Friday, February 4, 2011

Metre and Rhythm

At the risk of giving the impression of licking old wounds, I wanted to revisit my recent run-in with “enthusiasts” over the piece I wrote about Soyeon Lee’s Naumburg recital.  Let me review what got me into trouble with some of my more vocal readers:

The bottom line was that I was totally blown away by her performance of an etude by Unsuk Chin entitled “Grains” and lukewarm, at best, about everything else on the program.  What got me in trouble was my scientific tendency to diagnose why I had reacted this way.  I thus decided to advance the conjecture that “Grains” worked as well as it did because of Lee’s command of the underlying metric pulse, while everything else on the program depended less on metre and more on a grasp of rhythm that would not be slavishly dependent on such a pulse.

I wanted to return to the question of the relationship between metre and rhythm, having just read an essay by Emile Benveniste, collected in the University of Miami Press volume entitled Problems in General Linguistics, with the fascinating title, “The Notion of ‘Rhythm’ in its Linguistic Expression.”  This is basically a study of the semantics of the word “rhythm” based on what we can learn from examining the usage of its Greek origin, “ῥυθμός.”  This text was not a particularly easy read, particularly when it came to negotiating the Greek alphabet (and what was probably one glaring Greek spelling error).  Nevertheless, the conclusion is interesting enough to consider without retracing the convoluted path leading to it.

Benveniste’s conclusion is that the concept of rhythm is best described as “a configuration of movement organized in time.”  He summarizes this concept in broad generality:

We may then speak of the “rhythm” of a dance, of a step, of a song, of a speech, of work, of everything which presupposes a continuous activity broken by meter into alternating intervals.

In other words metre (true to its semantics) provides the steady (metronomic) pulse through which we measure the passing of time, while rhythm addresses how those events that occur during that passage are organized Kim Kashkashian addressed some of these points in the Chamber Music Master Class she gave at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on Tuesday evening.  She was coaching a performance of the second movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s first string quartet, Opus 18, Number 1 in F major.  The metrical signature for that movement is 9/8;  and she spent more than a bit of time on the question of how the beats of that pulse are “weighted.”  It is that sense of “weight” that transforms the steady tick of a clock into rhythmic organization.

Pursing this line of thought is a bit like eating potato chips.  It’s hard to stop with just dealing with the organization of a single measure, particularly after the scope of Benveniste’s generalizations.  Thus, if one can talk about how the beats of a measure are weighted, can one not also talk about how the measures are weighted to give shape to a phrase?  Then, if we can (and do) talk comfortably about musical phrases, can we not then escalate to sentential forms and higher levels of discourse structures?  Clearly we can;  it’s just that, when we do, we start to hit a wall of our descriptive capacity, simply because we have not taken the trouble to think about how to talk about such matters.

So this has got me conjecturing again, even if conjecturing tends to get me in trouble.  Basically, we are back on Friedrich Hayek’s turf of talking about sensory order and how that order is established.  We are also dealing with one specific aspect of that order, which received so much attention from Edmund Husserl in his work on time-consciousness.  My own personal hobbyhorse is that all this will lead us back to why languages have such sophisticated verb grammars, far more elaborate than those of noun phrases.  The bottom line is that all the actions we take, whether we are playing in a string quartet or going down to the store for a quart of milk, involves both consciousness of the passing of time and the organization of that passage that consciousness entails.  All we need to do is find better ways to talk about it!

No comments: