Pulsation frustration.

I don’t watch much television, and what I tune into most are news channels that give me quick updates on the often dire state of the world, and the even direr state of the art of the news anchor. I may be a cantankerous old beezer, but I do get so irritated by announcers who never seem able to deliver a sentence with the correct, natural rhythm of speech, as though they’re delivering lines at a village hall amateur dramatics audition for Third Soldier, Stage Left. We won’t even mention the accompanying wild gesticulations that only highlight their inadequacy.

This led me to think how we are generally much more accepting of massaged accentuation in music. Having just finished reading Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, my thoughts went first to J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 (8.557755-56). Why? Because Dickens gives us the wonderful character of Flora Finching, who has lungs sturdier than a pearl-diver and can deliver a 200-word ‘sentence’ without even thinking of leaning on a comma or resting on a semi-colon. Hence my mental transition to Bach’s perpetuum mobile in the last movement of his concerto, music that similarly doesn’t seem to pause for breath.

I have some sympathy for news anchors when they are trying to speak with someone in a different location on a delayed connection, resulting in each chipping in a couple of words like overlapping shuttlecocks. Mediaeval musicians used this effect in their music. It was referred to as hocket, which we might translate here as ‘hiccup’, dividing the melody line a few notes at a time between different voices. Fast forward to the 20th century where you can find the equivalent in a transcription by Webern, who treated J. S. Bach’s Musical Offering in a similar fashion. Here’s Bach’s melodic statement at the opening of the work’s Ricercar. And now here’s Webern’s transcription (8.557531) with melodic fragments being tossed around the score like the aforementioned shuttlecocks to add colour and texture to the original, a process termed Klangfarbenmelodie.

Sentence rhythms are sacrificed to the blender when a news discussion group gets out of hand, resulting in a distressing free-for-all puncturing of civilised punctuation. Stravinsky isn’t alone in having written music that similarly removes rhythmic terra firma, but his Rite of Spring (8.557508) might be quoted as one of the first examples to so disturb the listener with its arrhythmia that the theatre audience rioted on its first airing. There are passages where hardly a few seconds go by without the time signature changing, often to highly irregular rhythmic cells. Nowadays, this produces an excitement for the listener akin to aural intoxication that would have left the audience at its premiere a century ago rather incredulous.

My next complaint concerns how inFURiated I get when a news anchor tries to tell me I should be infuriATED instead. This shifting of the accent from its rightful position to another syllable reminds me of all those Baroque works I’ve conducted and ended up a dizzy wreck: my conducting arm would always insist on indicating the second, weaker beat in a bar as the first, stronger downbeat. My shame at this was salved when speaking with an international pianist-conductor recently. He recounted a similar exasperation at having to perform a Handel keyboard concerto and conduct at the same time, suffering from the same problem of the first beat of the bar seeming to go walkies. Try conducting this 2-in-a-bar extract from J. S. Bach’s French Suite No. 5 (8.550710), firstly using a down beat on the opening notes (easy, but wrong) and then repeat the exercise, starting with an upbeat instead (less comfortable, but right) and you might see what I mean. We’ve thrown in a bit of rubato to add to your dizzy factor.

Pop and jazz music thrives on displacement of the strong beat – generally called syncopation – from pop’s simple emphasis of weak beats percussively (back beats) to the bewildering lost-and-found challenge in spotting the strong beat when it goes astray in jazz. This improvisation a la Art Tatum of Aunt Hagar’s Blues (8.559130) demonstrates the point.

To end, I’ve chosen two pieces constructed on regular rhythmic patterns: one so complicated, that it’s hard to believe there is method behind the meandering that hits the ears; the other so simple, that it gets your hips swinging.

Messiaen used non-retrogradable rhythms, namely passages in which the rhythm was the same played forwards as backwards; these were then treated to certain specified augmentations and diminutions. If it sounds complicated, it is. The bottom line is the paradox that something so highly organised rhythmically should sound so unfettered by any feeling of pulse. Toe-tapping is certainly foiled here. Listen to the first movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (8.554824) which uses such a rhythm in the piano part, and see if your toes agree.

Finally, if you have 8 short beats in a bar, you can group them into 4+4, or 2+2+2+2 to give a straightforward regular pulse. Or, you can mess around with that regularity by choosing 3+3+2. And then you have a rumba rhythm. To play us out with an example of this arrangement in the accompaniment, please enjoy Arthur Benjamin’s Jamaican Rumba (8.223522) while I go off and growl at the latest TV news bulletins.

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