Rhythm and Pulse and the Feeling of the Will

Early 16th-century manuscript in mensural notation, containing a Kyrie by J. Barbireau.In music rhythm and metre (or pulse) are two different parameters that should be distinguished even if they appear intimately nested into each other. The metric dimension is what we experience in the beat or pulse. It consists in patterns of down- and up-beats. The element of rhythm on the other hand is the durations. The beat or pulse is more bodily and connected to the feeling of gravity, whereas rhythm as duration is more “horizontal”; a more inward and less bodily felt element. 

In most classical music the beats are generally grouped in two or three. A waltz groups the pulses into three – (down-up-up) – while a march group them in two. The groups of two or three are the two main categories, but within these there is of course a vast universe of variation. They vary for example depending on the speed of the music. A general rule is that the greater (longer) durations of the impulses, the heavier the heavy beat. 3/8 is lighter than 3/4, for example. But as is known from different dances, there is also subtle variation between the beats: a waltz has a clear emphasis on the first, whereas a mazurka has emphasis and hangs on the second beat, for example. Then there is also combination of 3 and 2 which make out many irregular patterns of 5 or 7 and so on.

If we reflect on the experience of regular beat patterns, we can feel how the different patterns create a specific feeling for time as a plastic formative power. On the one hand, we have time as a horizontal flow, that is, time as an inner duration without gravity, as in a dream. By introducing vertical impulses with different feelings of gravity and lightness, this flow or duration is divided into repetitive, plastic forms. This division of time into equal parts with different emphasis gives the passage of time a recognizable structure, as if time is not only flowing within itself in its duration, but as if time has a body. The different time signatures can be viewed as different time bodies, different time structures. Time is, as the English word says, given a signature.

When time is given a form, a body, it becomes measurable. Metric, which come from Greek, also mean “measure”. We feel a strong formative element here, and if we deepen the beat experience and cultivate it as a purely qualitative experience in itself, we can approach an experience of time as plastic and malleable, a body of earthly time that stretches itself between heaviness and lightness, infused by the will-impulses of beat.

In this sense, the metric element is a spatialization of time, it ties the flow of time to the earth and physical space. The feeling of the pulse, sensing the difference in heaviness and lightness of the beats is experienced with the whole body, and is the dance element in music. In dancing we play with gravity; we let ourselves be taken by it and then immediately overcome it by creating a sense of buoyancy. Here we live in connection with the power that draws us to the earth, and in music the same thing happens, only inwardly. Therefore, we can say that metre is the musical element that corresponds to gravity and to the physical world.

The difference between rhythm and metric is also stressed by Olivier Messiaen in his conversations with Claude Samuel. What many often associate with rhythmic music – Bach, Prokofiev, jazz, march – should not be characterize as rhythmic according to Messiaen. Music that plays on the feeling of a steady pulse is a metric rather than rhythmic music. As an example of rhythmic music Messiaen mentions Mozart or Gregorian song, in addition to modern music such as Stravinsky and his own. While metre is based on repetition of equal values, rhythmic music is “music that avoids repetition and equal divisions. In short, it is music inspired by nature’s movements, movements that are free and of different durations”. [Claude Samuel, Conversations with Olivier Messiaen. Page 33]

In the rhythmic durations we live in a tension between the past and the future. The musical present is a plastic contraction; preserving the past into the present, and feeling the instreaming of the future that lives as potential and expectation of the present. The musical now is never the now of chronology, but includes the past and the future in it. In this sense, rhythm includes everything that has to do with the music’s time processes; on the one hand the rhythmic figures at the detail level, on the other hand the macro-level time structures. The musical present is dynamic and alive, it is not given and inactive, as the “now” of the already seen in front of our eyes. In this dynamic, time flows faster or slower, it expands and contracts and its movement has a multitude of forms, streaming in long continuous stretches, in ripples, vortex etc.

As mentioned, it is an abstraction to isolate rhythm from metre, or any other musical element in a piece of music, as any element also contains the others (for example a melody is also a rhythm and a harmonic progression, even if only implicitly).

