Uprooting me; no virtue in
Using force but not skill.
Lesson IV - The Rhythm of Time
So much has been said in the past concerning time, and there has been an obvious evolution in common notions of time. St. Augustine saw time as an infinite series of "nows" and denied the existence of a past or a future. The past is only what is retained in the memory, whereas the future is a notion which comes from our anticipation of what is to come.1 Moderns explain his concept of time away, saying that it is a notion that comes from living by the hourglass.2 Today, we tend to think of time as a series of uniform increments by which we can measure the past and the future. This attitude is, of course, reinforced in us many times a day by our clocks. We are now obsessed with what has happened in the past and what is to come, whereas the present, which to St. Augustine was all that exists of Time, has become deemphasized to a point short of denying its existence. Musical notation has reinforced this tendency.3
Musical notation was introduced in the church for political, rather than spiritual, reasons. It was invented because of the need caused by Charlemagne who was pressuring the church to have all of its parts sing the same chants when performing their rites. He obviously understood the power of music and wished to exploit it to unite his empire.4 Brother Guido d' Arezzo devised an ingenious system which allowed the chants and songs to be remembered and taught, and so solfegio was born. Rhythm retained its natural complexity, for music was still allowed to flow freely in a series of two's and threes, each being added to what was before. Upon the advent of the Ars Nova, a system of measured rhythm was established that was as accurate as the clock. Some new complexities were then possible because of this, such as polyphony that is composed by one person.5 However, we then became bound to the regularity of a set pulse. Now, there are many fine musicians who cannot express themselves in sound unless it has been written down for them in this relatively new form of notation. The time has come for us to revitalize the notion of time as the present.
All events have rhythm. Rhythm is merely a word to describe events as they succeed each other in time. It is then absurd to say that "that musical piece has no rhythm," when what one really means is "that piece does not have a regular pulse." Yet even this more accurate phrase cannot be entirely true, for what seems irregular can be seen as regular simply by making finer subdivisions of the pulse (if one insists on measuring time in a clock-like fashion). As was demonstrated in Lesson II, the appreciation of what seems irregular is a matter of refinement. The vulgar insist on a rather violent regularity of pulse, which is certainly oppressive to those with finer sensibilities. They have grown so accustomed to such regularity that this clock-like pulse must go on even if it opposes the changing mental state of the individual who is playing, or what he is playing will sound "wrong" to them.
Regular rhythm which conforms to the metronome has its own ratios which correspond to those that we found when we were discussing tones. It is important that we consider them now because, as I implied before, this regularity is so expected by the masses that its manipulation will have a powerful effect on them. Regular rhythm (as well as melody which I will discuss in the next lesson) is useful only for preaching, for it appeals to the very lowest (but fundamental) sensibilities; our animal nature. Regular rhythm has obvious parallels to copulation, which is common to all animals that are not hermaphrodites, and varying from it parallels the seduction of human love-making. The farther we move away from it the more that is required of our intellect. In our present system of notation, all rhythms are limited to subdivisions of a single pulse which usually ranges between 40-132 beats per minute. The ratios to pulse are then almost too simple to discuss, for they are always a whole number variable to one. Different pulses can be perceived, layered one on top of the other, in what are called polyrhythms. The simpler ratios are easier to perceive because they may be subdivided in larger units and seen as part of one pulse. For example, a polyrhythm of 3 against 2 can be seen as at the tempo of the faster pulse with each unit of the second pulse being equal to one and a half of the other. The subdivision is, therefore, one half beat. The higher the ratios, the more difficult it is to perceive the increasingly smaller subdivisions. Tempo changes within a piece of music can be seen as polyrhythmic relationships, for the mind easily retains the original tempo and will perceive any new change as a relation to the first.6 This rather lengthy explanation of the common uses of rhythm should provide clues as to how one may break out of that binding uniformity that could easily cause lust. We may find ourselves using regular rhythm to attract new followers to our ways, as a doctor may use sugar to make his medicine more palatable.7 However, an exclusive use of sugar numbs the sense of taste and makes everything else taste bitter. When one performs our rites with lay persons, one may use polyrhythms for adding complexity and eventually cause the abandonment of that machine-like pulse completely.
I am not saying that a regular pulse is bad. It is just one tool that can be used in our devotions to God. You will remember that we used it to help us with the Long-tone Exercise. We can also use it to help us bring people to the faith, and as in our work with harmony, we should work with what we are able to comprehend. However, please do not let a regular pulse lull us into a dull-minded complacency, but work against our expectations in order to keep our hearts and minds awake and open to God's eternal music which never ceases to challenge us. Once you are locked into a steady pulse, you cannot hope to understand God's complex rhythms.
St. John has often attempted to "randomize" the rhythms of his meditations but is always surprised by the structure that remains, due to God's infinite hierarchy of rhythmic structure. St. John's sensibilities are so refined that he becomes ecstatic even when listening to the most jarring (and seemingly cacophonous) sounds. When one has reached this height of perception, then one may catch a glimpse of God's Time which can be described as one eternal moment. Chance, then, ceases to exist for all has become providence.8 So far, we have limited ourselves to the rhythm of our breathing. We will now expand our meditation by attempting to incorporate our perceptions of God's rhythms.
Rule for the Day: Continue playing single tones but at varying lengths which correspond to other sounds in the environment.
2 St. Augustine; Confessions.
3 Taruskin, Richard and Piero Weiss; Music in the Western World; 1984.
7 Epstein, David; "Tempo Relations in Music: A Universal?"; Beauty and the Brain; 1988.
8 St. Basil; Exegetic Homilies.
8 Boethius; Consolation of Philosophy.