- November 12, 2020
I’ve been listening to a lot of dance music lately. I’ve been trying to articulate why it is that dancing my way into 2020—on New Year’s Day, to the sound of DJs spinning ten-odd hours of house and techno in Brooklyn—feels directly related to the sensation of playing Brahms or Schumann at the piano. As a performer of notated music—especially pieces written centuries ago—my role is that of a medium, but an active one, less vessel than translator. Although my process includes a lot of research, I do not claim any historical “authenticity” for my performances. I want my translations to stay accountable to my reality. I am in and of my time.
There’s a DJ set by Kerri Chandler I’ve been listening to. It starts in stasis. A track with only one chord1 articulates its composition across other dimensions: the entrance and exit of hi-hats up top, occasional moments of breath when the kick drops out, changing rhythmic patterns within the unchanging harmony. We can feel the music shifting and evolving while the single chord keeps us rooted in the same place, a kind of corporeal dissonance. After sustaining a consecutive 7 minutes of tracks comprising only static harmonies, Chandler releases us into a multi-bar phrase of moving chords.2 The moment is powerful and freeing, opening a new horizontal dimension.
That we can arrive here, now, only after several minutes of buildup, signals that harmonic motion is an element to observe over time. It is a sensory parameter as well as a formal one. What is needed in order to understand the music, then, is attention to feeling: how it feels in the body to hear a richly chromatic chord; how it feels to move through horizontal time in the harmonic space between the verticality of each individual chord; how it feels for that moving-between to then loop around and be made into its own recursive unit, which then becomes a building block for the surrounding track and set.
Some approaches to theorizing the essence of pre-20th century Western classical music involve reducing the music down to an elemental, ultimately atemporal harmonic core. In other words, a few verticalities represent the essence expressed through the more elaborate details of a composition. Deep harmonic coherence is the primary reason why a given piece hangs together, even when the surface of its form might seem totally unpredictable.
While useful, this approach is inadequate for understanding a crucial capacity of music: tit is a code, through which a person may share a piece of their own experience and facilitate the experience of another. In classical music, this capacity hinges on relationships between harmony and time—between the vertical and the horizontal—and the sensations that result. The temporal dimension is what allows listeners and interpreters to connect to a composer’s internal life. Moments of weightless suspension in Brahms, breaths that might be heard as commas or caesurae in Schumann, patterning and repetition that eventually gives a piece the capacity to reference itself: these are all ways we can feel a person’s hand on the other side. None of them can exist without time.
The essence of music is the impulse to look at a set of points, sketch out the lines between, and say: “There’s a connection.” It is the desire to find and the capacity to recognize interactions. When I encounter a new score, my aim is to find how and why its objects relate to one another.
Tracking the rate of harmonic motion in Chandler’s set yields a series of melodic, gestural, motivic objects; over the course of 73 minutes, it moves from stasis to looping chord cycles and, eventually, to what we might call a full-blown pop song structure, with distinct chords for “verse” and “chorus” sections, which are recombined and composed.
After the anticipatory momentum, generated by 52 minutes of gradually lengthening loops, the arrival of this multi-pronged structure 3 is climactic, leaving us whirling. In this context, the conventions of song structure can be heard anew. We can now dance through the track’s structural limbs, through its multidimensional field of time.
Listening is an action. Music is something you do.