ticks out of a possible 96. The second note has a velocity of 60, and a length of 72, the fourth also has a velocity of 60, but a length of 60.
The second and fourth note were shifted forward in time by 11 midi ticks, to achieve ratios of 107:96 and 85:96, which is close to 5:9 and 4:9.

Note that Csokolom uses a similar rhythm in the song Anii Mei on both of Csókolom's CDs. The bass even starts with the same melody as in "Mame Me", although it develops into a totally different song.

The rhythm of Mame Me reminds me of nervous horses in front of a coach, who want to gallop though the coachman won't let them. Frédéric Chopin, in his Polonaise No. 5, achieved a similar effect. I don't know whether this also involved a temporal shift or not. I'll have to take a look at the score one day.

Title and name of this HTML file were inspired by Dave Brubeck's Unsquare Dance, from an album of which I can't remember the name, on which he also experimented a lot with many different kinds of weird times.

Addendum 15 June / 14 October 2003

Gregor Schaefer explained to me that what is played here is called Geampara in Romenia. The Geampara is in 7/8 time, divided as 2:2:3. The bass takes the first two beats together so it becomes 4:3.
And he is right (of course), now that I know, I clearly hear it on the record too, it's easy to count along, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3. So this page of mine is one more of those complicated ways to arrive at a very simple truth.
In my midi examples I changed the 5:4 to 4:3 by starting the second and fourth not 11 but 14 midi ticks too late. This is the same, but including the dynamic counter accent.

More about uneven Romenian dances here, and on Hein Krammer's site.

Gregor Schaefer also helped me identify those Dave Brubeck albums:

Colours: Neutral Weird No preference Reload