The Book Cooks
Excerpt from

Ways & Sounds: inquires interconnections contours
patrick brennan
(Arteidolia Press, New York)

Chapter 19
The Sociality of Rhythm

God’s Eye View


The parameters of sound most commonly cited are duration, frequency, amplitude, timbre and, sometimes, morphology. Where sound acts as hub, body, hinge and image, as it does in music, what stands out most here is that rhythm is absent from these designated properties of “sounds in themselves.” The implication is that rhythm is extrasonic, that the vibrations that constitute sounds resonate from activities that might otherwise be silent, unheard and unrecognized.

Sound in itself may occasion experience, but it is also symptom, and possibly signal. It’s both body and intermediary. Sound’s source is action, change, movement, difference, friction. And while recurrent patterns of movement may range among the cosmic, microbiological, geological or subatomic, the perceivers of these rhythms (therefore part of a rhythm’s generation) are those who recognize them as such. This is also to say that listeners “music” sounds.

This actuality provided a basis for John Cage’s arguments on behalf of an abolition of music. He asserted rightly that any sound can be listened to musically, that each listener may compose a music to one’s own ears from whatever soundscape might be presenting itself. This opportunity has always been available to anyone willing to notice it, so, to that extent, he’s reissued what could be a perennial wake up call. He angled further that listeners should behold “sounds in themselves” as aesthetically autonomous entities, disabused of any associations with their context or origins; again, something anyone can do anytime and not really dependent on whether people actively generate musical sound or not.

On behalf of unfettered sounds being heard as “music,” Cage sought to purge human musical sound generation of human intention.  He devised theatrically laborious methods of organizing compositional decisions through chance driven methodologies in order to transcend the biases of personal likes and dislikes and to “liberate” sound from human projected meanings and mannerisms.

Having, with exceptional wit, cleverness and invention made his point, Cage also affirmed the complete pointlessness of musical activity: if all and any sounds present “equal” musicality, then the act of generating sounds for listeners turns no more than distractingly redundant and superfluous. His work proposes a totally listenercentric soniverse that hints at a gated community nostalgia for the posthuman, for a purity of soundscapes untainted by human entanglements, for what the poet Robert Duncan once humorously critiqued as a “god’s eye view.”

As composer, Cage embraced this pointlessness of musical activity with the support of his interpretations of Zen Buddhism. If his incorporation of Zen sensibility might have been less touristic, one could have expected him to, like Zen masters of yore, to have withdrawn from everyday society to a remote hut in the mountains where he could serenely embrace the ecstatic roar of all things. Instead he went public and prolific, gradually reaping the institutional benefits sometimes bestowed upon composers within the pan-European monological tradition, within which he played the avant-gardist role of loyal opposition: both internal dissenter and external defender.

Although packaged in a disarmingly affable persona, Cage was both dismissive and patronizing toward African American dialogical music. As far as music was concerned, his anarchist sympathies for freedom and self determination extended to listeners but not quite so far as those actors who imagine and sound music. In the sequel to his groundbreaking and influential book Silence, A Year from Monday, Cage opined:

Music as discourse (jazz)
doesn’t work.
If you’re going to have a discussion.
have it, and use words.

The didactic authority of this pronouncement appears to slosh among some half-baked ambiguities. One could ask, where Cage selects the word “discourse,” why didn’t he indicate, say, motivic development instead, which has been so fundamental to centuries of pan-European (as well as other) musical practices which “discuss” a particular sonic pattern. And, when he says, “doesn’t work;” doesn’t work for whom? Doesn’t work for what? No clue.

Discussion and dialogue are not exactly identical, but Cage might have been objecting to multipersonic, dialogical composition on principle. Musical sound marked by recognizable traces of compositional personae is at variance with his own desire to efface the appearance of personal agency within music. And, although in many ways attracted to organizational decentralization, Cage may have also taken issue with the music’s compositional social structure itself, especially as it both evolved outside the pan-European tradition and challenged the hegemony of monological organization.

