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Cross-rhythm in The Decemberists' "The Gymnast, High Above the Ground"

decemberists stage.jpg

In college, The Decemberists were one of my favorite bands.  I found that among the people I associated with, The Decemberists were a favorite among English majors (and for good reasons, as well as bad, as the literary elements of many of their songs can be scandalous to say the least) and in later years, students of music theory.  I played "The Mariner's Revenge Song" for a friend after we'd taken a 19th Century Music seminar, and she said, "Can't you hear the 'Ruslan & Ludmilla' [Glinka] in this?!"  While working on creating my database of pop songs with notable teachable elements, I played "The Gymnast" for another musician/teacher friend, and she said, "Oh, it's 'Procession of the Nobles' [Rimsky-Korsakov] cross-rhythm."  

Someone please ask Colin Meloy how much 19th century Russian music he has listened to, stat.  I bet Jenny Conlee always drove to Decemberists' band practice, blaring The Mighty Handful out of her car windows.  (I'll stop.)  But this song really does demonstrate cross-rhythm (a very clear 2 against 3) well.

“The Gymnast, High Above the Ground” - The Decemberists

Intro: An indie rock outfit formed in Portland, OR, the Decemberists were a staple of the growing folk rock movement of the mid 2000s. Loosely named after a group that caused an 1825 Russian uprising, the band's oeuvre contains many references to the past, including heavy reference to folklore. The band's instrumentation set them apart from other groups at the time, often including a Hammond organ, accordion or hurdy-gurdy on their recordings. Frontman Colin Meloy's penchant for literary verse, almost always singing a song from the point of view of a character and even writing full song cycles (as can be found on the 2006 EP The Tain), also distinguishes the band. “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground”, an abstract story featuring use of unusual rock instruments (including the vibraphone), is a characteristic example of the band's musical style.

Analysis: While there is some evidence of contrasting rhythms between the guitar, drums, vocal line and piano/steel guitar/bass as the song begins, the main cross-rhythmic conflict occurs as the initial verses give way to the chorus and the compound meter becomes apparent (heard in the accompanying video recording for the first time at 2:26). Despite the fact that the meter has shifted clearly to 6/8, there is a very strong clash of 2 against 3, demonstrated even in just the drumset, with the ride cymbal outlining a subdivided 6/8 pattern and the snare drum playing in almost 3/4.  This also contrasts with the other instruments, which show up in full force in the chorus, along with the vocal line. The conflict gives way to a clear 6/8 meter in the outro – the essential victory of the triple meter signified by the dominance of the violin and the vocal line, which repeats “April marches on” to the end of the song.

Considerations for Teaching: While many Decemberists songs feature totally inappropriate stories and subject matter, even though presented in a whimsical, anachronistic way, this song in particular contains no offensive subject matter or language. Because of its rhythmic complexity and broad use of instrumentation, it serves as a strong listening example in the classroom.

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