Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Temporary Notes (17)

So there's this new watch — well, it's really a very slow metronome — that buzzes every five minutes, just a reminder that a certain span of time has passed, the particular duration chosen for a certain quality: "vibrating any more often than every five minutes, they found was annoying; any longer than 10 and it became hard to remember when the last interval started."  In other words, the interval needn't have been precisely five minutes, indeed, unless we filled up that duration singing to ourselves a song that exactly fit that length or carrying out some task with some number of mechanically precise repetitions, most of us really wouldn't reliably know whether the duration was five minutes exactly or somewhat longer.  Robert Erickson named a piece "Taffy Time" with the notion of capturing something elastic about the sensation of acoustic events marking the passing of time; my own experience has been that a lot of musical value can be conveyed by time intervals that escape precision.  Neuroscientists have been able to identify a number of internal clocks which we carry around with us, regulating operation of the body and determining how we take information in and process it. These clocks tick within fairly stable frequency ranges, but can be usefully dynamic within these ranges, the heartbeat and rate of breathing slows down and speeds up whether we're at rest or working, musical consonances resolve themselves more quickly in the brain than dissonances, etc.. This is not just theory, it's enormously practical, the stuff of big business even: it sets the rate that frames flicker by in films  (and also explains why we can follow "movement" on a video screen, but dogs get confused) or the sampling rates for recorded sound. For musicians, the clocks that seem to matter most are one that ticks around 200 mHz, at which, when two sounds occur within that span, we can't reliably sort out which came first, and then around 10 or 12 Hz, the rate at which we can, with some degree of certitude, tell whether successive pulses are evenly spaced or not, then the sweet spot of around 80 beats per minute, within which we tend to subdivide and take in whole groups of rhythmic activity — metric feet (which relate to both song and dance, activities closely tied to basic body mechanisms), drum rudiments, words in Morse code or touch typing all fall into this range — and above or below which most tempo phenomena occur (and, usefully, when one reaches the half or the double of a tempo in this region, subdividing or grouping can kick in, as in the Javanese Irama system, in which dynamic tempi settle at stable densities over multiple levels of doubling or halving) and among which we tend to group into handfuls of pulses, for example into metres, which may or may not be reinforced by dynamic stresses or subtle distortions (both regular and irregular) in the lengths of successive beats. This new metronomic watch, however, is explorating a clock that, in musical terms, is ticking at the level of form rather than local rhythm.  Five minutes would be on the long side  for a pop song, better for a slow than a fast dance, it could be a whole piece of concert music, or a movement or section of a larger work.  In any case, it is certainly at the edge of an ambiguous formal length: I find that for a huge swathe of the repertoire, three minutes is short, eight or more is a substantial movement, so five minutes falls somewhere in-between. Beyond this, the twenty-minute single movement strikes me as rather often ambiguous or anonymous again, depending upon whether we start to subdivide it, and some time length beyond that, in a region Feldman and Ashley both identified as "scale", form starts to do something altogether.

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