The Power of Groove (2005)

published in The Double Reed (excerpt)

… Now on to some thoughts about my main topic, the incorporation of “grooves” into chamber and orchestral music. What are grooves? The tricky thing about them is that they cannot be defined and understood by words alone. They can only be fully enjoyed and comprehended through experience, either while performing or listening. The good news is that between the two possibilities most of us are susceptible to them. To be “in the groove” is a state of mind. To play “in the pocket” feels mighty good. Having said all that, let me still try a purely verbal definition: Grooves are rhythms, which, when played with a certain amount of precision (“in time”) and with the right feel, possess an inherent forward propulsion which in turn creates an almost inevitable physical reaction in the listener (and the performer). Offbeats are major ingredients in many of these rhythms and are often responsible for their perceived forward propulsion. Examples for the physical reaction I just mentioned would be audience members tapping their feet at a good jazz concert, people ecstaticly dancing to a “cookin’” salsa rhythm, the bass player moving to his own rhythm while playing an ostinato part, etc. All this happens subconsciously; no one contemplates it ahead of time (“Should I tap my foot now or not?”), and we hardly have a defense mechanism against a well-played groove! Grooves can be found in musical styles such as jazz, pop, rock & roll, afro-cuban music, samba, and generally in all kinds of world music. For the purpose of this article I’d like to exclude the kind of rhythms often found in minimalist music. For my feeling many of them lack the above described forward propulsion and are more static in nature, but I realize that my perception is subjective and debatable. Still, here I’d like to concentrate on the kind of rhythms that one would encounter in, say, Joe Zawinul’s band.

The prospect of convincingly incorporating grooves into chamber music or orchestral settings is the single most compelling incentive for me to write concert music. And let me say that I am not aiming at pops. I’d rather like to think of it as Lutoslawski having a chat with the members of Weather Report, Schoenberg being an honorary member of the Buena Vista Social Club, or maybe Elliot Carter sporting a BT T-Shirt! It gives me great joy and satisfaction to try to find ways to successfully translate, say, a funk rhythm into the idiom defined by a viola-bassoon duo. And translating it really is. Just as when rendering a sentence from one spoken language into the other, the best results are not achieved when trying to mimic everything word by word, but by expressing the meaning of what you want to say in the second language’s inherent idiom. In many cases it will not be satisfactory to write a line that would sound good on an electric bass and then assign it note by note to a bassoon. In reality, to stay within the playing idiom of the bassoon, the line most likely will have to be adapted. Some notes will have to be omitted, added or changed, and other musical attributes will have to be implied. Which brings us back into the territory of “things that sound very good on the bassoon” …

To try to stay within the playing idiom of a particular instrument is a crucial issue to me when writing groove-oriented concert music. Another is translating sounds from idiom to idiom. How do I make a big, fat backbeat, which in Rock & Roll usually is assigned to the snare drum, work in a Beethoven Septet-type ensemble? Of course one could always add a drum set, but I’d much rather try to achieve my goal within the original setting. How about marcato clusters in double stops on “2″ and “4″ around or below middle C in violin & viola? What about staccato notes on the same beats in diatonic second intervals between clarinet and bassoon? Or how about short, dissonant pizzicato chords in violin, viola and violoncello instead? The possibilities are almost endless; they are limited only by how far we want to go in imagining desired effects and implying them with the means available.

The book has not been written yet on how to successfully deal with groove- oriented music in chamber music ensembles or orchestras. The subject is not being taught yet at classical music conservatories (jazz and popular music departments aside), neither on the performing nor the composing end. We are all still in a very exciting, experimental phase.

But why has it not been taught so far? Groove-oriented music has been around for a long time, at least since the beginnings of jazz. Students in classical composition programs already learn about techniques which have been invented much more recently. Composition classes teach how to apply aleatoric elements, nonpitch serialism, algorithms, clusters, orchestral sound effects, etc., but not how to write a good groove for a given instrumentation. Instrumental students are asked to master performance practices from Renaissance and Baroque Music to Penderecki, but are not required to be able to groove like [the late Weather Report bass player] Jaco Pastorius.

I think the subject should be taught, for reasons I’ll soon explain. I know that it can be taught, as I went through a great 4 semesters of rhythm training at the Jazz Department of the Musikhochschule in Graz, Austria. The teacher of the course, one of Austria’s finest drummers named Erich Bachtraegl, had put together a workbook in which he included rhythms in all kind of styles: jazz, funk, rock & roll, bossa nove, samba, various afro-cuban rhythms, etc. Most of the rhythms were notated in one staff and thought to be for one “instrument”, some of them were conceived as duets. The task for us students was to make up our own syllables to these rhythms, practise them in scat and perform them individually (or as a duo) in front of the class. This had the potential of being really embarrassing so one had better practise! But once you started to “get” the rhythms, to feel that you were “in the pocket” while performing, this was highly gratifying and great fun. And Erich really pushed us hard, so after 4 Semesters we all emerged rhythmically much more sound and with more determination than ever to keep looking for the “zone in which the groove resides”! (In the meantime Erich has turned his manuscripts into a book that I highly recommend called “Modern Rhythm & Reading Script”, published by Helbling. It includes an audio CD containing realizations of the exercises and is written bi-lingual in English and German, order # HI-S4050, ISBN 3-85061-187-6,

