Home » Posts tagged 'rhythm'
Tag Archives: rhythm
I have been trying for some time to find proper, better words to describe what has now come to seem like my own very long commitment to the music of percussionist Paul Motian, who died nearly two years ago. His particular feel, the way in which his music characteristically unfolded and continues to unfold, sui generis, both temporally and spatially, has had a sustained effect on how I have begun to think about the poetic apprehension of time, the material experience of the human body in its textiles, its welter and wash. It sounds so generic, so mundane, so less than momentous, to say: for some time. And maybe I only mean to play on the titles of some of Motian’s compositions, which also both thematize the experience and elegize the ineffability of the temporal: “It should have happened a long time ago.” So I feel like I’m trying here, but inevitably falling short, even before I seem able to get started. But I think that this halting phenomenology might have something to do with the specifics of Paul Motian’s sound. Because there’s a semantic and temporal gap, a kind of hiatus particular to Motian’s sense of line and rhythm, that opens around the question of the thesis, Θέσις: of the subtle incursion of, say, a dancer’s footfall, of the give-and-take around every singular, embodied, creative pulse, step upon step. In Motian’s playing, each beat, each thesis, doesn’t drop into the lockstep of fixed metre, even when he plays in time, but tends to exist as a stroke, a temporal marker, relative only to the beat that preceded it; Motian always seems to be feeling his way forward through time itself, testing its viscosities, its resistances, its eddies, its flows. His sense of measure is tensile, and a little precarious: simultaneously countable and protean, refrained and free.
I have been listening to Shadow Man, the second recording by Tim Berne’s Snakeoil quartet released (last week) by ECM records. I haven’t made it through to the end of the CD yet, because each time I put it into the player, I’m brought up short by the third track, a duo version – by Berne on alto and Matt Mitchell on piano – of Paul Motian’s composition “Psalm.” I had forgotten that Motian played on Berne’s Mutant Variations and The Ancestors on Soul Note (both 1983) and also on his early Songs and Rituals in Real Time (Empire, recorded 1981); their musics, even then, appeared to share something of a preoccupation with rhythmic knotting and unknotting. In a 2009 interview with Ethan Iverson, Berne describes his first encounter with Motian:
I met Paul Motian when he was doing a gig with the bass player Saheb Sarbib. And I just went up to him and I asked him. And to this day I have no idea how I got the nerve. But he sort of said “Yeah, man, send me something,” or whatever. I may have given him a record or sent him a tape. I called him up a couple of weeks later and asked him if he listened to it, and he said “No.” But then he said, “Yeah, whatever, I’ll do the gig.” And that was this gig that turned into this record. . . . And Paul was great. I don’t know why I didn’t know to be more frightened. I think I got more terrified when we did a tour, because then I was like “Holy shit, I’m on the road with Paul Motian.” There are two Soul Note records with Paul too, and he plays just great on them.
Berne’s version of “Psalm” offers a lyrical tribute to this yes-and-no meeting, but, fittingly, also audibly remarks on Motian’s posthumous absence: it’s performed drummerless, and fluidly rubato. (Notably, Russ Lossing has also made a brilliant solo piano CD of Motian compositions, Drum Music [Sunnyside, 2012], that theatizes the composer’s absence in a similar fashion, but which is also wonderfully attentive to the prod and pull of Motian’s lines.) The openness and the looseness of the duo’s time feel is wholly appropriate to Motian’s music. The melody, lightly fragmented by Mitchell’s right hand, is not especially definitive, and seems to emerge, to find its feet so to speak, out of an undifferentiated gentle swathe of long tones, here played sotto voce by Berne; on the original version by the Paul Motian Band – “Psalm” is the title track and the first cut on Motian’s 1982 ECM lp – the core line of the song (and many of Motian’s compositions consisted of not much more than melodic fragments) wells up tenuously from layers of saxophone, guitar and bass. In his liner notes to the ECM boxed set of Motian recordings that appeared earlier this year, also from ECM, Ethan Iverson describes how “Psalm” “begins like an emission from deep space before a chorale comes into focus.” And he’s not wrong: Iverson has keen, practiced ears, and he hears a kind of primal rhythm behind all of Motian’s playing, a well-defined, historically-informed sense of jazz time: “With Paul,” he wrote in a New York Times obit,“there was always that ground rhythm, that ancient jazz beat lurking in the background.” But I’m not sure I agree with him, or, at least I don’t know if I hear the same sense of beat he does. For me, Motian’s playing, at its best, digs into that ground, destabilizes it, turns it over. His time extends, distends, undoes and reknits the whole sense of primal beat, of pulse. In the Berne-Mitchell version of “Psalm,” I think, a pliable tactility – the gesture toward measure and the soft refusal to fall into a countable frame – manifests, and reminds me, as I listen, of the ways in which Motian’s music wants to open both into time and out of it: to extemporize. That opening – sensible as hiatus or absence, certainly, but also as push, as motion, as the forward heft of a given line – seems to me to form a crucial aspect of Paul Motian’s legacy.