George Lewis, in his comprehensive and carefully nuanced 2002 essay, Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives, points out that, about five to eight years after the emergence of bebop, some Euroclassicist composers began to respond to the possible solutions dialogical procedures demonstrated regarding impasses within their own tradition, but without openly acknowledging the source. He quotes Anthony Braxton’s Triaxium Writings, "Both aleatory and indeterminism are words which have been coined ... to bypass the word improvisation and as such the influence of non-white sensibility.”

Cage may have tried to square the circle of maintaining the cultural hierarchy of Eurological practices over others (which corresponds with the colonial inheritance of white privilege in both Europe and the Americas) while attempting to incorporate regenerative innovations from artists historically relegated by violence, law, hypocrisy and custom to second class social status. In departure from the stable sonic imagery previously sought through monological methodologies, Cage activated performances where exactly which sounds happen becomes unforeseen, variable, indeterminate, and therefore, each time intrinsically experimental and unique.

Of course, formalist engagement with the unforeseen had already been frequenting bandstands in Harlem, on 52nd street and beyond for quite a while, but it seems that Cage preferred maintaining the unidirectional compositional relationships characteristic of monological organization’s propensity for presenting musical sounds as strictly autonomous sonic objects. His solution to this dilemma proposed an artifactual indeterminacy that initiates unpredictable sonic events while (in contrast with dialogical procedures) prohibiting any compositional response to these unforeseens.

“Bad politics make good art,’ Cage once wrote, “but of what use is good art?” Through an insistence on monological structure, even if liberalized and finessed with deliberately vague indications, this often innovative composer conveniently sidestepped some of musical composition’s core structural challenges in relation to information flow and communication by appearing to assume that they don’t really exist.

Cage’s cake-and-eat-it-too espousal of an agentless music (where chance determines his compositions but for which he still takes credit) is problematic in other ways. Disavowal of agency edges close to anonymity, not the absence of celebrity once enjoyed by some artists in medieval Europe, but the impunity conferred through the anonymity of authority. It’s possible that Cage could afford to affect such “disappearance” because his features, complexion and educational background (symbols of an emperor’s-new-clothes transcendence of “history” and “memory”) in themselves didn’t immediately threaten his day to day access to a reasonably unimpeded and full existence.

Accordingly, he could, with little challenge, concur with those social/aesthetic boundaries that have coded Eurological music variously as “serious,” “experimental,” “new,” “art,” “concert,” “avant-garde,” “composed” or “contemporary” as if none of these terms could ever have applied to Charlie Parker or any others outside its self-designated loop, a genteel sort of aesthetic, interpersonal and access-to-resource apartheid that has yet to mature into healthy pluralism.

Cage’s thought is nevertheless worth contending with because his contributions to music are far enough from trivial. His work challenges anyone who encounters it to not take for granted one’s own conceptions and preconceptions of musical possibility. More than anyone else, he broke down the conventional barriers between “musical” and “non-musical” sound, and his ideas and example have found application and influence well beyond the practice of music. His cultivation, especially with choreographer Merce Cunningham, of non-interfering simultaneities demonstrates (likely “without intention”) an important expansion of the constructive principles of polyrhythm.

He also proffers a solid critique of the impact of rhythm on musical sound. If sounds are being asked to function as Duchampian found objects, the perceptual gravities of rhythm tend to subsume sounds within an externally imposed matrix of emphases and deemphases that distracts listeners from each sound’s intrinsic morphology.  And he does have a point. Perpetual insistence on the arbitrary imposition of a beat, regardless of the character of other participating sounds, impoverishes the far wider range of rhythms that can be felt and recognized.

Cage’s deliberate, stopwatch parceled arhythmics also counterpose the unavoidable rhythmic propensities of his all too human audiences. Repeated listening to a recording of any random sonic event can elicit identifications of pattern and interconnection. And, as one begins to condense and generalize a sense of shape, sequence and progression, one may also engage in rhythms of anticipation and proportionate comparison. The tendency to group sounds into distinctive identities with beginnings, middles and ends begins to punctuate a soundscape with rhythmic markings. And, even an unprecedented listening may map itself against other hearings of the same sort and friction some sort of responsive pulsation. One can become so accustomed to randomness that it might acquire an acceptably dronelike continuity all its own.




