[REPOST] Rhythm

I have only just realized — late enough! — that music is much
more about time than about sound.

It is impossible to think that I will have time to fully internalize and
act upon this insight, but it is bound to condition my future work, in
some ways, to some degree.

I have Padraic Colum (Irish author, 1881-1972) to thank for kicking off
this train of thought. In an introduction to a 1944 English Grimm(*),
he writes:

“In the place where the storyteller was, the coming of night was marked
as it was not in towns, nor in modern houses. It was so marked that it
created in the mind a different rhythm. There had been a rhythm of the
day, and now there was a rhythm of the night.

The storyteller, seated on a roughly-made chair on a clay floor, did
not look unusually intelligent or sensitive. He certainly did not look
histrionic. What was in his face showed that he was ready to respond
to, and make articulate, the rhythm of the night. He was a storyteller
because he was attuned to this rhythm and had, in his memory, the
often-repeated incidents that would fit it….

A rhythm that was compulsive, fitted to daily tasks, waned, and a
rhythm that was acquiescent, fitted to wishes, took its place. But when
the distinction between day and night could be passed over, as it could
be in towns and in modern houses, the change of rhythm that came with
the passing of day into night ceased to be marked. This happened when
light was prolonged until it was time to turn to sleep.

The prolongation of light meant the cessation of traditional stories in
cottages….Then came lamps with full and steady light, lamps that gave
real illumination. Told under this illumination, the traditional
stories ceased to be appropriate, because the rhythm that gave them
meaning was weakened.”

Colum’s next following paragraph is succinctly, completely, and
devastatingly explanatory of modern politics, but we are talking about
music, and so is he: the semantics of the organization of time.

To us who live and breathe “serious” or “art” music, the human craving
for any music, even bad music – sometimes, as far as can be seen, specifically for bad music –
is a whole territory of bafflement, distasteful if not horrifying
(except right along its nearer edge).

But listen to what Colum says. We humans are absolutely confined to a
timelike geodesic, a line from which we cannot turn right or left, along
which we can neither slow down or speed up. What we can do, and
therefore must do, with this merciless, intractable thing is to
measure it – specifically, to measure it on a hierarchy of scales, from
milliseconds to millenia. (Colum does not engage that last point; his
rhythm, in the quoted passage, is on one scale only, the circadian. He
is talking about the practice and the experience of storytelling;
elsewhere he deals with the longer time scales of the content of the
stories.) It is just as important for us to be able to orient ourselves
in time as in space, perhaps more so.

Suppose we could not? If we did not measure time, if we could not
locate ourselves within it, we might be able to form memories, but we
could not use them, share them, learn from them. Time is always
pressing its featureless opacity on us, tempting us to be lazy; we must
work, constantly, to keep ourselves oriented in time, on whatever scale.

Hence the insatiable human craving for music, where “music” includes
everything from the ticking of a clock, to the nested cycles of history
(collective or personal), to the music of the spheres. The first
mathematical imperatives were calendrical; the first technology, the
clock. Silence brings disorientation; true silence, the kind that few
of us ever practically experience, not just the absence of air
vibrations but of every kind of periodic stimuli, would bring total

(originally posted 12 February 2017)

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