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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


Metrics in Music and Poetry

by William Harris

The Cramping of Free Expression and Talent


     In a literature course we usually hear that Poetry is older than Prose, witness the Rg Veda in India and Homer in Greece, beside Herodotus' hesitant manner of writing prose history as something experimental and novel. Over time Poetry acquired the role of container for the finer thoughts and the subtler associations, while Prose was good for history and documentation, essays and philosophy. But this changed somewhere in the eighteenth century as the novel emerged as a tightly woven fabric of stories in words, first in Sterne's Tristram Shandy in 1768 and then the great novelists of the 19th century. This last century has elicited every kind of prose writing imaginable, from the simple story to the wrought word-objects of James Joyce, and we can no longer think of prose as common or ordinary language. We should have seen this much earlier, since some of the finest prose every written is in the Dialogues of Plato which combine rhythm, assonance, cadence, a real sense of musicality and irregular moments of surprise. There we have the model for prose art, if you need a model.

     But look for a moment at music. Until this last century music has been totally dominated by regular measurements of time and rhythm, with up- and down-beats built into every measure. From Scarlatti on, we have a curious formula for a four measure passage. A phrase is stated, repeated, altered, and then "resolved" -- a lock stepped four-part "passage" which can be extended from the simple song to the symphony. This parallels the use in poetry of a measured poetic pentameter or hexameter, but following 5th century Latin religious poetry we have had rhymed couplets in infinitely boring sequence, until Milton restored blank verse by circumcising the rhyme. Where is the "free" or liberated music in our tradition, which lets musical cadences flow forth like the words in a well written piece of prose? No measured paces, no superimposed analogs to the rhyme, no pre-set structure like the Sonata or Symphony form which is filled in with one or two melody lines in pace and pitch variations.

     Well, there is a new vein of music which has been emerging since 1910, stretching from early Stravinsky through Schoenberg and his Serials, past Bartok into mid-century Cage Aleatorics, on into Electro-Acoustic music with synthesizers and finally computing composer algorithms. Here the restrictions of rhythm, cadence, harmony and overall form have been totally revised, with the end result of producing something quite different from the musical tradition which comes down to us from the early Renaissance. What is the final result of all this change? Probably that only one percent of humanity likes or can even tolerate this "New Music", and goes back in a hurry to what it can comfortably understand.

     What do most of us understand and prefer? The regular beats and measures of Country, or the non-experimental style of Rock, or the weak three note Pop wailing over a simple beat which we have been hearing recently. But if you are musically "educated", you can have the whole world of Classical 19th century music with its fine timbres, great instrumentation, and still the comfort of measure, repetitions, repeated thematic material to tell you where you are at. Popular dance music now has great electronic sounds available, a "song" to hold together factory preset sounds, and predictable meter to set dancers shuffling innocuously on the floor in pairs. If this is dancing, what is choreography and the art which we call The Dance?

     I do have something in mind. I want to hear music which is constructed like well written art-prose, with fine micro-texture in every phrase, unfolding so each moment of sound generates artistically what follows in a perceptible and interesting order. All our musical background is available, the whole musical range from about 1300 to the present time, which we can mould like musical plasticine, without getting stuck on delineating a face when we want to delineate a mathematical form. Rhythm infinitely variable, pitch and timbre in unthinkable variety, and the overall form as free as a Fantasia, which represents the processes of thinking in unconstricted format -- these are the tools of the new day in music. What we need most is openness and subtlety, taking time to watch the processes of thought as ideas montage themselves in our consciousness.

     But this requires mortar to be put things together firmly, and the mortar of music or of any other art is always the same. There has to be care and detailed workmanship, and these can be summed up in one single word: Craftsmanship!