BlogJacob deGroot-Maggetti

Oliver Schroer – The Humours of Aristotle

The Humours of Aristotle is the fourth track from Oliver Schroer’s album Whirled. Paired with The Humours of Plato (transcription coming soon!), it has a Balkan, additive-meter feel. I encourage you to take a listen to the entire track and peruse my full transcription; below is a transcription of one pass through the tune:

Transcription of the main melody of The Humours of Aristotle
The main melody of The Humours of Aristotle

I’ve included a half-flat near the end of the A sections; it’s not meant to indicate a note that’s precisely between B and B-flat, but rather a note that’s somewhere in between (Schroer plays this note with a bit of a slide anyways). I’ve done my best to make sense of the meter, and it could surely be heard differently; below, I discuss some reasons for dividing the meter the way I did.

Instrumentation

The most prominent instruments heard in The Humours of Aristotle are fiddle and drum. A hurdy-gurdy and a jaw harp provide a drone that runs throughout the track, while a flute or similar wind instrument plays a quiet, sparse countermelody during the tune’s B section. In some moments, violin pizzicato and metal percussion (possibly wind chimes) can also be heard, adding subtly to the track’s texture.

Form and Tonality

The Humours of Aristotle has two main sections, which I’ve labelled A and B. Each section is repeated twice within a single pass through the tune, though each section is varied substantially between its first repetition and its second. Overall, then, the tune’s form can be described as AA’BB’. The tune opens with a very brief introduction consisting of a single sustained note, the entire tune is repeated three times, and the track closes with a short tag consisting of the first measure of the A section, followed by several more seconds of percussion.

Section(s)
Intro
AA’BB’
AA’BB’
AA’BB’
Tag

The entire track is performed over a D drone, which a hurdy-gurdy and jaw harp play throughout. The A sections are in D lydian, or D major with the fourth scale step raised from G to G-sharp. I’ve transcribed these sections with a key signature of three sharps. While the B sections are still centred around D, they are highly chromatic. I’ve transcribed these sections without a key signature.

Meter

Whereas many of Oliver Schroer’s tunes have a predictable meter, with strong beats occurring at regular intervals, The Humours of Aristotle features additive meter, with measures composed of short and long beats, the short beats equivalent to a quarter note or two eighth-notes and the long beats equivalent to a dotted quarter note or three eighth-notes. As the constantly changing meter in the transcription above shows, there is no clear, regularly-repeating pattern of beats that runs throughout the tune.

A different person transcribing this tune would likely group the long and short beats differently when combining them into measures. I have done this intuitively, listening for accents in the fiddle and drum parts, but I can observe some patterns: I tend to hear high points in the melodic line as the beginnings of measures, especially when these high points are leapt up to (particularly in the A section) or when they coincide with notes of longer duration than the notes that surround them (particularly in the B sections).

A sections

The form of the A sections is complicated. At its core is a succession of four measures lasting seven, six, seven and five eighth-notes, which recurs four times throughout the two repetitions of the A section. These four repetitions, however, are varied in several ways: In the first instance, the first, 7-beat measure is repeated, creating a group of five measures. In the second instance, the final, 5-beat measure is expanded by three eighth-notes to create a measure of 8/8. In the fourth repetiton, an additional seven-beat measure is added, forming a transition to the B section. The number of beats in each measure is summarized in the table below, with instances of seven, six, seven and five eighth-notes bracketed. Beneath, there is a transcription of the two A sections, with its measures aligned to highlight the internal repetitions within the passage.

Section
A1 7 [7 6 7 5] [7 6 7 5] + 3
A2 [7 6 7 5] [7 6 7 5] 7
Transcription of the A section of The Humours of Aristotle, with measures aligned to show repeats
The A section of The Humours of Aristotle, with measures aligned to show internal repeats. At the end of the second line, a measure of 8/8 has been re-notated as a measure of 5/8 plus a measure of 3/8.

I hear two separate melodic streams running through the A section of The Humours of Aristotle. The upper stream includes notes in the range F-sharp4 up to D5, played mostly on the fiddle’s A string, while the lower stream is made up of quarter-note–eighth-note pairs that occupy the final three eighth-notes of each measure. The fiddle’s open D string sounds throughout the section, and I find it useful to distinguish between two different types of D4 in this section. Some D4’s are played with a solid bow stroke, and participate in the lower stream; these D4’s are invariably heard as the last quarter note in a measure. Other D4’s are played with a light bow stroke and serve as rhythmic placeholders: they take what would be a quarter note in the upper stream and turn it into a pair of eighth-notes, the first serving as a melodic note and the second adding to the D drone heard throughout the section. Below, I’ve re-notated the A section to show the two streams that run through the section, converting some pairs of eighth-notes into quarter notes by removing the lightly-bowed open Ds.

The first few measures of the A section of the Humours of Aristotle, with notes stemmed upwards and downwards to indicate two melodic streams
The first few measures of the A section of the Humours of Aristotle. Notes stemmed upwards are part of the upper stream, while downward-stemmed notes are part of the lower stream. Several notes played on the open D string have been removed to clarify the upper line.

B sections

Like the A sections, the B sections of The Humours of Aristotle are centered around D, though the tune veers at times towards atonality: highly chromatically inflected, the section includes notes as far flat as B-flat and as far sharp as A-sharp. The melody features implied lines that descend by half-step: first, from A down to F-sharp, and then one semitone further, from A to F. Near the end of the second B section, the melody includes a B-flat augmented triad and then an F-sharp major triad: two sonorities that are quite foreign to D lydian!

Transcription of the B section of the Humours of Aristotle, with implied chromatic lines and arpeggiated triads labelled
The B section of the Humours of Aristotle. In the upper system, stemmed notes indicate descending chromatic lines. In the lower system, stemmed notes indicate arpeggiated triads.

Below, I’ve aligned the two B sections to highlight repeated passages. As you can see, the B sections include fewer internal repetitions than the A sections.

Transcription of the B section of The Humours of Aristotle, with measures aligned to show repeats
The B section of The Humours of Aristotle, with measures aligned to show repeats.

Ornamentation

In many of my other transcriptions, I’ve chosen not to notate the ornaments that Schroer plays, mostly in an effort to not get bogged down in the details. When transcribing this tune, however, I was struck by the upper-neighbour grace notes that embellish many of the quarter notes in this tune. Sometimes, it seems that this ornament is added to the beginning of a note – the quarter note is still heard as a quarter note, with two very short notes heard at the note’s onset. Other times, the ornament seems to be used as a “cut”, making two eighth notes out of what would otherwise be heard as a single quarter note. In my full transcription, I’ve made an effort to notate these ornaments for the first pass through the tune. But while I’ve notated these ornaments as falling into one category or the other, it’s worth noting that the ornaments' placement exists on a spectrum – at times, it was hard to decide which category the ornament should be fit into, and others may hear them differently.

Final Thoughts

As always, there remains much to say about this tune. Further exploration could involve transcribing the drum part and flute countermelody to how they interact with the main tune. Also, this transcription involved more interpretive choices than usual – I would be particularly interested to learn how others hear the tune's metrical groupings or the ornaments. If you have any thoughts, comments or questions, do let me know!

Posted: Apr 22, 2021. Last updated: Apr 22, 2021.