Monday, January 16, 2012

Song and Dance

One summer I was studying with a very famous teacher and played for him, in the master-class, my transcription of the First Cello Suite by J. S. Bach. He had a conservative side and since my transcription was in A major rather than in the usual D major, he refused to take it seriously. The next morning at breakfast he apologized for giving me a "song and dance" and asked me to play it again for him. The second time he gave me some good ideas.

This phrase, "song and dance" reminds me of something so fundamental about music that we usually forget it. All music is really based, on the most fundamental level, on either the activity of singing or dancing. In most pieces of instrumental music the two are fused together so closely it is sometimes hard to separate them. But it is an interesting thing to do, nonetheless. This is pure song:

So is this:

This is pure dance:

And so is this:

But much instrumental music fuses the two fundamental ideas, melody and rhythm, together:


Anonymous said...

I have thought about this way of looking at the matter since about 1980 when I had a habit of spending an hour or so each day moving (usually half-drunkenly) to the rhythm of then popular tunes. At the time, I supposed I had an insight into why such (mindless) music could have an appeal and satisfied myself with the idea that "dance music" is made for the joints and sinews of stretching bodies (not minds) between something and about 30 yrs of age -- otherwise little appeal. Be that as it may...

In the post, you refer to the Chant as "this" and the videdo seems to show musicologists in a library performing, rather than monks in a choir. So, I suppose the "this" is the piece AS conceived or performed AS a series of sounds. I can't argue against that, but I think the Baez was a better example of pure song for the point I took you to be making.

The thing is that Gregorian is made to pray. The "lyrics" are mostly Psalms or other poems from the Bible. And, with or without musical accompaniment, monks recite those songs day-in and day-out. The difference when there is music is that, in addition to the recitation (however piously and heartfelt) of the words, a non-verbal physical activity takes place in the body of the singer. [Hence St. Augustine "qui cantat, bis orat -- who sings, prays twice."]

Having been in the musical Solesmes congregation, I can report first-hand that this activity (of sung prayer in the Gregorian modes) involves the whole body and being of the monk even including the acoustical responsiveness of the monastic church. I think it is odd to call it "dance", but if we take the dance vs song as a methodological tool, I suppose it must be so. Then it is less song than dance.

Thank you again, repectfully, RG

Bryan Townsend said...

The YouTube clip of the Gregorian chant is an excerpt advertising a release from the Belgian label Ricercar and I believe that the people singing are indeed monks. I think the photo that appears partway through might be the record label people? But they aren't identified, so I don't actually know.

That's a very good point about chant being a form of prayer. Looking at it from my single-minded perspective, I see chant as purely melodic unaccompanied singing (though I notice that in one place in the excerpt there is a second voice...)

To my mind, if it curves in the air, like the chant does, it's melody. If it thumps on the ground, it's dance!