Though I am a composer and pianist to many people, I have also spent my entire career as a double bassist in a major symphony orchestra, the Phoenix Symphony. I cannot express what a joy it is to make music with so many wonderfully dedicated colleagues in such an intimate setting. Though an orchestra may not seem intimate, in reality, it is the same as playing with one other person only times sixty, eighty, or a hundred. True, an orchestra has a conductor, but, in the long run, a conductor is just another member of the orchestra. The conductor’s job is to facilitate the performance by allowing the members by keep track of what is going on – sort of a musical version of a GPS program. Of course, many conductors are marvelous and inspiring musicians, but many performers are marvelous and inspiring musicians as well. It is the totality of the ensemble’s attention and inspiration that contributes to a memorable performance.
Playing together in a large group is not easy. The presence of a conductor gives the impression that he or she “makes” everybody play together, but this is not so. A conductor “clarifies” what is happening in the music so that we don’t become disengaged from the present moment. The actual placement in time of the beats in the music is determined by the performers as they listen to each other. We all have a concept of a “steady beat,” but that concept within an ensemble is continually being altered by how individuals and groups of musicians are playing.
The essence of musicianship is the expression of emotion. The intensity and release of an emotion is very precise. Often that precision lies somewhat outside the pattern of continuous steady beats and is, therefore, expressed in some sort of rubato or some other sort of time stretching (or shrinking) mechanism. In a disciplined ensemble, this sort of time manipulation is accounted for as it happens.
Ensemble playing is a perfect example of theory vs. reality. In theory, a tempo is intended to be steady (most of the time), but in reality, the tempo is created by the performers as they perform. The tempo and rhythm does not control the performance, the performers control the tempo. The tempo or rhythm is neither right or wrong by itself, but if you are not playing with any- or everybody else, you are wrong.
The metronome was invented in the early 1800’s to help performers learn to maintain a steady tempo. It may be surprising that most students have trouble with this. It also was designed to help composers be more precise in their designation of tempo. Though it has useful applications for practicing or keeping complicated ensemble passages together, many times it is more trouble than it is worth. Specifying the tempo of a musical work is also not as precise as one might think. The tempo in a music work will vary depending on 1) the nature of what is being expressed and 2) the nature of the musical space it is being performed in. This has been most notoriously shown in the music of Beethoven. Beethoven had to judge the metronome marking by sight, as he could not hear the click. But even more telling was that he only ever heard the music in his head, which did not have a lot of reverb time!
When you are playing by yourself, a metronome can be somewhat helpful in keeping your sense of tempo honest while practicing. Most people not only slow down when playing difficult passages, but also speed up when playing easy passages. The metronome helps guard against those tendencies. But when playing with others, the tempo must be a mutually agreed upon affair. The metronome’s tempo is not the “right” tempo, it is just something which is given as being “in the neighborhood.”
The “click track,” which started as the use of a metronome in recorded music, has become a staple of contemporary life in music. It was of tremendous value in multi-track recording studios because it allows for different tracks of music to be recorded at different times, which was of great benefit to editing. A click track also became very useful in syncing music with movies and video, as the click track could be synced with the video BEFORE the musicians recorded their parts. Today click tracks are integral parts of most Broadway musicals; not only syncing the music, but also the lighting and scene changes!
Performing live movie scores with the movie has become common in today’s orchestras. Sometimes it is done with click tracks (and conductors) with the musicians wearing headphones. This is a huge and expensive technical challenge. You often can’t hear well through headphones, so for orchestral playing, they started using one-eared headphones quite a while ago. But it is still difficult because the click track and the music are not always together. You must, of course, be with the music. Most shows I have done recently have a conductor listening to the click track. This can be frightening for an uninitiated conductor, as the orchestra is often not with the click track. The conductor can’t just follow the click track, because he could derail the orchestra, so he just adjusts and tries to get by. This is not an occasional problem, this is a constant problem!
It has come to bother me, however, that the click track has become the absolute standard for nearly all music written today. Of course, popular music for the last hundred years or so has had it’s own click track, namely the drummer. You don’t mess with the drummer! If the drummer rushes, you rush; it he slows down, you slow down. This has been the truth forever in popular music. The drummer is also usually playing loud enough that he can’t hear much of the rest of the group, so they follow him. In an orchestra, the percussionists are part of the ensemble and are expected to play with everybody else. It is significant that pop, rock, or jazz groups don’t have more than one drummer!
Click tracks also have a natural affinity with computers. Computers now control nearly all the music you hear, whether in the media, recording, or live performance. Almost all classical composers use a computer to write or at least copy their music as well. Notation programs all produce recordings that have become more and more realistic. Everything in these programs defaults to a constant steady beat (usually m.m.=120), and as a result, almost all music shares that characteristic. It is easier to write five against four than to change tempo. The organic nature of accelerandos and ritards can be difficult to deal with in a digital workplace (the math isn’t that simple) so except for special circumstances, they are ignored. The ebb and flow of tempo so common in something like an orchestra, or romantic music in general, is an obstruction for the computer. So, as is so often the case, “the medium is the message,” and composers write for the computer instead of making the computer play like an ensemble! The computer is a wonderful tool, but tools tend to be used in ways which are easy for the tool.
When I record my own piano improvisations, I don’t use a click track. I make tempo as fluid as everything else. I do record in MIDI, however. The standard MIDI recording interface is something which resembles an old time piano roll. It has a graph-like representation of the metric grid rolling left to right and a piano keyboard represented up and down. Pitches and note lengths are represented as horizontal bars; dynamics and other music elements are represented underneath. There is no insistence upon using this metric grid, but it is used as a backdrop in any case. Because I do not use the computer program’s grid, however, it does not know what my rhythm is. It can’t listen to what I am playing and perceive the tempo or rhythm as a person can when playing in an ensemble. Because of that, it cannot transcribe my music in any kind of intelligible fashion. And my music does not survive very well being forced into the computers metrics; believe me, I have tried! But I can transcribe it the old-fashioned way, by listening and writing it down, which is in itself an eye-opening experience. (There are so many different ways of transcribing a rhythm when it is just a sound with no dominant pulse!)
So where I am going with all this is that rhythm and tempo are like mathematics; they are useful tools but do not have any existence in themselves. Their reality is a myth; and what a musician performs either by themselves or with their colleagues is the only true reality. Rhythm and tempo are not standards to follow or by which to judge, they are suggestions which help communicate the important issues in the music, the emotional and aesthetic content.