Rhythm and Trance

My latest piece for my column at Nomos Journal is up.  It’s an analysis of the Afro-Atlantic legacy of contemporary popular music, specifically in light of two interrelated aspects of Afro-Atlantic music: rhythm and trance.  The use of polyrhythmic beats in the spirit possession rituals of Afro-Atlantic traditions parallels the structure of the trance experiences that those beats occasion.  The beats mix two-pulse and three-pulse beats and the experiences likewise manifest liminal mixtures of humans (possessed) and deities (possessors), as well as mixtures between conscious and amnesiac states, between performer and audience members, between ritual and art, between humans and animals (e.g., the horses we become when we are possessed/mounted by gods)….

I’m always bothered by the inadequacy of the terminology of music theory.  Polyrhythm is a better term than syncopation, a striking-together wherein one beat is considered regular or normal, against which the irregular “off”-beat strikes.  Such a hierarchy is missing in Afro-Atlantic music; neither duple meter nor triple meter is heard as primary or regular.  In fact, there is no abstract meter at all, only the play of multiple meters.  Along those lines, polyrhythm seems like a much better term, since it does not assimilate the plurality of rhythms into a hierarchy of regular/irregular beats.  However, as Mikel Dufrenne points out in The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, polyrhythm is still an inadequate concept for describing the phenomenon itself.  It presupposes a mono-/poly- distinction that is not present in the actual performance or experience of the music.

I’m reminded that there is a magic formula that many of us are still searching for, a formula that would equate the singular and the plural, mono- and poly-, the one and the many, monism and pluralism.  My commitment to pop analysis follows along those lines, listening for the truth of to hen in the music of hoi polloi.

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4 responses to “Rhythm and Trance

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