Rewind Reviews #7 - By Volume

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Rewind Reviews #7

Rhythm as Paradigm Author: on July 12, 2013
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I’ve been thinking recently about rhythm and its various purposes and effects. In my academic (real?) life I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphor and metaphoric patterning and this is partly why I’ve been thinking about rhythm. That might seem like a strange or sideways leap, but in his study of the novel E.M. Forster considers the way literature can possesses a certain rhythm; For Forster, rhythm is two-fold and he explains this with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Firstly, there’s the immediate rhythm, the “diddidy dum,” but then there is a secondary rhythm not as readily identifiable—the rhythm of relation between the movements of the symphony. It’s this kind of relation I’ve been thinking about for this week’s version of Rewind Reviews. What are the different ways that rhythm works? There’s the obvious, colloquial use of the term—the stuff that makes you get up and dance (or, if you’re me, swing your arms wildly to and fro). But are there are types of rhythm that exist outside of this mode? Surely there are, but what are they? I guess this week I decided to take a few stabs at it, with probably useless results, I don’t know, but here are some ideas about the way rhythm maybe sometimes works or something. I’m pretty limited in my knowledge of musical theory (i.e. I know very little), but I’m not necessarily thinking of rhythm in the most technical, formal sense here.

Battles“Race: In”

If we take a simple formulation of metaphor, something like A is and is not B, there is inevitably a third effect C. Polyrhythms work like this too, I think; there are two distinctive time signatures that can be worked out in the mix, but they can also be taken together as a whole, in which case there is an entirely new creation, a C. “Race: In,” the stellar opening track from Battles debut LP Mirrored, is a perfect example of what I mean. John Steiner’s ridiculously metronomic ability to keep time makes the multiple rhythms at work in the song crisp and easy to decipher. There are clearly multiple components of rhythm at play in just Steiner’s drum patterns alone, and any attention to any part reveals exactly what is going on. But the song also has a tension-building, beguiling confusion when everything is taken as a whole. This is the C effect that the song possesses: just when you think you’ve figured out the way the different rhythmic sections interlock, they spin you for another whirl. That’s the real beauty of not only this song but Battles in general—their beauty is in the way they play with interlocking rhythm, harmony, and melody. It’s all about the way they disorganize organizational rhythm.

Jean Sibelius“Symphony No.1 in E minor, Finale: Una Quasi Fantasia”

I guess if we’re going back to that example from Forster, this is the rhythm of a larger body of work. While Forster’s analogy regarded rhythm as the flow in between parts of an entire symphony, I think the same thing can be applied to longer pieces in general, especially to the finales of symphonies, which often try to tie all of the thematic loose ends together for one sweeping push at the end. The finale to Sibelius’s first symphony presents the kind of rhythm, here I will call it a rhythm of flowing, that is not just about temporal organization into measures, time signatures and beats; it is a rhythm of mood, of the movement from one mood to the next and how this movement in turn creates an overall effect. The piece opens with a sombre mood as the lilting strings introduce the main theme. The middle section is kinetic as whirling and dancing woodwinds and brass bring forth images of a forest, full of dark and playful wonder as the mood alternates between light and dark. But it is the movement between these parts and the final third that really makes the piece as gorgeous as it is, especially as the horns and woodwinds give way to the panoramic return of the main theme with just the strings breaking through the canopy into the vast grandeur. Sibelius may not be as widely remembered in larger circles than some of his contemporaries, but he certainly could make it beautiful with the best of them.

Swans“A Piece of Sky”

Normally for this article I try to avoid writing about songs that are relatively new, but for this third idea about rhythm I could think of no better track than Swans’s monstrous (both in terms of length and feeling) “A Piece of the Sky.” The song typifies what makes The Seer such an amazing album: it constantly teeters on the brink of no return, testing the listener’s patience as half of the twenty minute track’s duration consists of monotonous noise—what sounds like a campfire and the clanging of bells. Where rock bands often use these kinds of things as gimmicks to stretch out the final track on their album to make it seem really epic, Swans revel in the extremity of letting a long album stretch what is “listenable” by letting these noise passages be an intrinsic aspect of the song-writing. So this final idea of “rhythm” is perhaps the most abstract understanding of the term, and I will identify it as a rhythm of irreducibility.

“A Piece of the Sky” represents this irreducibility because it works along a certain threshold, a liminal space. Drone music works along these thresholds perpetually, tinkering with exactly how long to sustain a chord. This rhythm of irreducibility is essentially the moment at the brink of losing patience, and it’s what The Seer does masterfully: too short and we wouldn’t feel the emotional drain they are quite clearly aiming for; too long and they would lose their listener, essentially amounting to the same problem. This might not seem like rhythm at all, but the irreducibility, the unperceivable but always there moment of release, fundamentally requires the other two aspects I have talked about—the rhythm of organization and the rhythm of flow. The difference is that the moment of irreducibility is the collision of the organizational and the flowing, which collapses rhythm from a linear temporality into a singular and specific moment. In a post-rock song, for example, it is the moment that breaks into the fortissimo at the end of the long crescendo. But it is not simply the moment where that first cymbal crash hits (or where the bass finally drops, or the distorted guitar enters, or the timpani roars), no, it is somewhere around that moment, but that somewhere begins near the end of the droning climax and ends near the beginning of the release into whatever. It’s hard to define, and I probably failed here, but it’s something that “A Piece of the Sky” has in spades. It’s the rhythm of the specific moment where one understanding of the music segues into another.

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