Talk on Rhythm, Mounsonturn Frankfurt, 2016
This talk was written for Bojana Kunst as part of an event at Mounsonturn Frankfurt, May 19th 2016


Good evening and welcome.

I don't know but I guess you come from dance or theatre,
or philosophy, or theory, or social sciences or something,
and this is a part of your studies or you've been asked to come along,
and the subject of the talk is rhythm.

And the talk is written
so we hear the rhythm.

And this is a kind of interdisciplinary thing,
but I come from contemporary dance and I'd like to begin
by explaining what that might mean.

Contemporary dance started more or less in 1962,
and fashions have come and gone,
but right now we're popular in art galleries
and that's about the most famous we've ever been
and we're grateful for it.

The art scene likes that dance is immaterial and relational,
which is partly true of what we do,
and marks a momentary shift in art
away from from the object that might be bought or sold,
or invested in.

And we're lucky and cursed
that we have no real library to keep us in check,
because you can't easily write the dancing body,
and Youtube is only a pale imitation
of the brilliant self-consciousness of watching somebody else dance.

Meanwhile we follow our noses
and a lot of what we do is radical and under the radar,
and for some of you,
that part is probably more interesting than this thing called rhythm.

But time and perception
and memory and the sensory
have a bearing on what makes dance good at critique.

And a lot of dance is radical and under the radar,
and it resists the corporate,
because it hasn't much to gain financially
and nothing to lose.

And to watch a dance
is to be aware of yourself in time,
which is what we call history.


Youtube is only a pale imitation
of the brilliant self-consciousness of watching somebody else dance,
and you'll notice how 'in the moment' that self-consciousness feels.

And contemporary dance,
like advertising,
is obsessed with 'in the moment'.

But 'in the moment' depends on what came before
and what follows after,
because without them we can't interpret the present.

And 'in the moment' is how neo-liberalism
persuades us to put aside history
and go on shopping,
which is reason enough to question the new,
and try for a moment for a broader view.

We can start by noticing some of the other times occuring while I speak now.

Like remembering what you did this morning,
thinking about what might happen next
and wondering when this talk will end.

Or where you will go when it finishes,
how hungry you are
and what you might eat.

Or the time you think this talk should take,
and what you would say if you were talking yourself,
and whether I'm too fast
or too slow
or too boring,
and what boring might mean
and whether the boring is good boring or bad boring.

Or the time of the history of this institution
and the political weight of its knowledge and agendas,
and the architectural age of the building,
and the talks you've heard in this room before,
and the time represented by the idea of you being a student.

Or the time of the phone in your pocket
which you check
and then immediately forget,
and so on,
which are ideas from the Bulgarian philosopher Boyan Manchev.

And also a kind of rhythm.


Post-structural thought arrived at an image
which helps address some of the difficulties I found
when I tried to think what I could say about rhythm.

And to illustrate the difficulties
I'll tell you a story which happened recently.

I was sitting in a studio with a friend who makes video,
and we'd been trying for hours to make sense of a sequence
and it wasn't making sense.

And by chance out of desperation
we adjusted the music
by a fraction of a second,
and meaning appeared from this random decision
and was immediately obvious and unarguable.

And we'd moved the music several times before
and it was never right,
and then it was right,
and I thought what is this 'right'?

And I thought this is what I have to say when I talk about rhythm,
but I didn't know what had happened.

I didn't know what had happened
and I wasn't satisfied to call it intuition,
though at some level it was.

Then I read something from Derrida
about rhythm haunting our tradition
without ever reaching the centre.

Which suggests rhythm as something that moderates from the edge,
but in itself has no particular meaning.

And this mediating rhythm is everywhere and ubiquitous
to the point of invisibility.

And we're a long way from cool beats.


There's a book called Chomsky for Beginners,
with a description of how grammar organises ideas.

It says grammar sits like rocks at the top of the waterfall,
shaping the torrent of water as it falls.

Meaning rhythm creates differences which carry information,
and at the same time generates the repetition
which marks out what is different.

Or as Terry Eagleton said,
'the text is most informative when it deviates unpredictably from one of its codes,
creating effects which stand out against this uniform background'.

Rhythm sets the status quo
and at the same time subverts itself,
so that information happens.

And for an artist this is perhaps the most liberating thing,
that rhythm isn't about patterns
but about the nature of information itself.


And when the theatre doors close,
time becomes unreliable
so that slow things seem quick
and fast things pass slowly,
and we're working out all the time
where we are in the gap
between start and finish,
and we long for the ending.