“If you’re going to have a discussion, have it, and use words.” Cage may well have insisted on words, but one of his coevals, the anthropologist Edward T. Hall, was suggesting at the same time that as much as 90% of human communication is non-verbal. Hall began his work in the 1930s, emphasizing friendship (in sharp contrast with other more “disinterested” anthropological procedures) as his primary approach to participant observation. He initiated intercultural communication as a formal area of study, studies of non-verbal communication – as in the case of what he came to call proxemics (interpersonal spatial distance as a language of social communication), studies of cultural notions of interactive time and his conceptualization of technology as an amplification or extension of the human body, a notion foundationally influential on one of Cage’s own favorite thinkers, Marshall McLuhan.

“Viewed in the context of human behavior, time is organization.” wrote Hall in his 1983 The Dance of Life, where he discussed the findings of William Condon, a researcher trained in kinesics, philosophy (with a special interest in phenomenology) and psychology, who coined the term entrainment: “the process that occurs when two or more people become engaged in each other’s rhythms.”

Condon spent a year and a half (four to five hours a day) in the 1960s studying 4-1/2 seconds of Professor Gregory Bateson’s film of a family eating dinner. He wore out 130 copies of this 4-1/2 second sequence. Each copy weathered 100,000 viewings.

Condon used sophisticated time-motion analysis to “identify the building blocks used in the organization of human behavior” and discovered correlations between components of speech, the body’s accompanying microgestures and brain wave frequencies, a coordination of a person with one’s own rhythms that Hall refers to as self-synchrony.  Hall focuses briefly on a single nine word, one second long, phase spoken in the film clip:

During this one second the subject’s arm is precisely coordinated with the theta wave pattern; her eye blinks are in sync with the beta wave pattern; the alpha rhythm is in sync with the words or vice versa.  Condon states: “These basic rhythms seem to become part of the very being of the person. ... His whole body participates in that rhythm and its hierarchic complexities. In fact, the oneness and unity between speech and body motion is truly awesome.

Theta brainwaves pulse at rates from about 240 to 420 per minute. This corresponds with up-tempo musics that move faster than human perceptual capacities for identifying each individual pulse as a distinct identity. The speed of alpha waves ranges from about 480 to 780 per minute, which are tempos reaching toward the very fastest physically playable time sequences and beyond the limits for cortically processing a pulse as such. Beta waves move at rates from about 960 to 1860 beats per minute, which is up to just below the minimum rate of perceptible pitch. Hall notes that:

The definition of the self is deeply embedded in the rhythmic synchronic process. This is because rhythm is inherent in organization, and therefore has a basic design function in the organization of the personality. Rhythm cannot be separated from process and structure; in fact one can question whether there is such a thing as an eventless rhythm. Rhythmic patterns may turn out to be one of the most important basic personality traits that differentiate one human being from the next. All human rhythms begin in the center of the self, that is with self-synchrony.

... No matter where one looks on the face of this earth, wherever there are people, they can be observed syncing when music is played. There is a popular misconception about music. Because there is a beat to music, the generally accepted belief is that the rhythm originates in the music, not that music is a highly specialized releaser of rhythms already in the individual. ... Music can also be viewed as a rather remarkable extension of the(se) rhythms.

Master percussionist Milford Graves has researched the pulses of the literal, individual human heart as a primary locus of human rhythm and as a musical resource. A seasoned practitioner of acupuncture, herbalism and martial arts already well versed in Nigerian, Haitian and Cuban drum languages, Graves recognized that particular wisdoms concerning the interaction of musical time with heart rhythms had already been empirically worked out by musicians centuries before without the benefit of experimental analysis and theory.  He began recording heartbeats to inquire into their peculiar musicality to discover that a healthy heartbeat is actually a syncopated and polyrhythmic one, that amid the more evident primary pulses are more temporally irregular concurrent rhythmic pulses that, interestingly enough, most resemble the motion of free jazz.

