Wednesday, December 24, 2014

More About Beats

If you are one of the many people whose sense of pitch interferes with your ability to objectify the beat, you will understand how frustrating it is when theorists or other musicians claim that the beat exists a priori, apart from pitch awareness. 

How many times have I listened to contemporary jazz where there is no temptation to locate a beat, where the music is so fluid that beats seem irrelevant - not that rhythm is missing, quite the contrary.  It is simply not emphasized.

Two important examples of what I am talking about: 
  • I used to study Toscanini recordings with one of those wonderful metronomes into which you tap and it registers the rate of pulsation.  Lo and behold! this master of the steady beat kept a steady fluctuation around 60, regardless of the tempo marking.  It went higher or lower, not always the quarter note as the rate of movement.  But there it was, crystal clear: the impression of a steady beat is just that, an impression.
  • I have taught jazz musicians whose work was based on steady rhythmic structures.  I have been stunned, as have they, by their enslavement to such beats, which keeps them from responding to the natural fluctuations of tension and release in so much piano repertoire.   There is every reason to go with the flow in Chopin and Brahms, also in Mozart and Haydn, and why leave out Bach, Beethoven, and Handel? 
A regular beat may be called for to hold an ensemble together, but even then it is of limited usefulness.  Good musicians listen to one another, play with regularity to keep it lively.  When that clockwork sensation kicks in you know someone has been giving priority to counting rehearsal minutes rather than attending to the music.