Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Varieties of Musical Time

I'm surprised to find I have only one tag that really fits: tempo. I used to tell students that the "timing" of a piece of music only refers to the length of the performance or recording: so many minutes and seconds. The words we use to describe musical time are tempo (the pace of the music measured in beats per minute), the meter (how those beats are grouped) and the rhythm (what pattern of long and short notes are played in that meter at that tempo).

But that really just scratches the surface. In the experience of playing and listening to music, we can distinguish many different kinds of musical time. For example, one of the oldest forms of Western music is the chant of the Catholic Church. Though often called "Gregorian" chant after Pope Gregory (pope from 590 to 604 AD), he did not have a great deal to do with the creation of the corpus of chant. Here is a sample:

This is a kind of musical time in which there is an open and relatively free kind of pulse. In fact the pulse is de-emphasized in favor of the flowing line. I wrote a piece for guitar in which I specifically sought to have as little sense of pulse as possible:


There are actually three kinds of musical time in that piece. Most of it is long held single notes without a measured pulse. This is the "chant" music. Then there are brief flurries of grace notes that also don't have a pulse, but are like little glimmers or a spray of sound fragments. Then there is a quote from the chant Pange Lingua, which is measured, though not very strictly.

In opera and oratorio there is a long tradition of different kinds of musical time. Recitative sections are performed in a rather free way that is a kind of musical prose. They are used instead of spoken dialogue to explain or describe or advance the narrative. Typically a recitative sets the stage for an aria. In fact, musicologists refer to "aria time" when the narrative of the opera stops while a character expresses a particular feeling or mood. In one sense the aria is a moment out of time. Here is an example of a famous recitative and aria from the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, "Deh vieni, non tardar":

The singer "speaks" her phrases over held chords in the orchestra, there is no consistent pulse. Then the aria, beginning around the 1:30 mark is in a very clear 3/4.

The French overture provides us with two other contrasting kinds of musical time: there is a slow section, characterized by dramatic harmonies and very dynamic dotted rhythms--this is contrasted with a middle section in a quicker tempo with running notes. It is a bit hard to describe in words, but the effect of the first section is to capture the listener's attention with dramatic gestures while the middle section is action and movement oriented, more dance-like. This is the Overture in the French Style, BWV 831 by Bach, played by Scott Ross. The first movement is the actual overture. The faster middle section starts at the 2:28 mark, in a quick 3/4, which contrasts with the duple time of the slow section:

There are a host of other kinds of musical time: long-held drones such as we find in John Luther Adams, constant pulse as we find in Steve Reich, layered textures where there may be long-held notes in one part while others move in contrasting rhythms (lots of passages like that in Shostakovich symphonies) and so on. A composition can be in a single kind of musical time, or have sections in contrasting musical times or have layers of different music times.

I think I will leave it there for today!

[I am not seeing the clip of my piece show up, though it is there in the post. Is it just me or can others see it? It is the second example.]

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