One of the most dangerously vulnerable of heartbeats is one that pulses at the equidistant pace of clone time, stopwatch time, technical time. What it indicates is that the heart is no longer responding to its environment. It’s lost touch and has become unable to respond to the variable, complex, shifting nature of actual events.

If a sound might seem without rhythm, its listener will certainly bring some and/or discover some. If human interaction is intrinsically rhythmic, why wouldn’t musical interaction be rhythmic? And, why would music, like rhythm, not be biological, responsorial, dialogical and communicative?


Better Behaved Metrics


A key divergence between monological and dialogical dispositions toward time is in their handling of rhythm. In both, rhythm directs attention to quantity, measure, proportion, placement, sequence, emphasis, anticipation, magnetism, gravity, velocity, density, probability, predictability and shape. Monological applications tend to treat these primarily as dimensional components of a sonorous object being displayed. And while this may be no less a practical concern in dialogical contexts, these same rhythmic components also constitute interface and reference, posing intersections for structural communication and providing episodes of resistance against which to further decide. Dialogical rhythm facilitates association and interconnection, whether through divergence or convergence. It’s a call listening for response. Dialogical rhythm is intended to start something, to make something happen, to provoke fresh input and change, whereas monological objects tend to examine rhythm more as an illustrational device.

This might be easiest to notice in monological music where rhythm is given more design weight than elsewhere, as is the case with the musical tendency referred to as Minimalism, initiated by such composers as Terry Riley, Steve Reich, David Borden and Phillip Glass. These composers were much less circumspect about their debts to Afrological musics and other musics outside a pan-European inheritance. The foreground incorporation of looping rhythmic patterns with subtle, gradual transformations is unequivocally African and has no precedent whatsoever in Euroclassical practice. Riley has jazz experience and isn’t afraid of improvisation. Reich studied in Ghana and has been unapologetic in his admiration for John Coltrane’s music.

But the intentions are radically different. The surface of most of Reich’s music is replete with unoffensively pretty, cleanly tempered pitch intervals, often of a pentatonic or modal flavor, so much so that one might be tempted to hear it as sort of “Debussy does Africa,” except that that would be an insult to Debussy, who was never limp or decorative in his explorations of sound’s potential sensuosities. Although Reich’s adopted sonorities might appeal to high art aspiring listeners more comfortable with The Doors’ Light My Fire vamp tribute to Trane’s My Favorite Things than to the perhaps unsettling Black Utopia dreamed by Coltrane, Reich’s shopping-mall-bland palette is adroitly intended to direct listener attention to incremental development and evolution within the music’s sound body, which he accomplishes with great care, nuance and clarity.

The minimalist composers have constructed intricate and imaginative sonic imagery that couldn’t be achieved any other way (and often quite highly demanding of its performers), which is genuinely to their credit and well worth taking seriously, but they nevertheless continue a tradition of crafting precious objects for careful display within safely insulated vitrines. Rhythm, the shape and pattern of motion itself, has been, after centuries of religious and intellectual, suspicion, granted a respectable seat at the Eurological table, but it’s politely asked not to motivate.


Hyperrhythms in Waiting


Composer Conlon Nancarrow worked as a jazz trumpeter before joining the Abraham Lincoln brigade to fight totalitarian fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Disgusted with later being stigmatized for this contribution by his own government in the “land of the free,” he renounced his U.S. citizenship and lived the rest of his life in Mexico City. There, he came upon the notion of manually punching player piano rolls to design and sound his own constructions well before the technical options of computer and synthesizer generated sound would become available. Although unable to deliver the full pianoforte nuance of the human hand, the piano roll was unrestricted by number of fingers or reach and could sound humanly impossible agglomerations of what a piano keyboard could deliver, an opportunity that prompted his compositional imagination to probe beyond the reasonable or ordinarily practical.

