If you can’t find the beat in Stars and Stripes Forever, you may want to consider a different profession. If you can’t find it in a Mahler symphony or Sweeney Todd, keep looking for it. The reward will be well worth the journey. Ties over the bar lines, dotted rhythms, and sudden (or gradual) changes of mood all serve to confuse the performer but delight the listener.
The beat is always there, but it’s disconcerting if you can’t find it. I like to have a Plan A, B, and C in the wings, since I came to start thinking of rhythm as a life or death situation. I think there are some of us who hear all the parts so well that they simply enter when it’s their turn, like an actor weaving in during a dialogue.
I remember one principal flutist who, in a contemporary piece of gnarly, weak melodies and obtuse rhythms, explained that her listening precluded the need to count. That she could wade through such a briar patch involved a level of talent up there with perfect pitch and artistic sound production. The ease of the super-talented awes me, but music offers something magical for everyone. In the end, we all share the same goal: to make the nature of music speak through the jargon of our technique.
The Shape Is Hidden in Plain View
Think of a conductor who waves his arms with a subtle, atmospheric choreography. Think of the same conductor who is still perfectly on the beat and conveys the perfect thrust of anticipation. Karajan, Boulez, Giulini, and Thielemann come to mind. Everything is clear except for one element, that being the actual beat, the thrust, or, if you want to be definitively au courant, the "ictus." (This unattractive word seems harsh and out of place in the musical vocabulary. However, it fits nicely in cerebral medicine, in which it means stroke or seizure.) Like the crest of a wave, the beat’s center is the reference point that can be ignored only at one’s peril.
I found something that literally illustrated the “point”. The vagueness of downbeats, whether they’re hard like an accent or soft like a sostenuto, is actually quite specific. Uncertainty has no place in music. We quantify elements of time in the language of musicians, not that of scientists or mathematicians. While the conductor’s job is to clarify the overall musical conception and the big picture, it is a musician’s job to interpret it down to its smallest compartments.
An optical illusion that I found in a book shows the structure that sometimes feels missing when you’re trying to determine where the apex of the beat is. (I can’t bring myself to say ictus again.)
There is a lot going on during the apex. For example, the hand is changing direction in an expressive or quiet manner, which doesn’t make defining the point of the beat a priority.
Part of a conductor’s responsibility is to not spoon feed the apex. Simon Rattle demonstrated this with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the pizzicato on the last note of a Bruckner symphony. Should he have speeded up the beat to narrow the target zone and make it easier to play, or finish with a round, very long pick up to achieve a warm, mellow pizzicato? He picked the latter and scared me to death.
In contrast to Rattle’s style, Raphael Frubeck de Burgos insisted that we wait for the apex, and he would always give it to us on a silver platter. I’ll have to admit it’s a lot easier to play with such a helpful hand. It’s something you see often in high school, but you’re never too old to appreciate it.
My Hero in Finding Obscure Beats
Working with children with various degrees of rhythmic skills, the piano accompanist is the most gifted among us in terms of sounding cohesive and convincing. Where one measure may have two or three beats in incorrect locations, accompanists have the uncanny ability to play in a solid fashion with the right dynamics and inflections. This is not easy at all, and I believe their success lies in estimating where the beat should be and trying to stick with it. Of course, that helps guide the child back to where the beat should be. Certainly the child may be off only very little, but in music that’s still quite disconcerting. These heroes deserve our respect, as wrong cues go in one ear, and correct ones come out the other.
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