Polyrhythmic ramblings

Polyrhythmic.

I love that word. I can’t do what the definition suggests, at least not musically, but I like the idea.

Polyrhythm refers to multiple beats or two or more independent rhythms sounding at one time.

I’m not a math person (though I went to a few math contests and took a few courses until I surrendered and they carried me out of analytical geometry on a stretcher.) But the more I get into looking at the creative side of math, the more appreciative I am of the discipline. Kudos to our math teachers. I think your love for numbers is much like the English teacher’s love for words.

Anyway, I am a writer, not a mathematician, but I’m also a fledgling guitar player. Sometimes the wires get crossed in my brain, and I think…differently. I have a “mash up” of my passions, and the result is a blog like this.

For me, creating a polyrhythm on guitar is difficult. But it sounds great. Beautiful. The two rhythms add texture to the song, make it more interesting, and communicate a deeper message, perhaps even on a subconscious level. (Research has shown that listening to music affects blood pressure, emotions, creativity, etc. Look it up. It’s fascinating to discover the creativity God has woven in math through patterns and equations.)

But anyway…on to my analogy and the new phrase I’ve coined. Polyrhythmic writing.

Actually there’s nothing new about it at all. (But if you ever hear that phrase again, tell them I thunk it up. I Googled it and found no reference to what I’m talking about.) Writers have added layers to their writing since the beginning. We comprehend on deeper levels that we realize.

 Jesus spoke in parables.

Shakespeare was the master of penning puns. (Another little nifty thing Shakespeare does in his writing is to switch from verse to prose. When? Why? Usually when the commoners spoke, Shakespeare wrote their words in prose. He save the more eloquent verse for his heroes.)

Edgar Allan Poe created his tour de force, “The Bells,” by layering alliteration, onomatopoeia, and tempo over metaphor and message.

I love writing. I love the rhythm of life that echoes through the words of a poem, a short story, a novel, and the lyrics of a song. But what I really love is polyrhythm in writing—the beautiful creation that occurs when a writer creates two or more distinct rhythms in one piece of writing.

I don’t think most writers set out to do it. I think it just happens. Kind of serendipitiously. God inspired, God driven, God designed. Perhaps.

I’ve heard writers say that after they’ve gone back later to re-read something they had written, only to discover a hidden message or a metaphor that had slipped in. Cool, isn’t it. I think so.

I do a lot of celebrity interviews. What makes my writing a little different is that I weave their story around the theme. It’s as if there are two stories, two rhythms, happening at once.

When I read a novel or watch my favorite show, I’m hooked by realistic characters with whom I can identify. I’ll keep reading if the plot is intriguing. But my overall reading experience can be compared to the way I might enjoy a meal—eating a Raider Rib in my high school cafeteria as opposed to sitting at the Blues City Café on Beale Street, listening to authentic blues and kissing my fingers after downing a half rack of real ribs.

You know what I’m talking about.

When writers play with their words, create texture, layer it with metaphors, or spice it up with subtext—just the right amount of each, too much overwhelms—then the reader can savor all the flavors, not wash it down with a carton of milk that’s pushing the date that’s stamped on the outside. There’s more going on that one simple beat. The mind picks up on the underlying rhythm.

Ever watch Castle? I love the twinkle in his eye when he delivers his one liners that are layered with double meaning. Two messages. Two rhythms occurring at the same time. Adds flavor. Yum.

I’m not sure how I got here–howI jumped from polyrhythms in music to polyrhythmic writing.

It wall started when I was trying to find the words to a song I wanted to write. When I can’t put my feelings into words, I usually put them into song. But I can’t always find the words. Especially if the feelings run too deep. In the words of Sugarland, they’re like “melodies stuck up in [my] head.” (I kind of dig that reggae-rap thing Jennifer Nettles does—kind of catchy.)

The next thing  I knew I was thinking about math. Then I was thinking about polyrhythms. Then I found myself on the Internet, Googling polyrhythms. And then I found Steve Vai’s article.

You remember Steve Vai, right? He’s the great guitar player who was in the 1986 Crossroads movie with Ralph Macchio. He was the devil’s guitar player.

Thinking about the movie made me think about the great blues player Robert Johnson. As the story goes, he made a deal with the devil at the crossroads.

And when I thought about the devil at the crossroads, I thought about teaching English to my eleventh grade students last year. We were studying “The Devil and Tom Walker” by Washington Irving. I wanted to relate the story to something they could understand. I had a guitar player in my class, so I cpmpared the story to the movie Crossroads. “Scratch” was the name of the devil both in the story and the movie. We also compared the story to Charlie Daniel’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

And thinking about school made me think about what I’m doing right now. Sitting here with a guitar plugged into an amp waiting for me to pick it up and practice again. But the song that I can’t write keeps tugging at my heart. Arggg!

Life can be complicated. Underlying sadness topped with happiness here and there. Dreams mingled with reality. Yearning competing with responsibility. All of it wrapped in joy, though the joy may be tangled and hard to find at times.

Life is complicated. It doesn’t always make sense. But there is a rhythm to it, even if one beat is stacked atop another.

I guess that’s what makes life interesting.

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One thought on “Polyrhythmic ramblings

  1. Wow, great post! My husband is a musician and I asked him to name a song we both knew that has polyrhythms. He couldn’t think of one offhand. I’m not a musician, but I fiddled with MIDI files for awhile and I learned how to notate different rhythms. I played around a bit on the guitar myself, but as I told you, that darn F chord…

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