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Right-Hemisphere Conducting, Nr. 5

Time” is not of our World

Whoso­ev­er danceth not, knoweth not the way of life.
Jesus Christ1

Mus­cles were made for move­ment, and rhythm is move­ment.
It is impos­si­ble to con­ceive a rhythm with­out think­ing of a body in motion.
To move, a body requires a quan­tum of space and a quan­tum of time.
The begin­ning and end of the move­ments deter­mine the amount of time and space involved.
Emile Jacques-Dal­croze2

Time, as the word is used in ordi­nary con­ver­sa­tion today, does not exist in the nat­ur­al world. Time, as we used the word today, refers to an arti­fi­cial man-made reg­i­men­ta­tion of our lives and is so for­eign to our nature that we rebel against it every day, as, for exam­ple, is exem­pli­fied in our indi­vid­ual sleep require­ments.

Soci­ety has had a very dif­fi­cult strug­gle in reg­i­ment­ing Time. Even in so basic a prob­lem as the def­i­n­i­tion of the cal­en­dar year, the reg­u­la­tors still, after cen­turies, have not got it right—on Dec. 31, 2008, it became nec­es­sary for the world to add one sec­ond to its clocks.

Time” with respect to man him­self must be thought of as a nat­ur­al part of his right-hemi­sphere, expe­ri­en­tial world. Since the right-hemi­sphere also enables us to under­stand and deal with aspects of space, I would think that the ear­li­est of men, as Dal­croze sug­gests above, were aware more of space than Time. To throw a spear at an ani­mal required some­thing to hap­pen here and then there. It was the space between the here and there that ear­ly man would have under­stood, but not as a mat­ter of Time. It is inter­est­ing in this regard that the fifth cen­tu­ry writer, Mar­tianus Capel­la still defined a “tone” as some­thing “stretched over a space.”

The ear­li­est of men, of course, tru­ly lived in the present tense and hav­ing no need to think of past or future they had no need for a con­cept of Time as we know it.

The his­to­ry of musi­cians is a his­to­ry of the rebel­lion against the reg­i­men­ta­tion of Time. This has so frus­trat­ed the lin­ear, ratio­nal world of phi­los­o­phy that crit­ics have had to invent words to describe the unex­plain­able actions of musi­cal artists. In the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, for exam­ple, crit­ics invent­ed the term “elas­tic style” to label the free roman­tic inter­pre­ta­tions of the late 19th cen­tu­ry. Ear­li­er crit­ics adopt­ed the Ital­ian word, ruba­to, to account for musi­cians hav­ing the audac­i­ty to tam­per with the rigid meter nota­tion on paper. The lit­er­al def­i­n­i­tion of ruba­to, “stolen Time,” reflects the unbend­able ethics of the crit­ics.

Many who hoped to bring a left-hemi­sphere order to our expe­ri­ences with Time have sug­gest­ed that all maters of Time in music had their ori­gin in the human pulse. But this makes no sense because no two peo­ple have the same pulse, they vary great­ly.3 No doc­tor will answer you if you ask, “What is the offi­cial stan­dard pulse?” And as it turns out, in so far as I can deter­mine from my own read­ing, that there was in fact only one ear­ly writer, Franchi­no Gaffu­rio (1451–1518), who men­tioned the rela­tion­ship of the pulse to tem­po. But in the same trea­tise he con­fess­es that singers were mak­ing “sounds which can­not be writ­ten down.”4

There are innu­mer­able exam­ples of our great com­posers who have fought against the reg­i­men­ta­tion of Time and in par­tic­u­lar the reg­i­men­ta­tion of pulse. Mon­tever­di plead­ed with a singer to reflect the beat of the heart [a com­mon metaphor for feel­ing] and not the beat of the hand. And then there is Beethoven’s con­tention, which should be engraved above the doors of all music depart­ments, “Feel­ing has its own tem­po.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, there are many exam­ples of ear­ly com­posers urg­ing the per­form­ers to feel free to ignore their nota­tion of Time and Tem­po.

