Rhythm in Light Delays

I’m right about finished with the first draft of Light Delays. I haven’t used a totally rigid rhythmic process to write a piece in a while, so figured it would be worth noting what I did for when I inevitably go revise a couple things. And since I have a fancy new website…hey, blog post about how I generated the rhythm in Light Delays!

One of my favorite things to do on guitar is play with delay pedals. These take whatever you feed into them and play it back later, sometimes over and over, at some predetermined time interval. Just like an echo, except you’ve got a lot of control over the parameters and can do things like have delays on delays (this is called feedback) or put other effects only on the delayed sound. I wondered what it would be like to turn three members of a string quartet into a set of delay pedals for one player to plug into, and, voila, piece.

The first thing I did was come up with a rhythm for the delays that I dug. I used Clarence Barlow’s concept of metrical indispensability (here’s an article on that if you want to go deep) to figure out what beats and subdivisions were most important for being able to discern a time signature – in this case, 3/4 – and ranked the 16th notes in a bar of 3/4 in order of importance. That translates to an ordering of

11 0 6 3 / 9 1 7 4 / 10 2 8 5

with the higher numbers being more important for being able to hear that you’re in 3/4.

I figured the cello part, which I had decided would be the soloist plugged into the human delay pedal, would get more and more active throughout the piece, so that more and more notes in the rhythm would be filled in. I simply used the numbers that Clarence’s formula gave me and made it so that, at full texture with the cello playing on the first 16th of the measure, the notes would get filled in in order from least to most important.

Here’s the order of delays I worked out to make that happen:

The plan for the rhythm in Light Delays

The rhythmic plan for Light Delays

The viola plays what the cello plays a 16th note later, then violin 2 is a quarter behind that, then violin 1 is a quarter behind that, then viola takes that note 7/8ths later, followed by the quarter delays in the violins, then a 3/16ths delay back into violin 2 and a final quarter delay into violin 1.

To build it up over time, I set it up so that the second and third lines in the above chart would also be delayed by 7 bars. I had started with a repeating 7 bar phrase for the melody, so that would make it into a nice sort of chorale that gets filled in over time.

Notating this, as you can imagine, was a hassle that convinced me I really need to learn some more coding. But I mocked up the delay sound using a ridiculous chain of aux sends in Ableton:

A chain of sends in Ableton Live

There is almost certainly a better way to do this.

What became very interesting, as composing went on, was what would happen when I changed the apparent tempo of the cello part without changing the delay settings or tempo of the piece. If I’d have the cello play a note from its melody on, say, every fifth quarter, or every sixth, or on off-beats, the delays reacted in really unpredictable ways that you wouldn’t even hear the full extent of for 21 bars. I can already hear a second movement (or second piece?) in which the cello plays the same rhythm (maybe even the same line?) but the delay settings are totally different, and it ends up sounding totally different. This is a process I’m definitely gonna come back to for generating cool rhythms. Probably with slightly better automation in the future.