Graham has posted a new video by one of my favorite artists over at Object Oriented Philosophy. Burial is a London DJ whose work often gets filed under the label “dubstep,” a variety of post-house electronica that appeared several years ago. I like dubstep a lot, and this video actually captures something of its unsteady, city-worn appeal:
One of the greatest things about Burial is that his beats are asymmetrical. That is, in a world where you can loop beats in such a way that the “ictus” (ideal musical point where the beat falls) is evenly distributed across the entire snippet, Burial’s beats sway a bit from tempo and then rejoin when the loop starts over again. I tend to hear this because I am a drummer, and was trained to play in the 1980s, just when drum machines were becoming more common in live performance and studio recording. For drummers who learned to play in this period, we were forced to synch our bodies (and eventually, minds) to a mathematically precise representation of the ictus — one that is produced by a machine — so that our own playing would match up with that of others who were similarly keyed into this “reference beat.” Most often, that reference beat would be calling the changes in synthesizer parts (which were electronically triggered by that reference): so the whole band, or the band in the recording studio, would ideally be vibrating to the same periodic oscillation, one that never changed unless the beat frequency was altered by the programmer or producer.
But of course, drumming is more fluid than this kind of matching to the mathematical ictus. Most dance music — music that people actually dance to — has subtle movements ahead of and behind the beat. This occurs in part to create musical tension, but also to whip dancers around in the right way. (Our bodies may exhibit symmetry, but our dance steps do not.) The most extreme versions of this kind of dance-wobble that I have witnessed, although not directly related to drumming, occur in European music. Hearing an orchestra play Strauss in Vienna, I was initiated into something that the Viennese take for granted: Strauss rushes the 1-2 in the 1-2-3 of waltz tempo, which means that you get a one-two…three, one-two….three in which the second beat does not evenly divide the first from the third. Hungarian and Romanian folk music has some of this as well. I remember being at a dancehouse in Budapest in the eighties and hearing a Roma folk band play, and was amazed at the quick surges and retards in the tempo, occurring at every measure. This variation, I was told, helped the dancers whip each other around so that their bodies could lean at the appropriate moment: a really beautiful idea, since it suggests that the music itself was conforming to the movements and weightings of the dance — even at the level of tempo.
If you look at the beginning of the Burial video, you can see the idea of symmetry taken apart on the screen, as the diagonals display action in a kind of dance-box. Movements and pans in and out of the paired boxes does not occur at the same speed, which means that you get the same kind of staggered synchrony that often occurs in Burial’s musical beats, but here it occurs visually.
I suspect that a good studio engineer could actually quantify the ways in which Burial’s beats redistribute the ictus on a measure by measure basis, something that was once done by drummers who were not playing to a “click” or mechanically measured metronome, but perhaps more intuitively and communally. That’s not to say that Burial has recaptured the “fluid” nature of the beat or that the electronic metronome killed the beat (and that Burial is bringing it back). It’s not that simple. Rather, drummers have always had a good sense of what the “ictus” is and have manipulated it implicitly by speeding up and slowing down before the beginnings and endings of measures. In a pre-click track world — listen, for example, to some of the beats by The Meters — you wouldn’t necessarily notice the manipulations, because the world has not yet learned to “hear” the absent click, which happens once music everywhere is keyed to an inaudible metrical yardstick. I would say that this was the case by the early ninetees. But once this implicit beat becomes part of the music — part of the bodies and ears of drummers and listeners alike — the tempo pushes and pulls are audible as deliberate. The drummers Manu Katché and Omar Hakim have made an art form out of this over the last two decades. I’m sure both of them can play to a click track (or not) in their sleep.
The point here is that human beings are exquisitely sensitive to quantitative phenomena like rhythm, and they can also have their background perceptions of what “proper rhythm” is shaped by the music they encounter. There is a backbeat or hidden track to music that is cultural, but that is confirmed or shifted with each performance. I suspect genre works in the same way — as a set of constantly shaped expectations — and that in some cases tempo has been keyed to certain arbitrary or regular standards in order to create particular effects. Serialization might be one version of this (something my colleague Susan Bernstein and I are working on), or the partitioning of plot around commercials.