Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Day 23 (Round IV) "In the trenches": "Gettin' up on the One"/micropulse edition

I'm not much of a conductor: it was never part of my training, of the musics that I was involved in playing, or of many of the musics that I was studying. And, that is particularly the case of choral music. I can listen to choral music, study it, teach it, etc--but I was never much interested in either performing it or, especially, conducting it. I've been counting-in tunes for 40 years, but it's only in the last couple that I've had to try to find--and learn--the skills to lead either (a) a group of singers through a choral texture, when I never had the training myself; or (b) a group of young instrumentalists to play and feel a dance music in a way that, as classical musicians, they never have before. I'm better at the latter--having a better grasp of how it works myself--but am learning to get better at the former.

There is--or at least should be--an absolutely magical moment that occurs at that moment when someone leading a musical performance counts-off the tempo into the first downbeat. In the world of classical music--especially of Baroque and/or chamber music--that moment is very much truncated: for the Baroquies, it's a "sniff and go" (sniff loudly, in time, on the last upbeat before the played downbeat); for the classical/chamber people, it's often a single up-bow, in the same moment, giving the tempo and the last upbeat before the sounded downbeat.

In most lyric musics--those musics in which the arc of a melody, pre-composed or spontaneously improvised, is the focus of attention--one of the most effective and subtle ways to conceive the count-off is as "the Big One"--to hear the measure, which in most Western music is conceived as the basic, replicating pattern of time, not as "4 beats to the measure and the quarter note gets one beat" or "6 beats to the measure and the first and fourth 8th note each gets the emphasis", but as a single, arcing, resilient "One". In fact, when trying to show an ensemble how that "One" might look as a conducting pattern, I'll sometimes describe a big vertical circle with the right hand, with the hand decelerating as it lifts (e.g., "against" gravity) and then accelerating downward ("with" gravity) as it heads toward the downbeat. This is useful for showing young musicians the way a phrase, conceived not as a subdivided measure of 4 quarters or 8 eighths but as a single big "One", can contain within itself some flex and phrasing within the time. "It only really matters that you be together at 'One'".

In most dance musics, on the other hand, time is much better understood as a kind of micropulse: as a constant, ongoing, endless, "chugging" flow of interlocking pulses--a net beneath the sound, interlocking parts over which the rest of the musical texture--the sounding part of the musical texture can either float, or lock in. In such dance musics--particularly but not exclusively those dance musics in the irreplaceable, ubiquitous, and world-changing musics of Africa and her Diaspora--players sound or elide, lock-in-with or upset overlapping groupings of that fundamental micropulse.

In Afro-Cuban music, it's a realization in sound of the dancing implicit in the clave. When I was playing with the great drummer Andrew Lazaro--me and a bunch of other white boys in Indiana just beginning to learn to understand how the music had to feel in order for it to sound right--he would give us the count-off into the clave only after he'd stood up and danced a few steps: it was only then that he could know the right tempo. And that danced-in cycle of the clave let us not only hear, but also see, the way the tempo was about to feel--when it was RIGHT.

In jazz, it's understated, as is the jazz conception of the beat in the first place: like the groove itself, the count-off is the responsibility of everybody present, and you're supposed to hear it inside at the moment it is first sounded. This was the great breakthrough of bebop: the realization that the drummer or bassist shouldn't have to "hold down" the beat--everyone should have it so deeply internalized that everyone could hold a piece of it, together.

In rock 'n' roll, of course, that countoff is an intensely iconic, even shamanistic moment: that count-off that signals the festival that's to come: never captured better than in Springsteen's epic live version of "Rosalita", when the horn-section & rhythm section syncopated unison tumbles down into a fermata on a low dominant people, and, of the band's suspended time, The Boss screams, over the roar of the crowd, "One - Two - Three - FAH!"

But in traditional musics of all kinds, and especially traditional dance musics, and especially in the teaching of traditional Irish dance musics that I do, that count-off is an incredibly important moment when, if I'm paying attention with the heightened level of empathy a good teacher should employ, I can convey, just in the inflection, shape, attack, pitch, and duration of those counted syllables, the fundamental nature of the rhythmic world we're about to enter together. In dance musics, the time is always there--and our job as musicians is to "enter" the time--to recognize it, emplace ourselves within it, and bring it into audibility:

"ONE - two - three - foh-!"

The music--the micropulse--the inaudible but essential rhythm of the heartbeat, the lungs pumping swiftly or slowly, the blood soughing through the arteries, the leaves bursting with chlorophyll and withering with the changing season, the moon through its phases, the shifting of the tides, the planets in their orbit--those rhythms are always there. Our job as musicians is to recognize their presence .

And help others hear them. It's a holy thing, what we do.

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