The Pit and the Pendulum, Part 2

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I’ll be climbing out of the pit after the last run of Susannah tonight.  It’s been a great experience, and full of potential for the pondering mind.  Inevitability.  Events that lead to something else.  The Grand Finale.  That incessant beat of the clock, metronome, and human heart; counting down to a predestined end.  Is this where we find meaningful rhythm and flow?  Or is it rather a stream into which we we enter, subdivide, and play?   Always present.  Welcoming us to participate.

The problem with the first example, is that it is too clinical, too easy.  In my experience it’s also completely wrong.  The thought that music, creativity, or life itself can be relegated to mere numbers is a popular misconception.  Yes, music is math.  Life is math.  Yes, proportions, ratios and relationships certainly exist.  But as human beings, our lives simply don’t operate this way.  Science is starting to show this is true. Like higher math and physics, musical performance is more about uncertainty, chaos, and constant adjustment.  Live music contains behavior so unpredictable it can appear random, due to great sensitivity and small changes in conditions.

“Our concept of time is an illusion.  There is no clock out there in the world keeping time.” – Dean Radin

For example, we can put a metronome on a professional ensemble and see that there is ebb and flow in the music.  Gunther Schuller wrote an entire book on the subject (The Compleat Conductor) Even in the most exact types of music (a Sousa march, for example) the concept of perfect time is an illusion (listen to a transition to the Trio section and you’ll see what I mean).  While the concept of organized time attracts us, the imperfection may be the element that encourages us to keep listening.

If you are skeptical, try this:  Have a group of people clap on every downbeat in a group of 4 (ONE, two, three four, ONE, two, three, four,  etc.).  Keep it going for awhile and then continue with closed eyes.  A group of trained musicians may be able to keep it going, but you will witness inconsistencies.  Move that to every eight or sixteen counts and you may have a real mess on your hands, even with professionals.   Now have the ensemble open their eyes.  It will instantly get better.  Even more so if a “conductor” leads the group.  A good conductor (i.e. Leader) can even lead the group to clap on an unexpected beat, surprisingly in tandem.

“Our perception of time can change.  Time can slow down; time can speed up…Time is also intimate. It comes from within.”  – Michio Kaku

This points to more than a mere inner clock for performing music.  We use our other “senses” too.  We use our eyes not only to read music, but also to watch the other musicians around us.  We use our ears to evaluate and adjust minute details with surprising accuracy and speed.  We use the sense of space, body, time, and flow, to adjust our performances and invite others to participate.

That said, there is certainly a “window of appropriateness” regarding tempo and rhythm.  Composers give us metronome markings as a guide, even in the most exacting tempo marking.   If Bartok tells us that the pulse should be at 92 beats per minute, is 90 or 94 wrong?  Certainly, 76 or 116 would be outside the composer’s intentions.  But it is the performer, not the composer, who knows the situation for a particular performance.  Perhaps the concert is in a very live hall, where a slightly slower tempo results in better clarity.  Or the opposite, where a slightly peppier beat may keep the music alive in a dry acoustic.   We need to evaluate rhythm and tempo on the basis of this envelope of acceptability.  Too often, we insist on something that is on the page, rather than something that we know to be correct based on our musical training, awareness, and instincts.

Every night of a performance can be different.  (Even more so with a double-cast show).  It’s an interesting exercise for a pit orchestra. Yet incredibly revealing when we allow it to happen.  Those moments are very exciting.  It’s validation that pliability in music is desirable and perfectly right for the situation.  If we perform with flexibility, new revelations can come through night after night. But…you’d better get that rhythm together first!

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

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One thought on “The Pit and the Pendulum, Part 2

  1. Reblogged this on afcbenburt and commented:
    Robert Baldwin, Music Director for the Salt Lake Symphony, Music Director for the Utah Philharmonia, and Director of Orchestral Activities at the University of Utah shares more of his thoughts on the importance of rhythm, meter, and tempo in music. He shares that music is not a perfect mathematical equation and neither is time in a musical piece. There is always ebb and flow. There is always adaptation, especially in live performances.

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