Friday, September 02, 2005

Meter war

Robert Jourdain in his book Music, the Brain and Ecstasy at the end of the chapter on rhythm proposes a meter war. He sees ranks forming on each side with one group favoring regular meters with interest focused on harmony, while the other group leaves the harmony simple and emphasizes the meter.

The first group is represented by classical music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The obsession with tonality and its developmental implications made meter a not particularly significant feature.

The second group is represented by American pop of various genres. They bring along a lot of heavy equipment to help them emphasize the meter. Rhythmic elements predominate, especially in rock and roll and disco where an emphasized meter is virtually everything.

In the sixties were a group called the Swingle Singers who did Bach with a jazz style drum track. This was very workable and fun, and I recall buying their records. I also recall doing it myself on my synthesizer, producing a rather silly version of Bach’s “Sehet Jesu” from the St. Matthew Passion. The idea was to marry both worlds.

I guess I see these things as elements of style. One style—or more appropriately, sequence of styles—arose in civilized Europe where music served primarily to support authoritarian political regimes, while the other—also forming itself into a series—arose in America and emphasized informality and egalitarianism.

I guess I see a culture war. One is formal and intellectual, treasured and tax supported. The other is informal and left entirely to the forces of capitalism. It’s even railed against and blamed for all manner of moral degradation. One is seeping away into the past along with the culture it reflected, more valued with each successive loss of viability. The other thrives while hardly valued.

Theory explains the how of music, but does not explain the why.

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