If You Have To Ask…

…you’ll never know. That’s the legendary answer to the question “What is swing?” I suppose that might be the reasonable response to the questions I have about some points raised in the must-read interview Nicholas Payton gave to Ethan Iverson over at Do the Math. But still, I’ll ask. Payton and Iverson talk about working with classical musicians, and I wonder exactly what is going on in situations like this:

EI:  I haven’t had the experience of having a full orchestra read something that I wrote, but I’ve been around a lot of classical musicians trying to play something with an American beat and it’s always worse than expected.

NP:  I’m really shocked.

EI:  Even basic even-eighth note syncopations won’t lay right.

NP:  And triplets! Triplets really messed them up, and I thought, “Well, it’s a triplet.”

EI:  It’s funny because they can probably play five in the time of four, but really playing three in the time of two will hang them up, right?

I don’t doubt what these gentlemen are saying, I just wonder what is going on when the “even-eighth note syncopations won’t lay right”. Rushing? dragging? inconsistency? steady, but incorrectly placed with regard to the pulse? something with accentuation or articulation? How about when the “triplets really messed them up”? It partly depends on whether we are talking about slow or fast triplets. When I ask my musicianship students to execute a moderately slow three against two, a few of them can’t play the triplets evenly, and end up doing a pattern of two dotted eighths and an eighth note instead of three equal triplet quarters. Was that happening? The thing is, you obviously have to play even-eighth note syncopations and three in the time of two to play European classical music well. But something was going wrong in the situations Iverson and Payton describe, and I am curious as to exactly what it was.

I have to say I don’t know anybody who can do a precise five against four who can’t play a good three against two. But, again, what does it mean to play a good three against two?

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