A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
Consider the subway -- the New York subway, one that's still loud. You stand on a busy platform and you can hear a multitude of rhythms. Your train is coming in just as the express passes, and another train just heads out. Incomprehensible announcements blare, entry gates clack, and electronic bells urge you to stay away from the closing doors. Inside, the sound is muffled until the door between cars opens. Another train passes, a thump to your left. The muffling changes as the train rises out of the darkness toward 125th Street, diving down again after the doors have brought in a breeze of street sounds. Down, stop, leave the train as it pulls away all clattering and voices, and the walk out into the street -- a dozen different footfalls ascending the steps.
This is two-dimensional rhythm, moving pulses of sound that overlap as you pass through them or they pass by you. The territory was explored by Charles Ives with the illusion of bands marching past an open window in the fourth symphony's second movement. It was explored differently and precisely by Conlon Nancarrow in his player piano studies, especially the thirty-seventh study, with a dozen separate tempi, or the magnificent twenty-first study, where one part slows down while the other speeds up, crossing at the center point. The problem with both composers' rhythmic music is the lack of musical progeny. It was touched in jazz by Albert Ayler and particularly in Ornette Coleman's Lonely Woman, where irregular slow figures are painted over a surface of highly energetic percussion.
Probably Lonely Woman, had it also explored shifting rhythmic figures, would have been two-dimensional as well as biological. When I spoke of biology, it was in reference to those shifts -- the heart speeds up or relaxes or skips; the lungs breathe quickly or slowly, deeply or shallowly; the cheek tics; and, of course, the voice proceeds at the pace and rhythm and stress of meaning even while employing the palette of pitch, noise, filtering, and rhythm.
Let's start assembling this. Go back to Sunday's train tracks on their side and think of them as a changing rhythm, one that changes differently depending on the one's perspective. Blend into the image an irregularity as well, that chaotically-driven biology -- not quite an acoustic analog of Jackson Pollock's more chaotic Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), but getting there. It was painted by a series of choices along with chaos, and its deep and perpetual appeal over a half century rests with more than a pretty design. And while thinking of the Pollock, drift back to Picasso and, say, The Dream wherein the artist offers a look at the same person from multiple perspectives. The face is seen from the side and the front, and the figure is bent from profile toward the viewer. Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase also takes multiple perspectives, but of the same figure shifted in time. Norman McLaren's 1968 13-minute short film Pas de deux is a moving version of Duchamp and Picasso, elegantly shifting viewpoint and rhythm to the sound of the Roumanian Folk Orchestra. (Never seen it? Here.)
Another step: The mix. Though Ives's bands and Nancarrow's player pianos are part of the distant past, the mix CD is not. Granted, only the ends of pieces are tailed together, but the rhythmic essences are blended. The listener is released from one piece and eased into the next, all the while hearing and accommodating both. The attention is drawn away, the subway trains pass, all below the horizon of attention but not unperceived and certainly not without consequence. John Cage and Lejaren Hiller suggested the future mix CD in their massive HPSCHD, where multiple compositions were played at once in a three-dimensional space, as did other composers; but being avant-gardists or modernists, they mixed avant-garde or modernist elements, moving media simultaneously. My 1972 Praeludium: All White used some traditional elements (Bach, Brahms, Stravinsky, and other composers) in a set of unsynchronized loops, but again a mass of simultaneity. The mix CD moves only the ends together in a rhythmic loop, mixing a sufficient quantity to create rhythmic transition as if moving from place to place -- the mix does not force listeners to change, but the inevitability of it lets listeners change as if it were their expectation all along.
When the rhythmic transition is invoked by a crowd chanting in the subway car after a sports win, a two-dimensional rhythm is created that is non-harmonic. Rails and footsteps and doors and warning sounds are part of an environment that is anticipated and consistent. A subway ride, from turnstile to exit gate, is an urban composition of consistent color and pulse, Pollock's Autumn Rhythm underground. Its repetition is in some measure a compression of natural but unsynchronized cycles of tides, days, seasons, moons, and planets -- understood, a part of life, organizationally imperceptible but nonetheless inevitable. The car going by on the country road, the fireworks show after a football game, the popping echo of fall rifle season -- these are non-harmonic rhythms. Eventually they become integrated in the rural landscape, as team shout-outs become integrated in the urban one.
The transition between rhythm and form, then, occurs fruitfully in two dimensions, where the form is not the shape of the composition, but the placement in space and time. One more example. Follow the rhythm of motion during a single day. Roll or swing out of bed, stand and settle, walk forward at a changing pace, hands reaching for doors and taps, brushing in a different rhythm, combing, showering, drying, walking again, the complex rhythms of dressing (the shoelaces, the necktie, the French braid), out the door and across to the stairs, a different pace down (or the fermata in the elevator), stepping quickly... and onward through subways and escalators and offices and toward the coffee maker or water cooler, and back again. The linear action itself is a complex rhythm, but when combined with the shift through space and extended time, it is both natural and inherently meaningful.
The musical implication is suddenly clear: No small elements, that is, no metrical components are useful except as the (unheard) timekeeper. The inevitability comes not from stability or repetition, but from anticipation of change.
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