Tuesday, August 28, 2012

I Got Rhythm


With one foot in the past closing out summer work and the other in the future preparing a Fall season of workshops, performances and projects, there have been few blogworthy thoughts or events. I could talk about the new garage door opener, the trip to the post office, the way Firefox invited me to upgrade and then said, “Ha ha! Won’t work with your operating system and since we just trashed the old one, no Internet for you!” and other such mundane details of the daily round, but why bother?


But I did receive a transcription of an interview a student in Finland did with me and was surprised to discover I liked it. My marker for my own writing is that if someone else had written those words, I would enjoy reading them. And this interview passed the test. Since the whole thing is12 pages long, I’ll just include the first part for now—that is, if I can find a way to get on the Internet to post!

T: Well, Doug, let’s start with this. What is rhythm?

D: Carl Orff said: “It is difficult to teach rhythm. One can only release it. Rhythm is no abstract concept, it is life itself.” Meaning that we already are rhythmic beings. It is the rhythms in our body that literally keep us alive—the rhythmic pumping of the heart, the rhythmic rising and falling of the breath, the rhythm of our brain waves. If any of those rhythms stop, we’re dead.

As Orff so eloquently said, rhythm is life itself, not only in our bodies, but in the rhythm of the day and night with the sun, the month with the moon, the year with the earth’s orbit, all the rhythms that mark time. And then there’s the rhythms inside all of matter, which both ancient wisdom and modern physics tells us is vibration. All things are vibrating in their own rhythm. You know how sometimes when you hit an instrument in one part of the room, it makes another instrument (like a snare drum) vibrate somewhere else? That’s a deep statement about the polyrhythmic world we inhabit, where one rhythmic vibration can awaken or affect another rhythmic vibration. It doesn’t only happen with snare drums, but between people. Perhaps the physics of falling in love is when simply seeing another person strums a string in your heart and you pick that particular rhythm out from all the others around you. Or rather, it picks you.

Do you see how deep and far-reaching rhythm is? And we go to music classes and come out thinking rhythm is counting 1-2-3-4! Orff was so brilliant to insist that rhythmic training means releasing that which we already are. Seen in that broad light, counting beats has very little to do with it.

T: So you don’t think that there are any situations where there is not rhythm? That rhythm is in everything that we do?

D: I can’t think of one. You know I really can’t. All day long we have these micro and macro rhythms. How we brush our teeth or brush our hair, chop the fruit, the long tradition of physical work rhythms— milking cows, sowing seeds, hammering nails, sawing wood, pounding grain, most of which has been reduced to button pushing, at great cost to our body’s sense of rhythm. Then there’s the cycles of the body—hungry, then full, sleepy, then awake and so on.

Each bodily system with its own rhythmic cycle. And the structures of our daily life, our 9 to 5 cycle, our five day work week and weekends, our working year and summer vacation and so on. Whether in the human world we build or the natural world we inhabit, everything proceeds in cycles and patterns—it’s all rhythm.

There is a lovely poem by Gary Snyder that says:

 “As the crickets soft autumn hum
  is to us
 so are we to the trees
 as are they
 to the rocks and the hills.”

So the cricket has a very fast vibration and takes a very short time and ours is slower, right? But the relationship between the cricket and us is like between us and the tree. You know, compared to the tree, ours is very fast and the tree is very slow, but compared to the mountain and the rocks and the hills, the tree is very fast and they are very slow.

T: Or like earth and the universe.

D: Exactly. So they’re all different rhythms, all different expressions of the life force, each with its own rhythm. Some are fast and some are slow, but they all share this same kind of quality. It’s a great image of a universe filled with augmented and diminished rhythms and a very poetic way to think about it.

In short, to paraphrase George and Ira Gershwin:

“I got rhythm, you got rhythm, we all got rhythm.
Who could ask for anything more?”

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