One more brief note. I only saw Motian play live once, in Montreal in 1989 during the Charlie Haden invitational series early that July. I was at the gig – released as part of The Montreal Tapes – by the Haden-Motian collaborative piano trio with Geri Allen. What I remember most about that concert was that it was over too soon. There wasn’t enough time. It slipped away. Motian’s warm, flexible rhythmic touch is in evidence from the very first notes, on Haden’s fittingly titled “Blues in Motian.” I feel like I need to listen to that record again.
When I was a first-year undergraduate at Western, I didn’t have many friends and I didn’t really try all that hard to make any. I spent much of my time between classes the same way I spent my evenings at home, sitting at a stereo with a pair of headphones on, listening to music. The university’s music library had maybe twenty listening carrels, surrounded by shelf loads of records, mostly classical, but there were no restrictions preventing non-music students from using the collection, so when I had a free hour I would walk down the snow-covered hill from the arts building to the music faculty, and sit through a couple sides of whatever interesting lps I could find. It was here that I first heard the great Bill Evans Trio (with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian) at the Village Vanguard in 1961; the library owned a twofer compiling most of the tracks (except “Porgy,” I think) from the two albums, and I remember being blown away by the surging, elastic rhythms of their version of “Milestones,” needle again and again. I can’t say how many times over I played the first side of Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert; those gospel-tinged, life-affirming cadences have been incised into my aural memory, as they have been for so many people – although, for me, those sounds are also marked indelibly by the context of their first hearing, at a turntable in one of those carrels. I also found a copy of John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard, which I didn’t own at the time, and could give “Chasin’ the Trane” the sustained close attention its deserves. I tried new music – they had a complete set of Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen – and found some rarities (a great set by Anita Ellis, elegantly accompanied by Ellis Larkins, which I’ve never seen again or since; an amazing Elvin Jones-Richard Davis duo on “Summertime,” which was long out of print at that point, though it’s since been re-issued). There was a pile of Smithsonian recordings of American folk: my ears were opened, my aural horizons maxed.
There was one other record I found myself coming back to, a 1981 Deutsche Grammophon release called Homage to Mahatma Gandhi by Ravi Shankar, which combined two side-long sessions with the sitarist and tabla master Alla Rakha. With Ravi Shankar’s death a week or so ago, I started to remember hearing this music, and to think about its impact on me – immature, solitary, arty – a quarter of a century ago. I came to this music via my enthusiasm for Coltrane’s “India,” a sort of minor-modal adaptation to Western ears of Indian idioms. I knew and I know next to nothing about the technicalities of form and structure in Indian classical music, but I do know something about what I thought I heard and can still hear in Ravi Shankar’s recording. He apparently composed Rāga Mohan Kauns, the four-part raga that takes up the first side, extemporaneously and live, at the request of a radio producer in Bombay in 1948, a handful of days after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. (The note-sequence that acts as a modal basis for the raga, Ga Ni Dha, is based on Gandhi’s name, a musical code from which Shankar’s extended improvisations gradually take flight.) The first section of the raga is an alap, a slowly building encounter with the basic melodic materials for the piece in non-metered time, without percussion. What I take away from Shankar’s recorded performance – with its tensile, wobbling tones, his languorously whelming, softly metallic attack coupled to a strangely inverted and resilient decay – is a stretching and even a suspension of time. In the encounter with mortality, in a public act of musical mourning, of grief, Ravi Shankar finds for me a pathos, a held poignancy that recalls both the resistance to and the inevitability of death. Rhythm, as he feels his way fingertip by fingertip into his notes, emerges not as virtuosic dominion but as a vibrant elasticity, an opening of the self that bears tactile witness to its calmly passionate refusal of extinction.
