Flexible Ostinati, Groove, and Formal Process in Craig Taborn's Avenging Angel

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Repetition in the music of pianist/composer Craig Taborn engenders diverse temporal experiences at both local and global scales. At the local level, distinctive repetitions that I term flexible ostinati share significant features with the cyclic materials often observed in groove-based musics: they comprise a repetitive, omnipresent stream within the overall texture, provide a rapid isochronous pulse, and imply higher-level metric levels. However, they differ from strict ostinati or the repetitions that Anne Danielsen (2006) terms “basic groove units” in their flexibility at the rhythmic/metric level of temporal experience. This flexibility manifests in two ways: in the material domain, flexible ostinati are often varied significantly across repetitions, while in the interpretive domain, they simultaneously suggest multiple possibilities for pulse, meter, or cyclic beginning/ending. Following Danielsen, who describes groove as emerging from interactions between sounding rhythm and a reference structure, I examine the potential reference structures (meter and cycle) suggested by Taborn’s flexible ostinati. These structures are never fixed, but instead must be constantly negotiated, resulting in engaging grooves that draw the listener into the music’s temporal matrix. I analyze three pieces from Taborn’s 2011 solo album, Avenging Angel, to demonstrate how, across longer stretches of time, diverse forms grow out of these ostinati: “The Broad Day King” layers a surface-level flexible ostinato against slower background cycles that gradually reveal themselves; “Avenging Angel” is structured by the juxtaposition of two contrasting ostinati; and a brief passage in “Neverland” features an elusive groove that dissolves almost as soon as it materializes.


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