Sunday, July 02, 2006


It's possible to mark the transition from the musical renaissance to the early baroque with Monteverdi's invention of the genere concitato in the astonishing Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. While Monteverdi would subsequently reserve the concitato style to suggest battle and agitation, the style has had long-term resonance in repertoire independent of those associations, and in some very recent repertoire at that.

In the concitato style, tempi move in parallel: a slow, if not static, harmonic rhythm, a rapid instrumental figuration, and a vocal melody setting a text in a rhythm that is related to the delivery of natural , if formal, speech. It should be immediately clear that the same is going on in a lot of classic minimalism, too, and often in purely instrumental works. In The Well Tuned Piano, La Monte Young's chordal "clouds" are both rapidly rearticulated and extraordinarily slow, behaving quite literally like real clouds. In Alvin Lucier's Navigations for Strings, the notes played by the musicians in the string quartet are steady, slow, and sustained, but the resultant beats between small intervals gradually approaching a quartet unison, accelerate away from, and then slow down, returning to, a single tempo universe. In the ensemble works of Glass and Reich from around the turn of the seventies, a static background harmonic was rapidly re-articulated by instrumental and vocal figuration, but also by resultant and combination effects which cast a jagged edge upon an otherwise straight texture.

I want nothing less than to enter into a discussion of modernism and post-modernism, but will only note that as much as Monteverdi's concitato belonged to a transition from a self-consciously modern era, the Renaissance, to the post-modernity of the baroque that followed it, works of modern music which play on the same temporal ambiguities as the concitato definitely mark a similar change in sensibilities.

(On the other hand, this whole phenomenon may have a life independent of the course of Western musical history. I have noticed, for example, among Diné (Navajo) singers, that a melody which might be notated (should you want to notate it) in a simple rhythm of eighths and quarters was produced with a vocal technique which to my ears used a highly disciplined and rhythmic vibrato, made with regularity of the best drumming. I would not be altogether surprised to learn that the rhythm of that vibrato was in fact a substantial component of the music.)


Philo said...

Is Irama concitato, too?

Daniel Wolf said...

I'd say that Irama - the central Javanese amalgam of tempo and rhythmic density - is related, but not identical. Both are aural illusions: Concitato is the illusion of parallel tempi, while Irama is about changing the density in equal and opposite measure to changes of tempo, so that one has an illusion space of tempi poised between static and dynamically changing tempi.

(And yes, all non-Javanese should have irama envy.)

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