Rainer Polak, the Swingin’ Ethnomusicologist

Polak Featured

Last month I was able to attend a conference at the University of British Columbia on the theme of “Analytical Approaches to World Music. There were a lot of great talks, but the speaker that really grabbed me was Rainer Polak, a German Ethnomusicologist. He studies Djembe drumming styles in Mali and Guinea, and especially in studying the time feel of different styles and cultures.

His area of focus is on precise measurement of minute rhythmic variations and deviations. These variations cannot be translated into written musical notation, and are often unnoticed by listeners as well. Listeners often “correct” such variations unconsciously, or dismiss them as performance error or idiosyncratic individual performance style. Polak claims that these practices are actually essential structural elements of the music, very important to performance. His research has shown that these variations are remarkable consistent across a performance and even across entire genres of djembe music. These variations manifest themselves in a certain unevenness in the length of the subdivisions within a beat, in which some are played longer, and some shorter. This concept is sometimes called a “swing feel,” and is present in many other kinds of music around the world.

The paper that Polak presented at this conference, demonstrated a very interesting manifestation of this idea. He analyzed a style of music which is observers sometimes perceived as a triple meter, and sometimes quadruple, with no distinction being made by performers or enculturated listeners. Polak shows that the kinds of swing feel used in this music makes the distinction between these two meters very thin. A single performance was able to move fluidly between them without any discontinuity or awkwardness.

This phenomenon made me think of other kinds of music which make use of a blurred distinction between triple and duple meters. The simultaneous use of duple and triple rhythms is important and very characteristic of so many African and African diasporic styles of music. Music which makes extensive use of 3:2 polyrhythms remains a subject of debate for Ethnomusicologists, especially on the subject of whether music can be “in” more than one meter at a time. This concept of a swing feel which enables a movement between duple and triple gestures might be very useful for this debate. It might be that a similar kind of swing feel is present in highly polyrhythmic music as well, allowing both kinds of rhythms without requiring there to be multiple simultaneous meters.

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