Rhythm and metre are both time, ways of giving time a form. Metre is based on time contracting into point-like instantaneous impulses that are given regularity; rhythm is the element of the durations themselves, with or without without a pre-given pattern felt “underneath”. The element of rhythmic durations is more felt as an internal time, and the element of metric pulsation is a more bodily felt time. Yet, any sound-duration has an attack, an im-pulse of incarnation, and any time signatures only make sense in relation to durations.

The interwove difference between metre and rhythmic duration can also be linked more directly to how one feels music in and through the body. In the experience of beat we feel the element of music that is associated with the heart and pulse in the body, while in the experience of the rhythmic durations, we live more in the breathing. The duration of melodies in music is often likened to breathing, especially in singing of course, but also the instrumentalist sings inward when forming a phrase.

According to Steiner (see another coming blog post) feeling has its bodily foundation in the physiological rhythmic system. This has two major interconnected rhythms, pulsation of blood and heartbeat, and breathing. Feeling is connected “downwards” to the will-forces of the soul – which has its physiological expression in metabolism – via the pulse, and upwards to the wakeful thinking consciousness seated in the brain and nervous system via breathing. We can recognize this in music with the beat more strongly linked to the will activity in the depth of the body and to the experience of being in the body. This can be felt connected more to the feeling of the flow of blood “under” the wakeful consciousness, than the longer arches of breathing which is normally also not conscious but still closer to consciousness than the pulse. We can influence breathing consciously, but not change the heart-beat with our consciousness.

The capturing and suggestive beat is felt in the lower body, whereas the breathing that expand and contract in the chest are freer movements where we flow out of ourselves in exhalation and come back into ourselves in inhalation. Consciously we live closer to the breathing rhythm which is more marked by duration than the instantaneousness of the pulse-beats felt further down.

In this regard one can perhaps dare to put forth a somewhat speculative idea, based on the conception of art as expressing a changing mentality grounded in the deeper constitution of man, as Steiner also did with philosophy in the book Riddles of Philosophy. If Gregorian chant can be regarded as a music that flows above the earth-binding metric element, following the text and the breathing of the human voice, not yet touching into the physical sensation of beat, then classical music from the renaissance onwards creates a music in which the pulsating beat is the “ground” on which the musical architecture stands, the will-motor underlying the musical formation. Modern music, beginning with works such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Messiaen’s music, can then be viewed as a music that attempts to elevate the will-element into consciousness. In his book The Techniques of my Musical Language Messiaen begins the chapter on rhythm by saying that “we shall replace the notions of “measure” or “beat” by the feeling of a short value, and its free multiplication, which will lead us to a music more or less ametrical, necessitating precise rhythmic rules.” (page 14) One of the ways Messiaen did this was the so called non-retrograde rhythms. These are rhythms composed of durations that create the same pattern backwards as forwards (i.e. the rhythmic equivalent of a palindrome such as asamisimasa). These rhythms (together with his melodic modes of limited transposition) he characterized as possessing “an occult power, a calculated ascendancy, in time and sound” (Olivier Messiaen, Music and Color Conversations with Claude Samuel) Messiaen found these rhythmic principles in old traditional Indian music and applied them to his modern project. In much else modern music there is no time-signature, or there can be a constant change in time-signatures. This means that the feeling for the value or duration of the tones is not related to a constant pulse giving the framework. In such ametric music the time-structuring and earth-binding power of pulsation is no longer simply running its course below the stream of sound-events, carrying the other musical elements as a frame or time-body.

When the rhythmic durations are not related to an underlying pulse-framework grounded in the physical-organic experience of time the musician must internalize and grasp the duration of the notes more consciously. In this way the will-element becomes part of listening in a more conscious way. Consciousness no longer lives “on top of” the breath carried by the pulse’s constant and repeating drive “beneath” it, but must penetrate into the domain of the life-giving pulse and raise its will-energy up into a conscious feeling for the values or durations of time. This can even be felt as a release of living time from the physical-organic body.

In this understanding modern music searches for a way to integrate the will-forces more consciously into listening and musical practice also outside their physical-bodily mediation, and thus effectuate also a transformation of the human constitution, a music in which one awakens to the reality of its super-sensible life outside the physical mediation of life-forces, lifting consciousness out of the organic representational consciousness towards (as Messiaen would have said) a dazzled experience of the interior life of music and tone.Klee small-rhytmic-landscape