Baker's Student Encyclopedia of Music

Polymeter

The simultaneous use of several different meters. Polymeter dates back to the RENAISSANCE. For example, Spanish dance music used double TIME SIGNATURES, A against 8. In operatic usage, polymeter is encountered in scenes descriptive of simultaneous uncoordinated action, known under the name IMBROGLIO, IGOR STRAVINSKY used this technique in PETROUCHKA. However, it is primarily in 20th-century music that polymeter has come to the fore. ELLIOTT CARTER employs METRIC MODULATION by changing meter and TEMPO in polyphonic writing. At the points of modulation, some players would be thinking in the present meter and tempo, while others would be viewing their music in terms of the next meter and tempo. Ben Johnston's Knocking Piece (1962) for two percussionists and piano lid is a tour de force of reinterpreting time and MEASURE, virtually measure by measure.

Perhaps the most remarkable instance of contrapuntal polymeter is found in the second movement of THREE PLACES IN NEW ENGLAND (composed 1903-14) by CHARLES IVES. This famous section illustrates the meeting of two marching bands, each playing similar marching tunes at the same time, although they are playing at different tempi, in the ratio 3, so that four bars of the faster march equal three bars of the slower. In his original manuscript Ives coordinated these different tempos within the uniform measures in 4 time, marking cross-accents wherever they occurred. Ives incorporated in the published score an alternative arrangement with non-coincidental barlines, in clear polymetric notation.

Among examples of implicit polymetry not marked as such by time signatures is the coda of ROBERT SCHUMANN'S Piano Concerto (1845), where the systematic SYNCOPATION in the piano part in 4 time results in a polymetric combination of 2 in the piano part versus two bars of 4 in the orchestra.

In GEORGE GERSHWIN'S I GOT RHYTHM, the implicit polymetry consists of one bar in i6 time, four bars of i6 time, and one bar of i6 time, adding up to i6, that is, 4, which is the notated time signature. Sometimes the term polymetry is applied, inaccurately, to a succession of different time signatures. The proper term for such usages is changing meters.

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