The next step after mastering grooves in this most immediate and direct way – by using your voice – would be to translate these advancements to one’s instrument. What many of us have found helpful here is to scat/sing the rhythm while practising it on the instrument, thereby synchronizing the way we feel the groove internally with our finger movements. That works just fine if you’re a pianist, but maybe not so well if you’re a wind player … I have found the following to be particularly effective for any instrument: in a 4/4 meter, set the metronome on “2″ and “4″ and play along. If you are “in the groove”, you will feel it and will want to stay in it. If you arenÕt, you will feel nothing and will have to raise your level of precision and/or apply better feel in order to get there. For advanced training, set the metronome on “4″ only (in 3/4 , set the metronome on “3″, in 5/4 on “3″ and “5″, or “2″ and “5″, depending on the subdivision of the beat). But how do we acquire the right “feel”? I think by listening to the kind of music that served as the source of inspiration to the composer before he/she translated it into the concert idiom. And I’d say, only listen to the best. If it’s jazz, listen to John Coltrane and Miles Davis. If it’s funk, check out the Brecker Brothers. If it’s pop/rock, try the Police. Of course, the list goes on.

Now, back to why “How to perform/write a groove” really should be taught at a classical conservatory or music department. The burning question for us, who compose and/or perform concert music, is: how do we get, and keep, young audiences interested in what we do? It’s almost a question of survival, because if young generations aren’t excited about what we do presently, who will be 30 years from now?

Let’s first see which kinds of music are popular with young audiences. Pop, rock & roll, electronic dance music and to a certain degree jazz and world music seem to be the winners. What is it that is so attractive about these musical styles? Could it be the melodies? In many cases yes, but if you take out melodies you still have styles like Drums & Bass or Ambient which many young people love. Could it be the lyrics? Also a partial yes, but there are many examples of very popular instrumental tunes. How about attractive harmonies? Yes again, as proven by the Beatles or Sting, but there is much successful one-chord work being done, particularly in the world of Techno.

After all, could it be the rhythm? Ballads aside, try taking the groove out of, say, an up-tempo Top-40 hit and see what you’re left with. Nothing!! Much of the music described above simply doesn’t work without the power of the groove that drives it! Without groove this music collapses. Try Guns & Roses without the backbeat, Charlie Parker without the swing, Tito Puente without the clave – instant failure! And this, to me, indicates that rhythm, in the form of groove, is the most powerful component of what draws young audiences to their favorite music!

Considering this, it surprises me that the concert music world has not yet fully embraced the concept of groove. It seems like a missed opportunity. It’s not that there is no groove-oriented concert music out there. Many of us are aware of the well-known jazz- and rock-influenced compositions by Gershwin, Ravel, Stravinsky, Turnage, Schickele, Daugherty, et al. It’s just that the message hasn’t fully come through yet. The necessary skills for authentically playing and composing groove rhythms are presently not being taught at classical conservatories and music departments; the concept has not yet been institutionalized (an exception to this that I am aware of is at CalArts in Valencia, CA, where David Johnson in his rhythm course teaches classical instrumentalists how to groove, and also jazz players how to read complex rhythms found in contemporary concert music).

From the composer’s point of view, incorporating grooves would simply mean adding another compositional technique to the already established ones. This would come at no expense to other devices that we have already been using, nothing would have to be sacrificed or watered down. It would still be crucial to write good themes, good counterpoint, interesting harmonies, to use the colors of the instruments wisely, incorporate orchestral effects, to be mindful of form and development, etc. Everything would stay as is, except we’d be adding this enormously powerful element of groove to our vocabulary. The same goes for instrumentalists. Working on one’s ability to groove doesn’t mean that playing in tune, producing a beautiful sound, phrasing, etc., becomes less important. The players that I have had a chance to work with on my own compositions have done a superb job in authentically performing the grooves that I had written for them. However, only a small minority of them had been exposed to grooves in the course of their education (e.g. in jazz courses). Most of them acquired their feel for grooves “on the job” by working in the Los Angeles recording studios, or by privately listening to various kinds of groove-oriented music. Wouldn’t it be great if future generations of classical musicians had a chance to learn about grooves early on, as part of their curriculums?

I strongly believe, that if we fully integrate grooves into the concert music world, it will have the most positive effects on all of us. The grooves, when written and played right, will serve as points of reference to young audiences and make it more attractive for them to listen to what we do. On the way we will also have introduced an element for our own enjoyment, adding lots of positive energy, excitement and fun to our performances.


I would like to thank Judith Farmer, David Johnson, Vicki Ray and John Steinmetz for their most valuable input on this article.

© Copyright 2005 by Gernot Wolfgang