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Non-Geometrical Rhythm in European Traditional Music— Conceptualisation, Transcription, and Notation

This paper was given at the symposium European Voices VI—Singing, Song, and Sound, on September 30, 2021 at Wiener Volksliedwerk in Vienna, Austria. The symposium was organised by Forschungszentrum für Europäische Mehrstimmigkeit—Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Wien, Wiener Volksliedwerk, and Österreichische Volksliedwerk.

A publication of the papers from the symposium is currently in progress. 

In singing traditions, it is common for the text to take priority over strict musical time, warping the subdivision-grid that lays at the foundation of our Western understanding of rhythm. As most —if not all—instrumental traditions exist alongside a vocal tradition, this ‘bending the grid’ is assimilated into the instrumental style through shared repertoire, osmosis, or both—becoming an integral stylistic feature. Thus one of the major remaining problems in notating music from a field recording is finding a medium that not only represents the spectral content, but also contains essential musical information like metre, without over-saturating the transcription to a point where it is of little practical use. 


With the rise of digital accessibility, it can be argued that the function of the transcription has changed. It no longer has to describe a music that the reader cannot hear, but can instead illustrate elements not readily audible in a recording. 


Taking a cue from Iannis Xenakis’ description of notation as the “spatialisation of time”, and drawing on the work of musicologist Sven Ählbäck and composer Aaron Cassidy, this paper presents a method that combines conventional transcription, spatial notation, and the possibilities offered by spectral analysis. Representing the duration of a note spatially, it allows the notated rhythms to describe the material’s placement within the strong and weak beats of the meter. This hybrid phonetic/phonemic transcription facilitates a precise but easily comprehensible notation and visualisation of the non-geometrical rhythms common in European traditional music. 


Examples in the paper included transcriptions of music in both vocal and instrumental styles, such as Weana Tanz, Polska, and Mazurek, as each presents unique notational challenges in terms of rhythm and metre. 

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