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Using Ableton Live to Mess with the Rhythm of “Clair de Lune”

This article originally appeared on Ethan Hein’s blog.

This video recently made the rounds on Facebook.

I was thinking about “Clair de Lune” and how strange and complicated the rhythm is. I was humming it to myself and couldn’t figure out where the downbeats were. I have previously used Ableton Live to help me learn a classical piece aurally, so I figured I would do the same thing with this one.

I found a MIDI version of the piece and brought it into Ableton Live. The MIDI file put the left and right hand of the piano on separate tracks, so I used separate instruments for each one: a palm-muted guitar for the right, and a synth pluck for the left.

For rhythm, I used the old reliable “Yeah Woo” break, pitched down for extra vibe.

I split the MIDI wherever I felt an intuitive phrase boundary and arranged my drum loops accordingly. I doubled the synths with softer and more sustained sounds in a few sections as well.

Hear the result:

Will Kuhn suggests that the rhythms of “Clair de Lune” are so weird because Debussy was trying to notate rubato. That sounds plausible to me. It turns out that when you quantize the piece over beats, it sounds very syncopated and hip. Live and learn.

As one commenter pointed out, though, “Clair de Lune” is in 9/8, so of course it’s going to sound strange over a 4/4 beat. However, for me, the 4/4 beat actually makes it sound less strange. I find 9/8 totally unnatural; I can count it deliberately but I haven’t internalized it intuitively. On the other hand, groups of triplets over 4/4 is a common sound in the African-descended American music, and I can feel it just fine.

So the piece makes more sense to me over “Yeah Woo” than it does in its intended meter.

Over on Facebook, Isaac Schankler pointed out that:

“The polyrhythm is cool but I’d say it actually obscures your understanding because the characteristic accent pattern is completely different.”

True. So I guess I’m not so much “understanding” the piece as I am creating a different piece of music using the same pitches and durations, but with a different rhythmic feel (one that I like better — sorry, Debussy).

I then did another remix in actual 9/8 using a drum groove I found on YouTube.

Which do you like better, the correct way or the 4/4 way?

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Ethan Hein
Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza. He is the instructor of the free Soundfly course series called Theory for Producers. He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog, and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.