And gallery-time is the slice of a constant cake
which has no start or end,
and allows us to come and go
without measurement,
but we measure it anyway.

And every time is affected by the times which might have happened,
but appear not to be there.

And all the time the chanting continues:
good boring,
bad boring,
good boring,
bad boring,
good boring,
bad boring.

And as the philosopher Alva Noë says,
any adequate account of art and of its place in our lives,
must address the striking fact that art has the power to bore us.

Or as my friend Elizabeth pointed out recently,
every performing body has a different duration,
and the time it takes her to climb slowly out of her wheelchair
might be boring to you,
but she finds it pretty interesting.


Culture is full of stuff about natural rhythm
and the mother's heartbeat,
and we get seduced by this new age wish
and we fall asleep.

And heartbeat and walking
and day and night
are part of it,
but not all of it,
and not necessarily the best bit.

You probably like to go out on a weekend
to a crowded room full of noise,
and you don't talk much
and eventually after enough alcohol or whatever,
you start to dance.

And there's never been a more predictable music,
and we love how it gives us a repetitive playground
where we lose ourselves in the gaps between beats.

And the dancing body is notoriously bad at keeping time,
but in Jamaica they celebrate that and call it skanking,
which has nothing to do with marijuana
and everything to do with dancing as unrhythmically as possible,
in order to arrive back at rhythm.


I avoided work this morning
by playing English folk tunes.

I've always done it
and it's a kind of art,
and also no art
and I won't mention it again.

I do it because I like to sit,
maybe twenty of us,
trying to play music,
suffering moments of euphoria
when the right tune follows the right tune at the right speed,
keeping the pace down low.

And after three hours
the feeling gets stronger.

And we don't talk much.

And this experience of shared time
was described by the historian William McNeill,
writing about the uneasy joy he felt
when marching in the US army.

'Words are inadequate to describe
the emotion aroused
by the prolonged movement in unison
that drilling involved.

A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall;
more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement;
a sort of swelling out,
becoming bigger than life.'

McNeill's head was lifting off his body
like a classic trance experience,
built on shared movement and chanting,
and he was only marching.

And for him it was a fundamental part of the development of society.

Though he wasn't unaware
of the political manipulation of such a phenomenon,
most notably by the Nazi Party
or various communist states,
to incite and control vast numbers of people
in mass rallies,
built on shared movement and chanting.

And he noticed how mistrust of such things now prevails,
and I would add not least in contemporary dance,
which loves and understands the power of unison,
but doubts it deeply
and plays a constant game of glancing reference
to its uneasy power and spectacle.

And yet there remains a humility inherent
in the act of sharing a beat,
which won't go away,
and rhythm is the common property.

Human experience of perceptual time
changed forever with the railways
in the first part of the 19th century.

Previously there'd been no central clock time,
and each village or city
set its clocks independently,
with only loose reference to other clocks.

Experienced time wasn't bound
by any central ruling principle,
but remained approximate
and subject to other daily rhythms.

But the necessity of catching trains changed all that,
culminating in England with the adoption in 1840,
by the Great Western Railway,
of a standard time to replace all local times.

And the nature of daily rhythm changed,
from a pulsing but indeterminate and more personal thing,
to a centralised mechanical master
against which all perceptual time must be compared.

You for instance,
may recently have checked your phone again.

And here we are in Post-Fordism,
with the world dividing
into those on contract work,
following impossible hours for low pay,
and the rest of us adrift
in a sea of self-motivated time
which defeats us.

While all the time an incessant clock ticks
in our muscle memory,
like a neurosis.


Which makes me think of metronomes,
invented in the 9th century
by the Muslim scholar Abbe Ibn Firnas,
who has a crater named after him
on the dark side of the moon.

And some people like metronomes and some don't,
and the ones who don't think they make music mechanical,
and the ones who do enjoy how they slow things down
so you know where the beat is.

And sometimes knowing where the beat is
is the best way to escape it.

And every popular dance has its own speed
and the speed of the dance tells the body what to do,
so that country and western is different from dancehall.

And there's a certain liberation that comes from working with a metronome,
because you know where the beat is,
and the gaps open up
and your perception of time becomes more fluid.

And the longer you keep dancing the stronger that feeling gets,
and you're totally there,
but at the same time you're giving it all away
to the beat and to the people around you,
until you feel momentarily free.


Every action has a rhythm
which repetition imprints on our motor memory.

Every dancer knows how the traces of old times
survive at muscular level,
to interfere with and alter
everything new we try to do.

