Sunday, February 01, 2015

Timing is everything. Especially when anytime is the right time.

You have one minute and during that minute, you may strike a woodblock once. When, in that minute, do you strike it?

Repeat this, substituting, for example, a cowbell or a tam tam or an electric doorbell for the woodblock; then repeat this, substituting, say, two or four and a half or eleven minutes, maybe three quarters of an hour or one month or a season or a year or a lifetime for the single minute; then repeat this, substituting must for may. Finally repeat this, remembering that "you may strike" includes the option not to strike at all.

Do we have a style, now? Do we have an aesthetic, now?


The exercise above comes directly from a piece by Kenneth Maue composed in the late 1960s or early 70s in which a large gong is brought unnanounced into a prominent position in a public space and struck once.  The gong player stands ready with the beater, so any audience present will anticipate the sounding of the gong, but there is no information, no signal about when that might happen (and once it happened, no signal about what would happen next, up until the performers moved the gong out the space.)  This is also related to Cage's use of time brackets — stretches of time into which sounds should occur — which he would illustrate to the public by moving his arms like a moving hand on a clock (a practice begun with the conductor's part to his Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-58) and instruct a volunteer to make a sound at some point, any point, within one revolution.  Some volunteers would make a sound right at the start, others tried to divide the time span precisely in half, clapping or stomping or shouting just as Cage hit six o'clock and switched from his left to his right arm, others waited as long as they could to make a noise before the clock ran out at high noon or midnight.  And still others would choose some other less simply or rigidly marked point on the dial.  But this is all really about how composers and players and listeners deal with musical time, all the time.  The rhythmic character of a music can be located on various continua, one of which stretches between absolute precision with regard to orientation to an ongoing pulse to absolute disregard for the same. Another quality of a music is the way in which it invokes — or doesn't  — different subdivisions or multiples of a pulse, still another concerns a sense of anticipation or belatedness in relationship to a pulse that a musician brings to the articulation of a sound in time. And to this I would add the option to not play, to "throw away" a note, something (unfortunately, AFAIC) deprecated in most classical music performance with its all-too-often practiced emphasis on playing a score "note true" and not "dropping" anything.  When a rhythmic practice regarding a particular relationship to the beat becomes a common practice for a performer or group of musicians, then we readily identify it as a style.  And when that style is something like Viennese expression or swing (in which there is a rather strict relationship between the degree of the inequality of a divide beat and the tempo) it can be something quite special,


Just two footnotes to the above.  (1) An explicit possibility of dropping notes is recognized in Cage's later sets of virtuoso Etudes for piano and violin in which the player was instructed to simply play through as if the notes were present.  Similarly, Douglas Leedy, in his Serenade for one or more recorders, encouraged out-of-doors performances in which the players were not necessarily visible to each other or an audience. When I observed that, on a windy day, when, due to more air going in the beak than coming out of it, a recorder would frequently be unable to speak, the composer said, just play on as if the tones had been there, preserving the larger continuity even if details were missing. (2) With some trepidation at wading into a more popular body of water than I usually allow myself, I'll note Bob Dylan's recent album of song covers associated with Frank Sinatra. Critics have been — unsuprisingly given the disparity in styles and general cultural associations between the two — grasping for something that makes a meaningful musical connection between the two singers and have mostly been frustrated at the odd coupling. Let me suggest that the connection here is one of musical technique, in particular one of rhythmic style, but not of a shared style, rather of simply having individual styles that are equally marked by being able to play more liberally along a continuum between sharply articulated metrical rhythm and ametrical utterances than most musicians as well as to throw away material in uncanny ways and to do both reliably enough that we can recognize an individual style.

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