Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Gregorian Chant Rhythm

Having finished Richard R. Terry's _Catholic Church Music_ (I may follow up on this later), I have moved along to Dom Joseph Gajard's _The Rhythm of Plainsong_. This is a fascinating topic which never seems to get old, no matter how much it is explored.

When I first started looking into the Solesmes rhythmic method, I inquired with a number of people as to what the ictus really was. "No, it's not an accent," I was told many times. But what is it? This was the question that could never be answered in such a way to satisfy my curiousity. It was as though I was listening to a bunch of riddles or parables.

The problem, of course, is that I hadn't thrown away my modern--i.e., Baroque to early 20th century, at least in the classical idiom--ideas about rhythm. If my experiences as a young student are any barometer, rhythm was presented to most of us as an empirical reality, something that could be perceived even on the score, often said to be made manifest through various levels of intensity: The downbeat is louder than the other beats, or in rock music, the off beats would be louder.

This paradigm goes a great way in preventing students from properly understanding chant rhythm, and we might even say from understanding rhythm as such in all kinds of music. Of all the books I have read on this topic, this present volume by Gajard is proving to be the most effective and most interesting. The astute reader will come away from this book--even from the first two chapters--with a completely different sense of what rhythm really is.

Gajard tackles straight away the notion that rhythm is perceived solely through intensity, or volume. He instead proposes, convincingly, that rhythm is not made manifest by any one means, but through several: 1. pitch, 2. intensity, 3. duration. These three work together in synthesis to form an ars movendi, a rhythm which is the means of giving random sound an artistic form. In one place the rhythm will become apparent by means of a pitch, in another by way of the length of the notes, and in still another by means of intesity. Rhythm is therefore perceived by the intellect.

The author goes on to say that musical rhythm is really an outgrowth of physical motion--again, ars movendi. In fact, in ancient times the Greeks relied greatly on the physical movement of dancers to perceive the rhythm of the music. This is true even with respect to arsis and thesis: when one takes a step, the foot is first lifted and then replaced on the ground--a rising and falling motion. This is the basis of the elementary rhythm, the undulation which is the foundation of all other rhythms. This is, of course, where the ictus comes in: it is not an accent, such as the downbeat in "modern" music, but rather the resting point, the thesis.

I of course cannot possibly do complete justice to Gajard's arguments. I encourage you to buy this book and read all about it for yourself. Nevertheless, a short summary was necessary in order for me to make sense of a thought that struck my mind in the midst of this reading. I am no philosopher, but here it is, to the best of my ability:

We tend to take it for granted--or I do at least--that so much of what we consider to be verifiable is also empirical. In other words, we assume that the verifiable is right in front of our faces. But this is not so with chant rhythm. This entity is rather something which can only be perceived by putting together different pieces and synthesizing them with the intellect. Doesn't this make chant rhythm a marvelous example with which to refute various modernist philosophical ideas, of which empiricism is only one?

Moreover, isn't chant rhythm then a little bit like the Kingdom of Heaven? We can't see it with our eyes--it is not "right in front of our faces"--but we can perceive it with our intellects by synthesizing the clues that are all around us.

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