Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Boulez called it duration. By that he meant the whole spectrum of ways that music moves through time. (Jazz and rock musicians often refer to a sense of proper rhythm, or even rhythm itself, as “time,” e.g., “That cat has no time.”) Time really is of the essence. As music moves through time, it may also present with tones of higher or lower frequency (pitch), with pitches and beats that occur by themselves or in simultaneity with others (texture), using tone colors of one hue or another (timbre) and with varying degrees of loudness (dynamics). What it must do, however, is move through time. Time is prime. It’s the organizing factor, the true first dimension, the story.

Most of us learn about musical time via group activities like marching and dancing. You do these things with others, which is to say with some degree of coordination. Your partner—or your 140 marching-band partners—will want to hook up with you rhythmically. (One of the saddest scenes in a recent film, The Lobster, shows a rebellious group of outcasts, the Loners, dancing together but separately, each person tuned in to his or her own dance rhythm via smartphone and earbuds. Obviously pathological.) Rhythm can keep us all together; it’s a metaphor for social cohesion.

Immediately and as a matter of course, clever cultures find ways to complicate rhythm. Take the many survivals of West African polyrhythms in music of the Western Hemisphere.


They can be 2-against-3, or 4-against-6, or more. Part of their charm is how quickly and smoothly they reconfigure. Even the simplest iteration is more complex than the thuggish monotony of, say, a march. Consider the Allman Brothers in full swing:

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That unrelenting, uneven foundational pulse is just one variant of the “clave” or “Spanish tinge” (thanks, Jelly Roll Morton) or “Bo Diddley” or hambone rhythm that pervades Caribbean and Creole dance. The precision with which the Allman Brothers execute it here, their two drummers, rhythm (!) guitarist, and bass player all hitting together, again and again and again, generates enormous power without ever relinquishing its infectious, asymmetrical groove.

When classical musicians appropriate this rhythm, they often reframe it as “atmosphere” (the picturesque, exotic, or historical) or they provide further complications. Here is Debussy at his most atmospheric in La Puerta del Vino:

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Inspired by the Wine Gate near the Alhambra, in old Granada, this short piece from Book II of the Préludes is subtitled “Mouvement de Habanera,” i.e., a dance rhythm from Havana, i.e., the “Spanish tinge.” More accurately: Afro-Cuban. That’s exoticism for ya. (Our pianist was Marc-André Hamelin, from a Hyperion recording.)

And now, here are rhythmic “further complications” courtesy of Steve Reich. His 1985 New York Counterpoint relies on canon—strict repetition of a single theme that becomes more interesting when complicated, i.e., when each player begins playing it at a different point in time. The theme itself is jazzy and syncopated, so NYC can enact solo echoes of West African rhythm (as if one were playing only the right-hand part of a Joplin rag) but also mimic ensemble polyphonies (as with an entire drumming group or like when the whole front line of an old-school New Orleans band takes a chorus).

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For the NYC recording, clarinetist Evan Ziporyn of Bang On A Can recorded 10 of the canon’s lines and then played along with them as 11th member of the “group.” Reich has done similar astonishing work with percussion alone, as in Music for Pieces of Wood; you can view a classic live performance here, or a helpful visualization of the beats here. After about a minute, you’ll hear the initial beat pattern seem to change from one-one-one-one or one-two-one-two-one-two to one-two-three-one-two-three-one-two-three. It doesn’t change, of course. Only the context—supplied by the other beats—changes. Keep listening.

Once you become aware of the beauties of syncopation (a Western word for asymmetrical, groove-inducing beats and the melodies that accommodate them), you may find yourself reconsidering the function of non-syncopated beats. Early in the 20th century, a number of creative musicians became newly mindful of The Machine and its heavy influence on the dawning Modern era. So we got George Antheil’s 1926 Ballet Mécanique, scored for multiple pianos, percussion, electric buzzers, and airplane propellers:

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More recently, Mason Bates looked back in nostalgia at the machine era with a wry ode to the internal combustion engine in “Ford’s Farm, 1896,” part of his suite, Alternative Energy. The music proceeds in fits and starts, just as Henry Ford’s early prototypes may have done. After all, if you’re just one of several cylinders, timing is everything.


Want to take a little break from all this rhythm? You may well ask, how is that possible? Like music, aren’t humans fated to move through time? We can’t get off the bus. Well, we can, but you know what that means.

And so did Medieval and Renaissance musicians, who gradually invented musical ways of suggesting that time could stop. In heaven, time doesn’t matter. Visionary Christian composers developed musical metaphors for timelessness. Chief among these was a smooth, ceaseless flow of polyphony through which eternity and its multitudes of angels—the heavenly host—could be suggested to the faithful. Here is one of the most famous such works, Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis (c1505–1585). It is scored for eight five-voice choirs.

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This way of dealing with time never completely left us—see Gavin Bryars, below. But in the mid-20th century, Olivier Messiaen spent time in a German POW camp and found another way to stop it. In composing a Quartet for the End of Time for his fellow prisoners, Messiaen envisioned both the Apocalypse (which he may have felt was already underway) and the peace that passes all understanding. He shattered time. We hear apparently random bird calls, virtually arrhythmic “Hindu” rhythms, shards of brilliant, incoherent sound. Yet somehow serenity also happens.


Messiaen’s Quartet breaks with the traditions of Western polyphony, but other voices have risen to continue those traditions in their own way. A new ECM recording of recent music by Gavin Bryars (b. 1943) includes The Fifth Century for choir and saxophone quartet. It’s a seven-movement setting of words by 17th-century English poet and mystic Thomas Traherne. Here’s a sample:

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Eternity is a mysterious absence of times and ages: an endless length of ages always present, and forever perfect. . . .

(To be continued.)

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