Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Edge of the Beat

My son and I have been assembling a paper model, and it's been the cause of yet another of my bouts with edge anxiety. You see, I've never figured out if you're supposed to cut on the line, or just before or after the line. These cut-out projects are rarely specific about whether and how the width of the line figures into the width of the piece you're supposed to excise.

This anxiety is akin to one familiar to most musicians - when, precisely, does a beat begin? and does one articulate that beat on, before, or after that beginning? and is this done consistently or flexibly?

The best musical ensembles internalize a common location for their beat, and the very best ensembles can do this with great flexibility. One trick of many European orchestras is to lay back, just behind the conductor's visual downbeat, creating an round or even neutral attack. By opening up that space between the conducted and the played beat, the orchestra can then respond flexibly in passages where a sense of urgency or sharpness is intended. By leaning closer to the visual beat, an impression of acceleration is created without actually rushing the tempo. If, however, the conducted and played beats are identical, there's nowhere to move but to rush).

This is an enormously subtle and subjective phenomena, and I suppose that, for most musicians, one that takes place at a pre-conscious or even involuntary level. Nate Mackey's fine epistolary novel Bedouin Hornbook (1986) had a sweet passing reminder that the word "conspiracy" is, at root, blowing together, and that physicality is essential. The Vienna Philharmonic is well-known for the conspiratorial precision of their ensemble rubato, and one suspects that the hesitation in this traditionally male-only preserve to permit women to become members is an expression of a very male insecurity, not only in preserving a male-only employment sector (a common phenomena in modernizing economies) but also a form of insecurity at a fundamental level of identity, where the physicality of music making has been confused with that of gender.

If it weren't worn by bellicose practice, I'd be amused by the Bushian slogan of "drawing a line in the sand". A line drawn in the sand is even more difficult to hold onto than a line drawn in a cut-out book or a conductor slicing the air with hand or baton. And although sand is tangible and discrete, our perception of sand is that of a mass phenomena with unsharp edges, the detailed reports of individual grains disappear into that edge.

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