Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, March 30, 2004


I didn’t mean to imply in yesterday’s post that the 20th century gave us no heavy dark classical composers who showed us new rhythms. Ives’s polyrhythms and Stravinsky’s slightly later and very different polyrhythms; Cage’s silences -- but brilliant as they were they didn’t much penetrate mass consciousness, except unconsciously, with Stravinsky’s influence on film music. Ives and Cage made deep contributions to the meditative tradition in music.

I keep coming back to them, but the first group of classical composers to come up with a new beat that affected the pop world were the minimalists, specifically the “pulse music” minimalists Terry Riley and Steve Reich (with Philip Glass coming slightly later).

In its original state Pulse Music isn’t popularly danceable. But it connected with the pop world not only because it was simpler and more accessible than the rhythmic innovations of Ives, Stravinsky, Varese, and Cage, but also because it provided a model not so much for cosmological or psychological insights but for new and current facets of western social life. The steady stream of pulsing beats echoes the data stream of the information society, everything in speedy pulsing slowly-evolving-motion but not with a danceable beat. It remains meditative music. Its pulses seeped into dance beats and rock songs.

Typing this I realize that the traditional 19th century classical piece does provide a model for bodily experience. As Susan McClary and others have written, the tension-and-release pattern of harmonic complication and resolution in 19th century music provides a model for what someone called a mystico-sexual obsession with orgasm. (I think I got that phrase from David Toop.)

Interesting historical sidelight: The first piece of Pulse Music was “In C” by Terry Riley, but the idea for the pulse came from a band member who happened to be a drummer, who happened to be a guy named Steve Reich. Riley approved the idea and gets credit, but without the collaborative band dynamic it might never have happened the way it did.

My friend Jake London writes in response to last night’s post:

I think it might also be worth thinking about high/low class distinctions with respect to the body and rhythm. Seems like the high brow concert hall of the 20th century is very much about carrying upper class/victorian body repression forward (i.e., one's spirit should be experiencing the music rather than one's body). Whereas the lower class traditions are more about a full body experience of the music.

John replies: Thanks -- excellent point!
And, as we were talking about over dinner tonight -- the classical concert trip is to hold applause between movements of a suite or symphony or concerto or other multi-part piece. Hold it in, hold it in, hold it in, hold it in, then, when it’s finally over, EXPLODE with applause. More orgasms please! (Just no dancing, and no moaning or groaning before the climax.)

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