the mystery of the missing beat: on meter in Kogan’s “Kaddish”

A while back I wrote “a musicological view of Lev Kogan’s ‘Kaddish’” that attempted to do thorough musicological analysis of the piece I’ve had in my repertoire for twenty-five years, that I’m now playing every single day, day in and day out, for a year and a day, and a year that’s thirteen months long, thanks to this being a leap year on the Jewish calendar, which adds up to somewhere around four hundred recordings.

Did I mention that I’ve had this piece in my repertoire for twenty-five years?

And that I’m now playing it every day for a year? Every single ever-loving day of a very long year?

That this is a lot of recordings?

Sorry, I’ll stop kvetching. Real soon now.

But first: it’s more than a little bit overwhelming when I look at the broad sweep of this project. I’m okay as long as I think of it as one day at a time—a process—a collaboration I’m doing with my hero. It’s just when I realize we’re still less than halfway through our year and the 165 Kaddishim I’ve already made are less than half the number I will end up making that I start to freak out.

I freak the — out.

Anyway, in that long analysis of the piece, I made a number of discoveries about it that astonished me. I mean, I’ve been playing the piece for twenty-five years! Wouldn’t you think I was pretty aware of its construction? But no—I was astonished to realize that it’s in 5/4, for example. Just hadn’t really thought about it. The piece made sense to me without my analyzing it to death, so I hadn’t bothered analyzing it to death. Or at all, really.

I also noticed that the phrase lengths of the piece form an erratic pattern. Counting the beats per phrase, by the way I think of the piece breaking down into phrasing, I found this pattern: 7, 10, 19, 6, 28, 22, 8, 10, 7, 8, 5, 13. First phrase, 7 beats; second phrase, 10 beats, etc.

This kind of unpredictable, always-changing phrase length is unusual. In Classical-with-a-big-C music, which is to say Mozart, Beethoven, and the Boys, we find that phrases are mostly uniform, typically in multiples of four bars of whatever meter. For example, a piece in 4/4 time (four beats to the bar), we’ll have mostly eight bar (32 beat) phrases, with some phrases of 4 or 12 bars, maybe even 16 bars (16, 48, or 64 beats, respectively).

This is useful to know when you’re a horn player counting rests and nodding off in the back of the orchestra. When you wake back up and aren’t sure if it’s bar 13 or bar 15, you get a great big hint from the rest of the orchestra when it reaches a phrasal resting point in the next bar: this is bar 16.

But back to Kogan: these are uneven-length phrases. The random pattern of phrase-lengths makes no sense, even by twentieth-century music-historical standards.

Or does it?

When Reb Deb first sent me her audio files with several takes of the spoken Mourner’s Kaddish, I listened to them in my earphones, looping over and over and over on my iPod. This is something I do sometimes, as a musician, to internalize music that is unfamiliar, or that I’ll be playing in an audition. And one night, while I was driving home from a gig, I let it loop on the car stereo.

That’s when I noticed it.

I was mindlessly tapping my knee along with the rhythm of Deb’s reading—a tap per stressed syllable—and I was mindlessly counting the taps in each phrase of the prayer. As in “Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba,” 3. “Beʻalma di vra khir’uteh veyamlikh malkhuteh,” 5.

I went on in this way, and here’s what I got:

Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba – 3
Beʻalma di vra khir’uteh veyamlikh malkhuteh – 5
beḥayekhon uvyomekhon uvḥaye dekhol bet yisrael – 5
beʻagala uvizman qariv veʼimru amen – 5
yehe shmeh rabba mevarakh leʻalam ulʻalme ʻalmaya – 7
Yitbarakh veyishtabbaḥ veyitpaar veyitromam veyitnasse – 5
veyithaddar veyitʻalleh veyithallal shmeh dequdsha, brikh hu – 5
leʻella min kol birkhata veshirata – 4
tushbeḥata veneḥemata – 2
daamiran beʻalma veʼimru amen – 4
Yehe shlama rabba min shmayya – 5
hayyim lanu v’ʻal kol yisrael v’ʼimru amen – 6
ʻoseh shalom bimromav – 3
hu yaʻase shalom – 3
ʻalenu v’ʻal kol yisra’el – 3
v’ʼimru amen – 2

So I wondered: do these add up to anything like the numbers I’d gotten for the phrase lengths? Let’s line them up by paragraph:

3 5 5 5
7 5 5 4 2 4
5 6
3 3 3 2

And then I got a little fussier about how I counted the beats of the music. I had done fuzzy counting before, not including tied-over incomplete beats at the ends of phrases, not knowing what to do when a phrase ended mid-beat (count it on the previous phrase, the new phrase, or both?), and so on. So this time I counted more carefully, and inserted in parentheses the musical phrase lengths, noticing how they lined up with the text beat patterns:

3 5 (8)
5 5 (11)
7 5 5 (19)
4 2 (6)
4 5 (9)
6 3 3 3 (14)
2 (5)

Not exact, but darned close, and for quite a long time. I started thinking I might have discovered that Kogan was an obsessive-compulsive numerologist (Kogan the Kabbalist?!)—until I ran out of text and still had a bunch of musical phrases left. So much for the magic.


