On the Northern Beat

The rhythm of art

By Jan Peterson

In this electronic age everything, it seems, is digital. Bluegrass instruments are a wonderful exception to that particular rule, allowing the nuanced resonances of “wooden box” amplification (pioneered centuries ago) to produce the sweet sounds we have been conditioned to expect from our wood and metal instruments. 

We have given a nod to electrification by adding microphones, in order to pick up the subtleties of natural over-tones produced by vibrating strings and less-strenuously project that music to a listening audience. And what a godsend it is to be able to vocally project throughout an auditorium, or an outdoor field full of people, without having to over-strain our vocal chords: ain’t mics wonderful? 

With digitalization comes precision: for example, in the Olympic Games, contests between athletes can be decided by one-hundredths of a second! But in a musical presentation, on the other hand, absolute timing accuracy is not necessarily a good thing:  it can, in fact, make a musical composition come off as overly machine-like and un-human. But not keeping a reasonably regular rhythm is at least equally disturbing. This question of how to balance repetitive precision with artistic freedom, pitting accuracy against interpretation, has been around for as long as there has been music.

Early on (well before the electronic age) there were no “regular” beats available as a reference, so people got creative: they used their own pulse (heart beat rhythm) to judge “regular” timing. This idea of regular timing is especially critical for large groups of musicians attempting to play together. I think that’s why conductors were invented: to force orchestral musicians to share the same beat, as directed by the conductor’s waving wand. But orchestral musicians had to pay close attention to the conductor, because there was no such thing as a “regular” beat—except for short-duration episodes within an overall composition; there were “movements” which varied in all kinds of ways, including rhythmically.

By the eighteenth century, composers were using terms like “Andante” (which is Italian for “walking”) to invoke a somewhat shared experience of repetitiveness in order to establish a “proper” timing. Terms like “Tempo di Minuetto” made reference to an established organized dance, where the dance movements, themselves, dictated a rhythm to be shared. If they had comedy back then, I’m sure it would have included the idea of an off-tempo (up-tempo) interpretation of organized dance timing that would have left the poor dancers frazzled (think of Groucho, Larry & Moe sharing conducting responsibilities).  So, some progress was being made on the “regular” timing front, but it was all still very subjective.  

In the age of enlightenment, attempts were made to link rhythm to the movements of a clock. When someone discovered that the length of a pendulum affects the speed of its motion, instrument makers seized upon that new understanding to create the classical clock-like metronome, with a sliding weight on a thin metal bar, so that it will swing back and forth in a regular rhythm dictated by the exact placement of the weight along the length of the bar. Thus, a truly steady beat of “X” beats per minute could be established with accuracy. And now, of course, we have digital metronomes that can churn out a steady rhythm with extreme precision.

Which just gets us back to our original dilemma: rhythmic accuracy? Or artistic license?  Well, we know that going to either extreme ALL the time is problematic. I do know someone who wants to “get out ahead” of the beat. The problem is that doing that all the time means speeding up! But thinking through that issue made me realize, like many problems, what this problem needs is a solution that doesn’t buy into the “either/or” approach espoused above.

The answer is to do both, instead of trying to choose only one, turn an “either/or” into a “both/and” solution. It’s just that “coordination” needs to be added into the equation; you keep a steady beat for some period of time before you vary the rhythm, or jump around, in front of, or behind, the rhythm. And then repeat, or vary your repetition so that it doesn’t seem like repetition. Or... you come up with some idiosyncratic interpretation of how to combine these elements.

I think “mixing it up” is a good way to introduce variety—as opposed to just monotonous repetition, or just a-rhythmic/non-rhythmic exuberance—and get to experience them all, within an over-all unifying framework. No, not ALL the time, of course, it’s best to stay away from the extremes. Selections of different combinations of the musical options available to you (or invented by you), all deliberately chosen to coordinate with the emotions being evoked vocally, that’s the trick!   

And HOW you do all that is what makes “art.”

And, yes, there are always exceptions to [any] rule.