His earliest works for this medium show his affection, respect and understanding toward U.S. African music as they extrapolate from a percussive foundation in boogie-woogie pianism and expand upon polyrhythmic principles of contrasting simultaneous multiple tempo strata further integrated with the sound mirroring potentials of canonic reflection and refraction. His designs progress from one to another with contagious what-if experimentation, relentlessly pushing the envelope beyond what anyone could play and what anyone had heard. Nancarrow’s utopian soniverse dreams toward a musical world that could happen in practice but, having been developed in the isolation of exile, leaves, at least for starters, some deeply thought through and viscerally impressive promises of what might be assayed.

Monological scholarship of Nancarrow’s work seems most drawn to its mathematical complexity, with rhythm evaluated primarily as a sophisticated abstract intellectual quantity. One important compositional analyst doesn’t even appear to find it necessary to find out, much less know, about concurrent, and not entirely unrelated, Afrological rhythmic investigations. Pyrotechnic displays of architectonic numerical virtuosity seem enough to justify not even considering dialogical designs and implications.

Nancarrow wasn’t at all constructing sound bodies just to show off, but there are compositional questions this remarkable sound sculpture format isn’t able to pursue. Designs to be sounded through a remote device – whether that be player piano, tape or amplified computer – don’t deal with the same structural challenges that successfully transferring compositional information to and through interpretive performers does. And dialogical structures are indigenously far more complex than both of these situations before either a single idea has entered the exchange or a first sound has emerged.


Inhabited Rhythm


Rhythms are more than pattern. They happen. Being location and moment specific, they have to be embodied. In fact, following on Condon’ and Hall’s observations, rhythm can’t be meaningfully separated from the reality of emergent bodily experience and existence. They can’t be assimilated within the limits of simplified, two dimensional abstractions or concepts. They have also to be felt, in some way understood, lived through and acted out. They have to be communicable, not only recognizable by a dialogical actor, but they have to be clearly enough articulated to reach other composers within an ensemble. They have to function multidimensionally, not only as numerically intriguing configurations, but as motion code, encapsulations of gradations of movement, proprioceptive redistributions, internal sensation, reactive templates. Design complexity for its own sake would, in this context, be most liable to yield the illustrational dryness of a bureaucratic missive. To put it almost tautologically, dialogical rhythmic design has to motivate. Its momentum has to (as Butch Morris has characterized the interactive essence of swing) spontaneously ignite, combust and propel.

This isn’t to say that rhythm must be metrically coordinated. Breath or interaction can reference rhythmic motion as effectively. What matters are the communicative interconnections that rhythm both characterizes and facilitates.

Neuroscientist António Damásio has so rewoven and repaired possible notions of brain-body intercommunication that it’s hard any more to insist on a practical separation of the two (one of his best known books is entitled, somewhat unsurprisingly, DescartesError). Well beyond the obvious nutritional dependency of brains on the organisms within which they function, Damásio followed the implications of damage to various areas of the brain to a discovery that what’s called rational thought is actually unsustainable without the orientation provided by emotion. Emotion confirms value, which then undergirds and directs thinking in setting priorities and maintaining focus. He describes how thinking plays out ideas and possible eventualities in the “theater of the body,” that one calls upon actual bodily sensations (in other words, feeling) while weighing thought.

Within a still wider arc, this same human rationality “must be seen as a form and derivative of a broader ‘mentality,’ or subjectivity, in nature as a whole,” as politcal philosopher Murray Bookchin has put it in his Ecology of Freedom. Haudenosaunee scholar John Mohawk also notes that Kanyen’kehà:ka understandings regard humans as the only ones around even capable of ir-rationality, an awareness that can help keep the allegations and practices of technocratic abstraction, or of any imperialism of instrumentality (whether in music or elsewhere), somewhat more within sane perspective.

Rhythm no less plays the theater of bodily consciousness, and its languages can be recognized as auditory parallels to the sculptor’s. Neither meaningfully drifts very far from the tactile, the actual, the kinetic and the concretely lived, nor can rhythm be sensibly distanced from personhood and therefore from human and compositional interaction. “Sounds in themselves” may or may not need rhythm, but rhythm, without a doubt, biologizes and humanizes sound.

© 2021 patrick brennan


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