I heard Bill Frisell’s Richter 858 Quartet perform last night at the Vancouver Playhouse (Frisell, with Hank Roberts, cello, Jenny Scheinman, violin, and Eyvind Kang, viola). They played two suites, composed specifically by Frisell for the group. The first half of the concert offered Sign of Life, a recent (2010) piece that seems to me to sum up much of Frisell’s deep enmeshment in Americana, with plenty of what sounded to me like overt gestures to the folksy melodicism and harmonic richness of Aaron Copland. That’s not to suggest that the music is merely derivative – the improvisational virtuosities in play in this quartet give the music, even when it seems to be through-composed, an immediacy and a vitality that never allow it to settle or calcify. Rather, their music moves – in the sense of kinesis, yes, but also with the emotional engagement that successive moments of aural intensity can offer. Frisell’s music has a melancholy brilliance that seems to me to depend on his, and his group’s, ability to accrete small surges of sound, and to carry listeners with them. They tap into a shared ruthmos, a flow. Even when he applies distortion effects to his guitar, or turns it up to produce a metal-laden snarl, Frisell’s vertical, fractured notes still incline toward this essential pulse, a give-and-take within the fabric of a common time. I think I heard a version of this movement, as rhythm, in occasional riffs from Hank Roberts, whose strummed cello seemed to blend the textures of a Gambian kora and Kentucky bluegrass plucking: human time at play. But what was most noticeable was how, amid all of what could have been serious and pensive high-brow stuff, Frisell kept smiling, at his bandmates and to himself. Despite the textures of pathos and wistfulness we were hearing, he found – and I think we did too – a kind of common joy in this music. In an age rife with cynicism, these sounds and songs still manage to affirm, and even heal.
(blurry i-snapshot makes the quartet look made of light)
After the intermission, the group played Richter 858, Frisell’s 2002 composition for this group. It’s based on his viewing of a set of paintings – 858: 1-8 – by the German-born artist Gerhard Richter, and images of the paintings are projected and enlarged on a screen behind the group as they play through the eight-part suite. As the music unfolds, the visuals appear to work as a form of graphic score, as melodic lines and colours seem keyed to the striations, smears and tonal palette of Richter’s non-objective images. They’re not playing the paintings, but they feel as if they are, and this too is an effect of rhythm, of a musical rhythmatizing of the gaze. I felt my eye drawn across the projected swells of pigment by the quartet, as if the music were trying to find its own through swathes of light. I’m not trying to romanticize the experience too much, but, like Sign of Life, Richter 858is fundamentally affirmative rather than ironic – it affirms, for me, the potential, if fleeting, power of art to move us, to move.
For an encore, the quartet gave us a version of what was at first for me an unplaceable but uncannily familiar bebop tune. They staggered and looped the melody, played with it, to create a fleet four-part canon: the quick, improvisational melody – along with improvised counterpoint – skittering and weaving back through itself, upbeat, joyful. I thought it was a Charlie Parker line, but when I got home – the tune still in my head – I realized it was Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House.” Jazz, American folk and long-haired legit idioms intersected with and tugged at each other in this short coda to the concert, succinctly summing up how this group approaches history, approaches its own timeliness: by singing it, by making it sing.