Triplets (Musical, not Identical or Fraternal)

By Maggie Symington, Concentus Member

This Spring, Concentus’ conductor Gwen Gassler has again delighted the chorus with a diverse repertoire, from early music (Ave Regina Caelorum, by Guillaume Dufay, 15th century) to a song by one of our favorite local composers, Philip Silvey (Assistant Professor of Music Education at the Eastman School of Music); from the sacred, to the sublime (Rick Bartlett’s Nocturne setting of a moving poem by the deaf-blind Dr. Robert Smithdas*); in French and Latin, in addition to English. Coincidentally (or not?), many of the songs have complex and challenging rhythms. One of the pieces, for example, fluctuates between 4/4 and 3/4. But as Gwen explained, the composer’s goal was to achieve a chant-like quality, and she counseled us to “get rid of the bar lines.” Easier said than done!

Roughly half of our songs make significant use of what I think of as tricky triplets. I remember in the sight-singing portion of my college Music Theory class, I always cringed when asked to beat 3 in one hand against 2 in the other—I just couldn’t coordinate it. It was like trying to pat your head and rub your belly simultaneously. But luckily, I learned how to sing a triplet.

Occasionally, a composer seems to use arbitrary rhythms. Other times, a certain rhythm just feels right (try singing My Favorite Things in quarter time and you’ll see how awkward that is!). When employed artfully, the musical rhythm feels dictated by the lyrics, as it seems in Nocturne with its haunting imagery (this line always chokes me up when I sing it):

And I love how Bartlett’s use of the eighth-note triplet in one measure gives the lyric a sense of urgency, and in the next, the quarter-note triplet feels like time is being stretched:

Our goal is not just to sing the notes, but to communicate the rhythmic richness of the lyrics and rhythm, and make it appear effortless. And on May 15, we’ll get that opportunity!

* Watch an interview of Bob Smithdas by Barbara Walters (YouTube)

Posted: April 08, 2016

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