Monday, December 19, 2005

Music, Interrupting

I like to interrupt. Musically inclined friends, perhaps particularly empathetic, accept such behavior unflinchingly; it's the Puritanical folks who find it necessary to reprimand my rudeness. "A good rule to follow," began an interrupted acquaintance, "is to wait four to eight seconds after someone finishes speaking before offering your own ideas. You tend to jump right in, cutting off a person's train of thought. That's not very considerate, because someone may have more to say." After looking around for the three year old, I realized that he was directing this rule of etiquette at me. All I could think was, "oh damn! I can’t take you to the opera, now can I?”

An opera, from the sublime duet or heated quartet to the grand ensemble number, is full of various kinds of interruptions. What would opera be without the argumentative interjections and exuberantly conjoined conversations? Imagine the singers politely making space for each others’ entrances (shaping every phrase with perfect hairpin dynamics) and waiting four to eight seconds between each declaration of love, revenge, liberty or longing. [one, two, three, four] Such stilted courtesies would not only bore an audience cold but rob the art form of its true hallmark, that of reflecting life in a heightened and intensified way. The intertwining, dovetailing musical articulations, an impassioned mix of nonsense and general conniving, are not so far removed from our routine patterns of communication, as any opera fiend can surely attest!

On a more austere musical level, (i.e. minus the glamorama) the carefully rendered effusions of a Renaissance motet strike me as another model for modern conversation. Renaissance counterpoint adheres to its own complicated etiquette but is capable of sounding wildly out of control. Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus and Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium are two motets that demonstrate all the best qualities of interruption. The singers spend the majority of each piece mulling over (initiating and imitating) one germinative idea, a simple three or four note cantus. Within that given constraint, however, the individual vocal parts are remarkably independent; they fly free from each other. Being in the midst of this tangled conversation—that is, singing and hearing the other parts as they echo, confirm, or present a variant on what has been and is being sung—sends chills down my spine. Renaissance counterpoint is polite, but it revels in interruption, in cutting each other off and then coming together. This, too, is my kind of music.

Interruption allows one to make counterpoint of conversation and to hear music in the words too frequently tossed around just for their meaning. Turning banal small talk into melodic and rhythmic fragments creates an intricately structured conversation, one punctuated by dramatic give and take. Those conversations satisfy and please, not so much for their content, but because they flow naturally, musically. As Alan Belkin's guide to composition suggests, interruption is:
an interesting way to make a transition. [It] leaves the first idea incomplete. Instead of fulfilling the gesture, the music is stopped in midstream, often by some percussive sound. This suggests to the listener that change is afoot. By leaving the first idea incomplete, tension is created. This method also has the advantage that it tends to suggest that the incomplete idea will return later, and thus can be useful in creating larger scale unity in the form.
I'm hardly so technical, yet I agree that interruptions, especially the heedlessly passionate ones, help create unity in the "form" that


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