Sunday, September 17, 2006

In A Heartbeat

Sensing rhythm and counting properly are one of the cornerstones of music. Like intonation, it comes naturally to some but takes a lot of training for others. Luckily for want-to-be-musicians it can be learned, often with less effort than other areas of basic musicianship, and later, artistry.

One’s cultural background, and sometimes genetic, plays a role. In my view, the people with the best sense of rhythm in their blood are of African origin or descent. Complicated drumming patterns have been the most important way of communicating beyond language barriers (tribes living in close proximity may often speak in an unrelated tongue) and to share joys of life with dance. A close second are Latin Americans with their incredibly seductive rhythm-based music. Often here the roots may point to Africa as well: a great portion of Cubans and Brazilians are descendants of slaves from that continent. At the opposite end there are cultures where traditional music has been less based on pulse and more on improvisational, often ornamental singing and playing. Much of Asia, for instance, has been of this type, including the Middle East. Great cantorial singing of the Eastern European Jews, for instance, has very little space for a drum beat. That culture borrowed heavily from others, such as the Gypsies, to come up with such music as klezmer, which we associate with the former.

Before the invention of the torture device called metronome, musicians had to rely completely on their inner pulse, which today fewer people seem to possess. All of us have it built in: our heartbeat. Listening to it is another story. Interestingly, after the metronome was introduced, Quantz came up with rules for basic tempo markings. With one or two exceptions, they all had a relationship to 80 beats to a minute, which would have been a normal heartbeat especially at the time before present-day medical care, as most people had some kind of a health issue which would have increased their pulse rate somewhat. Beethoven was the first major composer to use metronome markings, sometimes with results that have given grey hairs to musicians and musicologists alike. Perhaps the fact, that he was becoming deaf and mainly heard the music in his head, accounts for some of the oddly fast markings. Also, in his correspondence Beethoven contradicts himself in this area. The metronome, like an accurate clock, is an instrument for the devil, and later composers started relying on it too much, often in the case of contemporary music to cover up musical inadequacies by writing unnaturally complicated rhythmical patterns. In many ways, music was better off before this device, as mankind was before becoming dependent on accurate watches. Even I was hooked on the latter for years, although its purpose was to track time mainly to prevent a greedy employer from mistreating his employees. Today I don't look at the clock often enough when teaching.

The metronome is a useful device when used in moderation. If one lacks a natural sense of pulse, it can guide a player to learn proper note lengths and hopefully become aware of different rhythms. However, just like a person’s heartbeat, music’s pulse varies often from one moment to another. This is what makes music feel alive, natural and separates it from mechanical, machine-like attempts that one unfortunately hears more and more these days. Teaching a youngster to play correctly is strange: in most cases I have to advise them to practice with the help of a metronome, yet the time comes when I have to tell them to forget all that and start listening to and relying on their inner pulse. That is when they start the complex path of artistry which has little space for mechanical reproduction or imitation of any kind.

It is interesting to listen to performances of great instrumentalists: on the surface everything seems to be perfectly in tempo, yet if one tries to find a metronome marking it simply is impossible. Tempo may vary from measure to measure, yet the playing is so convincing everything makes perfect sense. Secondly, our musical notation leaves a lot to be desired and is an approximation at best. How could one possibly indicate the way a basic dance like a waltz should be interpreted? Fritz Kreisler probably possessed better rhythm than any other instrumentalist, yet nothing in his playing matched exactly the printed page. Furthermore, there are numerous recordings he made of the same little pieces, some his own, some transcriptions, and the interpretation is completely different each time. And Kreisler hardly is alone, just a prime example of an incredible soloist and composer in the same person. How we must pity a musician or a conductor who is trapped in the literal translation of the notated music. Such a person may have good sense of basic metronome-like pulse, but he would be better off being a drummer for a military band than pretending to be an artist, although a drum machine would do a better job and for a lot less money.

More on different areas of the complex art form of performing music will follow here on a later date.