Rock Meets Classical, Part 6: Analyzing Discipline

In part 4 of this series, I showed how King Crimson’s music from 1973-1974 was heavily influenced by 20th century European art music composers like Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók. That lineup of the band disbanded after 1974, and King Crimson vanished until 1981, when they returned with a new lineup featuring Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford alongside two Americans - guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew, who had performed with David Bowie, Frank Zappa, and Talking Heads, and bass/Chapman Stick player Tony Levin, who had previously played with Peter Gabriel and Art Garfunkel. Their first album, Discipline (1981), will be the focus of this post.


This new band played a completely different style of music than any previous KC lineup. Progressive rock was replaced by ‘80s New Wave music, which the band used as the inspiration for its textures and vocal styles. The European classical influence was replaced by Balinese Gamelan (which shows in the group’s use of canons/rhythmic cycles and the pentatonic scale, which is roughly equivalent to the Balinese ‘Slendro’) and American Minimalism, especially the music of Steve Reich (which is evident in the group’s use of small diatonic motives and canons). This lineup (and all future KC lineups) made heavy use of polymeters, often in conjunction with canons. 


Polymeters are distinct from polyrhythms. Polyrhythms occur when two different rhythmic values are played in the same amount of time, requiring them to be played at two different (but related) tempos - for instance, 2 in the space of 3 (an eighth note triplet against two eighth notes) or 3 in the space of 4 (a quarter note triplet against 4 quarter notes):

3 against 2 (or 2 against 3) is a very common polyrhythm, appearing in all sorts of music. The piano part in "Fake Empire" by The National is a great example of a 4 against 3 polyrhythm, where the left hand is playing in 3 and the right hand is playing in 4.


Polymeters, on the other hand, occur when two different rhythmic values are performed in the same tempo, requiring them to overlap multiple times before the rhythm ‘resolves’, meaning that both patterns end at the same time. This creates a feeling of constantly shifting rhythm - there is small-scale repetition, but the beats never fall in the same place relative to each other until they resolve and the cycle starts over. Polymeters are very common in modern classical music and in the music of bands like King Crimson. The music of Meshuggah is also largely based around polymeters, as the guitars and kick drum frequently play in odd time signatures like 17/16 or 23/16 while the cymbals and snare drum keep a 4/4 pulse - for examples, check out "New Millennium Cyanide Christ" or "Rational Gaze". Instead of resolving their rhythmic cycles, which would take a very, very long time, they cut them short. This isn’t to say that Meshuggah doesn’t also use polyrhythms - much of the drum part in their 21 minute epic ‘I’ is a 3 over 4 polyrhythm.


Musically, Discipline is a very tightly constructed album. Quite a bit of the album’s material is derived from a single five-note motive which I will call the ‘Discipline motive’. The album ends with the title track, a strictly composed piece filled with interlocking guitar parts playing the most basic 5/8 form of the Discipline motive, initially presented in canon over a 17/16 ostinato played by Levin and Bruford with Bruford’s feet keeping a 4/4 pulse. To help you conceptualize the polymeters I just described, here is a video of Bill Bruford breaking down his drum part:

Here is my full transcription of the song, which I'll be referecing for the rest of this post: "Discipline" Score

The Discipline motive is stated by both guitars in its most basic form right at the start of the song, and it serves as the material for the rest of the piece (see m.1). Note that this motive shares a number of similarities with the Larks melodic motive that I introduced in part 4 of this series - in its simplest form, it also consists of 5 straight eighth notes, divided into a group of 3 and a group of 2, and it contains a similar contour, only with all of the intervals moving in the opposite direction (descending instead of ascending). The harmonic language is very different - the Larks motive is octatonic, while the Discipline motive is entirely diatonic - but nonetheless, there is a common thread.


This post will focus on the title track, where this motive is developed quite extensively. I have placed a number of rehearsal marks in the score so you can follow along with my analysis, so make sure you have the score open before proceeding.


Rehearsal mark A, m.1-28, 0:00, A pentatonic scale: The full band entrance at m.5 establishes the polymetric cycle for this section - 5/8 guitars in canon, Levin and Bruford’s arms in 17/16, and Bruford’s feet in 4/4. It would take an incredibly long time for this cycle to “resolve”, or return to where it started, so the band cuts it off at the resolution of the 5/8 and 4/4 polymeter in m.28, leaving the 17/16 to spill into the next section.


B, m.29, 0:44, E pentatonic scale: Fripp (guitar 1) plays the first transformation of the Discipline motive, a double speed variation in 4/4, which is then played polymetrically against the original 5/8 motive, played by Belew (guitar 2). Bruford continues the 4/4 pulse in his feet for the first two minutes of the song, which Levin loosely follows in this section by playing a 16/4 pattern, alternating between 7/4 and 9/4.


A1, m.37, 1:02, A pentatonic: The cycle from m.5 starts anew, but the guitars are playing in unison this time. Fripp’s guitar plays the motive 4 times, then drops the last note the fourth time (m.40), putting the two guitars in canon again. He then plays the full motive 3 more times and drops the last note the third time (m.43), changing the canonic relation of the lines (they were previously an eighth note apart, now they are a quarter note apart). He then plays through the motive twice and drops the last note, creating a 9/8 pattern which he repeats (m.45), forming a 9/8 against 5/8 polymeter in the guitars.


This polymeter would take quite a while to resolve, but Fripp’s way of resolving it early to avoid playing through the lengthy cycle is ingenious. Since the 9/8 motive he’s playing is made of 2 sub-units - the Discipline motive and the Discipline motive cut short by one note - one of the sub-units will inevitably line up with Belew’s 5/8 guitar before the cycle resolves. And that’s exactly what happens in m.49 - Fripp uses this alignment to smoothly return to playing in unison with Belew for the remaining 4 bars of the section. This device serves as the basis for the guitar parts in the rest of the song. It is still canonic in a sense, but the relation is constantly changing because of that dropped note.


B1, m.53, 1:25, E pentatonic: A near-exact reprise of the first B section. 


C, m.61, 1:43, E pentatonic starting on F: The guitars are playing a 15/16 variation of the Discipline motive in unison at double speed. This variation contains 3 sub-units - the first two are the Discipline motive, while the third is a variation of the Discipline motive with one altered note. On the fourth repeat of this 15/16 motive, Fripp drops the last note and begins a long 14/16 against 15/16 polymeter (m.66 - with Levin and Bruford’s parts, this creates a 14 over 15 over 16 over 17 polymeter - no, that’s not a joke), which resolves essentially the same way as the 9/8 against 5/8 polymeter in the previous A-section. The sub-units enter unison again at the beginning of m.69, but this is deceptive - upon hearing this alignment, we expect the guitars to lock into unison for the rest of the section, but the cycle instead continues until midway through m.73, when they finally return to unison.


D, m.77, 2:17, A pentatonic then C pentatonic at m.79: This section is firmly in 5/4 for quite some time (though I’ve notated it in 5/8 because it’s easier to read), and it is used to explore a longer, more melodic variation on the basic motive.


C1, m.95, 2;50, C pentatonic: The unison 15/16 double-speed Discipline motive returns and acts the exact same way it did in the preceding C section, only transposed up a tritone and with the rhythm section following the 5/4 it was playing in the previous section.


E, m.111, 3:24, E pentatonic starting on C#: The same polymeter/canon combination is explored with a new variation on the Discipline motive.


E1, m.138, 4:10, new E pentatonic: The previous section is transposed up a minor 3rd. 


C2, m.153, 4:35, F pentatonic: The song’s final section features the guitars alone, playing a variation on the same material they played in the previous C sections, played an octave above C and a tritone above C1.


In part 7, I discuss how the Discipline motive is used throughout the rest of the album and even shows up in some of the band’s later work.


If you found the sheet music for "Discipline" that appears in this article useful and would like to see more where that came from, know that I am currently working with (former King Crimson member) Trey Gunn on a book of sheet music, which will include 2 different versions of King Crimson’s "The ConstruKction of Light" in addition to material from his solo work, TU, KTU, Invisible Rays and more. The physical book will be available in October, so keep an eye out for that!


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