These pieces should not be played to a strict beat any more than mod­ern madri­gals which, though dif­fi­cult, are made eas­i­er by tak­ing the beat now slow­er, now faster, and by even paus­ing alto­geth­er in accor­dance with the expres­sion and mean­ing of the texts.
Giro­lamo Fres­cobal­di, Toc­catas and Par­ti­tas [1615], Book I.

In accor­dance with the feel­ing one must guide the beat, sens­ing it now fast, now slow, accord­ing to the occa­sion, now live­li­ness, and now lan­guor, as indeed any­one will eas­i­ly know imme­di­ate­ly who pos­sess the fine man­ner of singing.
Gio­van­ni Bonachel­li, Coro­na di sac­ri gigli… 1642.

Dur­ing the six­teenth cen­tu­ry Ital­ian com­posers began using the famil­iar Ital­ian words we find at the upper left-hand cor­ner of a score. But where­as we have been taught to think of these words in terms of tem­po, they thought of them in terms of char­ac­ter. And thus, since char­ac­ter is native to the right-hemisphere’s empha­sis on indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ence, we find no agree­ment among those ear­ly writ­ers. The Ger­man, Johann Matthe­son, 1681–1764, thought Andante meant hope.5 But the Eng­lish crit­ic, Roger North, 1653–1734, thought Andante meant “walk­ing about full of con­cern.”6

And sim­i­lar­ly in the Clas­si­cal Peri­od, Quantz gives the tem­po of Ada­gio as quar­ter-note = 16 (!!), where­as in Mozart’s beau­ti­ful Ave verum cor­pus, a work writ­ten in alla-breve which is usu­al­ly per­formed about quar­ter-note 140, we are aston­ished to see Ada­gio.

It is easy to imag­ine the con­cept of pulse with regard to danc­ing by an indi­vid­ual, but get­ting a group of dancer to dance on the same pulse is anoth­er mat­ter. Now they may all be forced to dance to a pulse which is nat­ur­al to none of them. This is why in Euro­pean palaces you will some­times see affixed to a wall a huge club, with which the danc­ing mas­ter pound­ed the floor to enforce the pulse. Lul­ly died from infec­tion after acci­den­tal­ly hit­ting his toe with one of these clubs in rehearsal.

In a sim­i­lar exam­ple, the Eng­lish audi­ences were very excit­ed in see­ing and hear­ing for the first time the new sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry Ital­ian cus­tom of coor­di­nat­ed bow­ings. But this is also a form of reg­i­men­ta­tion and in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Leopold Stokows­ki engaged in seri­ous exper­i­ments by hav­ing the Philadel­phia Orches­tra string play­ers return to bow­ing of their choice as he believed there was a loss of indi­vid­ual musi­cian­ship in coor­di­nat­ed bow­ings. Need­less to say, the thor­ough­ly reg­i­ment­ed Philadel­phia crit­ics would not let him get away with this.

For band con­duc­tors of the present day I believe there is no greater obsta­cle to musi­cian­ship than the fear of break­ing the bar­ri­ers inferred by the mea­sure bar lines. Gun­ther Schuller once expressed the same con­cern as fol­lows,

How is it that the ruba­to style adopt­ed by most pianists is gen­er­al­ly regard­ed as a favor­able proof of sen­si­bil­i­ty, where­as it would not be tol­er­at­ed for a moment in an orches­tral per­for­mance?7

My advice for the con­duc­tor who wants to be more musi­cal is to first remem­ber that the com­pos­er began with feel­ings he wished to com­mu­ni­cate but in order to com­mu­ni­cate them he was required to force them into our very strict and reg­i­ment­ed arith­metic met­ri­cal nota­tion. There­fore you help him by remov­ing the chains which hold his music in place; you do not insult him by set­ting him free. On the con­trary, if you per­form exact­ly what is on paper you will only join him in chains.