And then I thought, what about counting all the syllables, not just the stressed beats.

text: 11 14 19 14 18 19 21 12 19 12 10 16 8 6 9 5
music: 8 11 19 6 9 14 5 12 8 10 7 8 5 12

“Oh, well,” again.

And then I did something so geeky it’s still embarrassing to confess it now, months later. I graphed these numbers in JMP. (I’m a statistical software consultant. I do custom programming in the JMP scripting language. And you thought the geekiness in this post was bad!)

It’s not exact, by any means, but squint. Step back. Not such a bad match.

But let’s face it: numerological magic it ain’t. I still haven’t cracked any Kogan code that would make a Kabbalist swoon. I’ve just gotten obsessively geeky and found a few resemblances that are kind of cool. And, as statisticians like to say, if you torture numbers long enough, they’ll confess to anything.

So. Enough already. I moved on.

Back to something Reb Deb had said. After I’d sent her a scan of the music so that she could examine for herself whether the text and music had any apparent alignment, she made a comment about how my rhythmic interpretation differed somewhat from what was on the page. She mentioned a few places in particular, and when I looked at the music, I saw that she was right. I cheated a dotted-quarter here, I dragged a triplet there, and in general I was playing the piece with so much rubato that you could say I was doing it wrong.

Which bugged the —- out of me.

So there followed a period of quite a few weeks in which I tried to play the rhythms that were written.

It was disastrous. All the blood drained out of the music. It was dead.

‘Round about this time—20 January 2011 to be exact—Mira had said how she found Joni Mitchell’s voice “shrill and boring and slow and exhausting,” and I’d replied with something about Mitchell’s tessitura. The word wasn’t familiar to her, so in response to Mira’s question, I explained:

Normally it refers to pitch range, and in this case I refer to Joni MItchell’s singing about five piano white keys higher than you care for, but it would be hard to separate the dominant frequency from the resultant overtones as the problem, to put it in scientific terms, or the timbre from the pitch in musical terms, or the way it sounds from it being too damned high in lay terms.

To which she replied:

pitch / timbre / overtones — I love it when you talk geek and start digging around in there… I love how you analyze the parts…

Here’s the reply I wrote her in the middle of the next night. At 5:49am to be precise.

(Is it any wonder that my wife calls this my “year of writing dangerously”? That her name for my iPhone is “my mistress”? No. Indeed not. The wonder is that my wife still loves me despite how challenging I make it for her.)

Love this, then: so it’s bugging the — out of me that suddenly I don’t know how to play this —ed piece. Suddenly it’s just sucking every single —ing time I attempt to play it.

It all started when I wondered if maybe I ought to pay attention to the rhythms the man wrote. I mean, you’ve seen the music. It’s written in 5/4 time using all the standard Western notation. In theory it could be played along with the metronome or a drum track, but for so long I’ve played it freely—as a cantor would fit the music to the text, not the other way around—and worked so hard to free myself from the written rhythms—that now I can’t button myself back up and play the rhythms he wrote. I’m constantly cheating long notes, dragging short notes, and substituting figures altogether because my memorization is so blurry. I’m a disaster, and I can’t stand to listen to myself making a hash of it.

And what the — is going on with all that? It is not that hard a piece, really.

So lately I’ve been trying to respect the —ing rhythms, and between not having it memorized that way and not being able to unfree it, I’ve gotten my head all twisted around.

I’m lying here in my insomnial nocturnal tsuris obsessing about all that and I decide to do some memory work—mentally playing it while conducting a five-beat bar, trying to work out in my mind what the —ing written rhythms even are—and I keep ending up on the wrong beat, not getting to 1 when I think I should, not knowing how the 5s add up in too many places.

So. I grab my iPad, search gmail server for the PDF of the score I sent to you and David Mostardi back when Fuller the Cat died, and start studying the page. I try once again to play and conduct 5 and still I — it up, and I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong.

And then I see it. Something I’ve never noticed in the twenty-five years I’ve known this piece.

One bar is missing a beat!

A piece in 5/4 has one bar with just 4 beats!

Twenty-five years and how many other horn players besides me for how many years have never —-ing caught that?! And Lev Kogan himself didn’t either, and the publisher didn’t? Because nobody ever typeset the —ed thing! He was his own copyist and the score is printed as a photocopy of his own handwritten page—which is a work of art, really; it’s just incredible how tidy his manuscript is. But a different copyist, or a musical typesetter, or anyone using notation software would have caught the mistake and asked him how to fix it.