Every member of an audience has a stored bank of rhythms,
which shape and alter their responses.

And alongside the unconscious rhythmic actions
sit the patterns of childhood speech and accent,
those known and worn out verbal phrases,
books read,
advertising jingles,
music absorbed,
movie sequences,
familiar routes,
train rides,
sleeping patterns,
eating patterns,
sex patterns,
drinking patterns,
and all the numbers that matter,
like myself aged 56,
living at 71 Valence Road,
with two children aged 4 and 6,
and another aged 36,
and a mother who died at 76,
and so on and on.

And all the patterns of dance
are not the cause of rhythm,
but rather the visual mediations
which make rhythm perceptible.

And the way a child repeats things
or watches the same movie,
is not an obsessive or simplistic acting out,
but the slow learning of consciousness,
catching itself in the moment of remembering.


Making a performance
is about how to get from one thing to the next thing,
in a convincing manner.

And then to keep doing that
for a while,
until a continuity happens,
which we might call rhythm.

And then to wait for that continuity
to give you permission to deviate.

And at the same time to know
when to abandon the ideas
that took you North instead of South,
or South instead of North.

Until what you're left with feels like nothing
and is everything.

All of which includes those moments of doing whatever it is you wanted to do anyway,
to see what it looks like.

Knowing that what feels convincing
is probably anyway just an old rhythm
that already got approval in some past moment.

Meaning old rhythms are ok too,
especially if you think they're new.

While finding a new rhythm
is a matter of luck,
and work,
and being stupid enough to keep on trying.

And what we call material
is the thing that happens
when one idea meets another idea,
which is a matter of what goes where.

And everyone knows where to put stuff that matters,
which is how we decorate our bedrooms.

Or as Stockhausen said in his 1972 London Lectures,
'When certain characteristics remain constant for a while,
a moment is going on,
and when these characteristics change,
all of a sudden
a new moment begins.

And then I can decide as a composer,
or also as the person who experiences,
how quickly and with what degree of change
the next moment is going to occur.'

And you have to work out the end,
and the right end is a deviation,
which leaves the spectator suspended for days.

And the hour long performance might finally be going out of fashion,
and I pray for two minute songs or twenty four hour spectacles.

And it's all duration
whether short or long.


And sometimes two materials
happen at the same time,
which is what we call counterpoint.

Like when we put music over the top of performances
and they're totally changed,
which is a skill we learned
from watching TV.

And music changes everything
but not always in the way you need.

And you have to leave room
for whatever else is happening.

And counterpoint is rhythm at the advanced class level,
and it's the heart of African culture.

And I love the African concept of 'playing apart',
which is another way of forgetting rhythm
to arrive back at rhythm.

Like when the harpsichordist Robert Hill,
played Bach's Goldberg Variations
with the instruction that his left hand
steal time from his right.

Or when my friend Janet recorded two Ugandans
playing xylophone together at breakneck speed,
and each thought the other was playing the off-beat.

Or when Tom Waites
asked his band to play
like a beautiful train crash.


And as I mentioned before
my friend Elizabeth
says the time it takes her to climb slowly out of her wheelchair
might be boring to you,
but it's pretty interesting for her.

Which is what we call somatic body,
being the body only you can feel,
and nobody else can see it
but it has a presence,
and a brilliant self-consciousness.

And it follows its own rhythms,
of blood flow,
nervous energy,
organ tone,
tactile awareness,
and adrenaline rush.

And when we watch someone engage in a sensory way,
our own interior rhythms

And younger dancers get better
at bringing the inside out
and the outside in.

And as Ani de Franco from the seminal women's punk band the Raincoats said recently,
'We like to work at the edge of our abilities'.

And before I wrote this last part
I walked up to my vegetable patch on the hill,
and I'd forgotten the attachment for the water hose,
so I had to water by hand
filling can after can,
and the experience didn't live up to the rural ideal.

I was at the edge of my patience
which was affecting my abilities,
and I was trying to get more efficient at watering
so I could go home
but the rhythm was failing me,
which is also a rhythm.

And it reminded me of Alvin Lucier's music performance
called I Am Sitting In A Room,
where he records the same text
over and over
until the language disappears in a gentle howl of feedback.

And a slight stutter he makes in his original recording
repeats again and again until the words are eaten,
but we can still hear the stutter
like the ghost of his mistake.

Thank you.

With thanks to Ramsay Burt, Katye Coe, Siobhan Davies and Simon Ellis for their helpful comments.

© Jonathan Burrows 2016