Always hold dear Beethoven’s advice that feel­ing has its own tem­po. And fol­low Leopold Mozart’s advice in his book on vio­lin play­ing that you should ignore those Ital­ian words in the upper left-hand cor­ner and let the music itself tell you the prop­er tem­po. The dan­ger in those Ital­ian words is that when you see “alle­gro,” for exam­ple, you are imme­di­ate­ly prej­u­diced with the thought that here is a fast piece. Bet­ter to fol­low Leopold’s advice, which is based on an old eti­quette of court life: nev­er speak to a noble unless spo­ken to. Give the music a chance to speak to you first before you impose your will upon it.

Regard­ing the appli­ca­tion of the right-hemi­sphere to melod­ic and rhythm ele­ments, let me cite two exam­ples from a reper­toire work every­one knows, the Wag­n­er Trauer­musik.

The notes in bars 45–46 are melod­ic in char­ac­ter. When you see a melody, go to a piano to find the pitch­es and sing it. In singing it you will quick­ly dis­cov­er the nat­ur­al shape of the melody, the ways some notes lead to oth­ers. You dis­cov­er the right-hemi­sphere ver­sion as opposed to the left-hemi­sphere data form. Only one of these is musi­cal, so con­duct it the way you sing it. In bars 45&ndash46 there is absolute­ly no rea­son on earth why every quar­ter-note should be the same length. There are no rules what­so­ev­er which deter­mine how long these mea­sures must take.

Now look at the last two bars of the final cadence of this same score. Here the wood­winds have a tie mak­ing both bars become one very long unin­ter­rupt­ed sound, although this tie is miss­ing in almost all edi­tions. The brass chords in the last two bars rep­re­sent large church bells. In order to com­mu­ni­cate this to the audi­ence, while your right baton hand stays unmov­ing to reflect the wood­winds hold­ing their very long pitch, use your left hand to bring in the first brass/bell and let it sound for a time, then cut the sound off. After a pause, while the wood­winds con­tin­ue sound­ing, what­ev­er length of pause feels right to you, you bring in the brass/bell again and let it ring. Then cut if off, then pause again and then final­ly with the left hand bring in the brass/bell to join the ongo­ing wood­wind chord. When I con­duct these two bars they can some­times last 20 or more sec­onds. And longer if in a res­o­nant hall.

In both of these two places noth­ing could be more unmu­si­cal than an on-going steady beat­ing of quar­ter-notes. And sup­pose some­one crit­i­cizes you for your ruba­to. Before you answer, remem­ber you nev­er have to apol­o­gize for your own feel­ings.

Final­ly, cadences in slow com­po­si­tions gen­er­al­ly need more time than the notat­ed music allows, time to allow the lis­ten­ers to pull band and relax from the ten­sions of the music. The most com­mon error I hear is to fail to allow an appro­pri­ate taper to the final note, regard­less of writ­ten dura­tion. I have heard many per­for­mances where the final note is vio­lent cut off by the con­duc­tor (is he afraid not every­one will stop?). It results in a ter­ri­ble jolt for the lis­ten­er. I am often been quot­ed for some­thing I said in a rehearsal many years ago, “cadences and kiss­es should nev­er be abrupt!”

David Whitwell


  1. Found in a Gnos­tic Hymn of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry, quot­ed in Curt Sachs, World His­to­ry of the Dance (New York: Nor­ton, 1937), 3. []
  2. Emile Jacques-Dal­croze, in Rhythm Music & Edu­ca­tion (Lon­don: Dal­croze Soci­ety, 1980), 39 []
  3. One of my per­son­al doc­tors told me he has had a patient with a pulse rate of 200 and he was uncon­cerned about this. []
  4. Prac­ti­ca musi­cae. []
  5. Der vol­lkommene Capelmeis­ter [1739] []
  6. Quot­ed in John Wil­son, Roger North on Music (Lon­don: Nov­el­lo, 1959), 119ff. []
  7. The Com­pleat Con­duc­tor (Oxford, Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1997), 71 []