So. Now what? Do I figure out where to add a beat to that bar, or do I take this as evidence that he never meant it to be metrical in the first place? That I had it right all along, the notation is just there to give a sense of the thing, but it’s really a prayer and the music should sound like it’s following text? Even though it doesn’t fit the text of Kaddish and can’t be made to, as both Deb and I have concluded?

Yeah. —- the rhythm. Play in the spirit of a cantor, making free with the music to deliver the text and the emotion of the piece. Right?

So, that’s how I came to discover after twenty-five years that there was a beat missing from the piece.

I was appalled.

But it was another month before I put it together. It wasn’t just the twenty-five years in which I should have noticed the missing beat. That twenty-five years had culminated in an obsessive musicological analysis, and then an absurdly obsessive series of attempts to divine numerological mystery from the rhythmic structure of the piece, to the point I —-ing graphed the beat relationships of text and music, in which I still hadn’t noticed the missing beat.

Mira’s response will reveal why I love this woman so much:

isn’t it WONDERFUL to discover a missing beat??!!

I wonder if my discomfort with the piece is in part due to this — but my hearing is not so discerning. Still, my first thought was rhythm?? What rhythm?? I don’t hear no flippin’ rhythm. Not exactly a tap-your-feet kind of piece, is it?

But somewhere deep inside, maybe I am missing that beat that might make it all make sense. I love that you found this glitch in the matrix — I live for moments like these!!

Just as my miraculously indulgent wife often replies to my most extreme moments of being exactly how I am, “I love geeks,” Mira actually appreciated this moment of analysis ad absurdum.

I told Dad about the glitch in the matrix. He’s been playing the piece for quite a while now, too. I asked him if he could find it. He spent several long minutes looking for it.

He gave up.

Let me repeat. I’d told him there was a bar with a missing beat. He couldn’t find it.

Can you?

And what do you make of it?

I’m not telling where it is. I’m leaving that as an exercise for the geeky reader. Please comment if that’s you.

But here’s my theory: in the bar in question, he’d meant for the triplet on beat two to be a full quarter tied to a triplet. The first note of the written triplet should have been a beat and a third, not just a third. Either that or he meant for the phrase to go the way he wrote it, and he just never noticed that he needed to switch meters to 4/4 for that bar. But either way, the fact that he never noticed the problem gives me my answer:

He didn’t intend for the piece to be rhythmically particular. He wrote the shape of the music he wanted and trusted us to play it the way it should go.

That’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.

Lev Kogan died a few years back. May he rest in peace. The memorization of his music has been for a vexing blessing to me.

About erin

Erin Vang, PMP, BMus, MMus, is Owner and Principal Pragmatist of the consultancy Global Pragmatica LLC®, offering custom JMP scripting, localization program management, and facilitative leadership services. She is also an orchestral horn player who freelances in the San Francisco Bay Area and plays assorted brass for the celebrated dance bands Midnight Smørgåsbord and contraPtion. More about Erin…
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9 Responses to the mystery of the missing beat: on meter in Kogan’s “Kaddish”

  1. zoe says:

    Found it.

    But don’t worry, there is a six beat measure later on to make up for it.

    • erin says:

      No way! WHERE?! I don’t see it.

      Are you messing with me?

      • zoe says:

        I hope I’m not being a total counting dope, but the measure with the fermata, before the stopped passage, sure looks to me like it has six beats.

        • zoe says:

          For what it’s worth, I think the four beat measure is just missing a dot.

          I think the six beat measure is the one where Kogan says, “By the way, you haven’t been counting this too carefully, have you? That would be an exercise in futility, and lead to days of frustration. Relax – go with the flow – stop counting, and, actually, this might be a good place to do some water management – after all, if anyone points out that your plumbing is messing up the rhythm, you can challenge them to count beats in this measure and explain how it should be played.”

          My implication above, that you might move the bar lines to have the six beat measure ‘make up for’ the four beat one, was a joke. That was clearly not the composer’s intent.

          • zoe says:

            Upon further reflection, I retract the ‘missing a dot’ theory for the four beat measure. You would have to add a dot and remove the triplet bracket for that to make sense.

            I would also like to lodge a formal complaint regarding rhythm notation. If it is this hard to figure out how many beats each measure has, and notice when there are the wrong number of beats (even for the composer!), there has got to be something seriously wrong with the notation. And if anyone knows how the Music Notation Complaints Department can be contacted, I have a few other grievances to submit, while I’m at it.

        • erin says:

          Nope, I don’t think so—it’s missing some triplet indicators, I think.

  2. mira says:

    Is there a recording of Kogan playing his own Kaddish, to see how he handled it?

    • erin says:

      He wasn’t a hornist, so no. The definitive recording would probably be Meir Rimon’s, since the piece was written for him, but I have yet to track down a copy of it—sadly. I loved Rimon’s playing. He died a few years back.

  3. Pingback: daily kaddish: a moment of silence for the missing beat

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