Monday 12 November 2018

death by common time

Last year, while on vacation in the south, I observed something that resonated with me.  We were in a private home on a beautiful inlet in Grand Cayman.  It was quiet.  The neighbors in the adjacent villas were quiet.

Then some low-grade sub-morons showed up a few villas up the bay.  On their first afternoon, one moron got into a pedal-boat, set up a small stereo system, turned on what appeared to be some kind of rap or hip-hop, and pedaled out into the ocean.

I say "appeared to be" because of course, it was impossible to hear anything other than the backbeat.  With a wind blowing and waves streaming, it was very likely impossible even for the dope on the boat to hear much other than the bass drum and snare drum.

And then it hit me:  he was organizing his environment into 4/4 time.  Being as intelligent as a bag of hammers, he couldn't stand silence (God forbid that he would have to be alone inside his own head), and it didn't really matter what he was listening to, as long as it was in 4/4 at roughly a metronome marking of between 108 and 120 (just enough to slightly raise his heart rate.)

And then it dawned on me even further:  daily, millions of people are organizing their subway rides, bus rides, drives, walks, meals, house chores, etc., into 4/4 time, all at about the same tempo.  It's a lubricant for their chaotic lives.  It is a kind of drug, a new Soma.

Pop music, for which I have a great fondness, has slowly devolved over the last two decades into organizing noise.  It is not a coincidence that bass and drum music--  oops, sorry, drum and bass music (one of my students pompously corrected me on that, because, seriously, it's very important to get it right), has done away completely with harmony and melody.  Because after all, if you're dumb as a tree, what do you need harmony and melody for?

It seems that people no longer really need the music, they just need the rhythm.  We have truly descended to a point of lowest common denominator.  And it's always the safe symmetry of 4/4 time.

Think about it:  how many hits have been in any other metre?  One or two, true, but certainly not many.  Even country music, where you used to be able to count on a good waltz tune once in a while, has gone almost exclusively 4/4.  More complex or changing metres are the purview of progressive rock, which does not appeal to a wide audience.

I continue to believe that some enterprising DJ could render Carter's Second Quartet palatable to a wider audience by doing a re-mix with a backbeat in 4/4 time.  That's presuming, of course, he or she could find the primary metre.

Oh, but wait, it might not work.  The quartet is longer than the three and a half minute maximum attention span of the ADHD generation.

John Cage had the numbers right, just not in the right format.  4/4 3:30.

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