"The essence of all composition—tonal or atonal, vocal or instrumental, even purely percussive, if you will—is the semblance of organic move ment, the illusion of an indivisible whole. Vital organization is the ftame of all feeling, because feeling exists only in living organisms; and the logic of all symbols that can express feeling is the logic of organic proc esses. The most characteristic principle of vital activity is rhythm. All life is rhythmic; under difficult circumstances, its rhythms may become very complex, but when they are really lost life cannot long endure. This rhythmic character of organism permeates music, because music is a symbolic presentation of the highest organic response, the emotional life of human beings. A succession of emotions that have no reference to each other do not constitute an “emotional life,’3 any more than a dis continuous and independent functioning of organs collected under one skin would be a physical “life.” The great office of music is to organize our conception of feeling into more than an occasional awareness of emo
tional storm, i.e. to give us an insight into what may truly be called the “life of feeling,” or subjective unity of experience; and this it does by the same principle that organizes physical existence into a biological design—rhythm.
There have been countless studies of rhythm, based on the notion of periodicity, or regular recurrence of events. It is true that the elementary rhythmic functions of life have regularly recurrent phases: heartbeat, breath, and the simpler metabolisms. But the obviousness of these repeti tions has caused people to regard them as the essence of rhythm, which they are not. The ticking of a clock is repetitious and regular, but not in itself rhythmic; the listening ear hears rhythms in the succession of equal ticks, the human mind organizes them into a temporal form.
The essence of rhythm is the preparation of a new event by the end ing of a previous one. A person who moves rhythmically need not repeat a single motion exactly. His movements, however, must be complete gestures, so that one can sense a beginning, intent, and consummation, and see in the last stage of one the condition and indeed the rise of another. Rhythm is the setting-up of new tensions by the resolution of former ones. They need not be of equal duration at all; but the situation that begets the new crisis must be inherent in the denouement of its fore runner.
Breathing is the most perfect exhibit of physiological rhythm: as we release the breath we have taken, we build up a bodily need of oxygen that is the motivation, and therefore the real beginning, of the new breath. If the release of one breath is not synchronous with the growth of the need for the next—for instance, if physical exertion exhausts our oxygen faster than we can exhale, so the new need grows imperative before the present breath is completed—breathing is not rhythmic, but
The heartbeat illustrates the same functional continuity: the diastole
prepares the systole, and vice versa. The whole self-repair of living bodies rests on the fact that the exhaustion of a vital process always stimulates a corrective action, which in turn exhausts itself in creating conditions that demand new spending.
The principle of rhythmic continuity is the basis of that organic unity which gives permanence to living bodies—a permanence that, as I have remarked before (see p. 66), is really a pattern of changes. Now, the so-called “inner life’—our whole subjective reality, woven of thought and emotion, imagination and sense perception—is entirely a vital phenomenon, most developed where the organic unity of the precarious, individual form is most complete and intricate, i.e. in human beings. What we call mind, soul, consciousness, or (in current vocabulary) experience, is an intensified vitality, a sort of distillate of all sensitive, teleological, organized functioning. The human brain, with all its ramifications, is wide open to the world outside, and undergoes profound, more or less permanent changes by impressions that the “older,” less variable organs record only by transient responses, the bodily symptoms of emotion. In animals, the intellect is almost as selective as the mouth in what it will receive; and what it does admit is apt to set the entire organism in motion. But the human brain is incomparably more tolerant of impressions, because it has a power of handling stimuli which must not be allowed to affect the total metabolic process deeply at all, on pain of death: that power is the symbolic transformation of perceptions.
Where the symbolic process is highly developed it practically takes over the domain of perception and memory, and puts its stamp on all mental functions. But even in its highest operations, the mind still follows the organic rhythm which is the source of vital unity: the build ing-up of a new dynamic Gestalt in the very process of a former one’s passing away." Langer, p 126-8 Form and Feeling
At the beginning, the whole body or organism raises up a sculpture or statue of tense skin, vibrating amid voluminous sound, open-closed like a box (or drum), capturing that by which it is captured. We hear by means of the skin and the feet. We hear with the cranial box, the abdomen and the thorax. We hear by means of the muscles, nerves and tendons. Our body-box, stretched with strings, veils itself within a global tympanum. We live amid sounds and cries, amid waves rather than spaces the organism moulds and indents itself...I am a house of sound, hearing and voice at once, black box and sounding-board, hammer and anvil, a grotto of echoes, a musicassette, the ear's pavilion, a question mark, wandering in the space of messages filled or stripped of sense...I am the resonance and the tone, I am altogether the mingling of the tone and its resonance. (180-1).
"What, then, is the essence of all music ? The creation of virtual time, and its complete determination by the movement of audible forms. The devices for establishing this primary illusion of time are many; the recognition of related tones (fundamental and overtones, and by deriva tion our entire harmonic system) is the most powerful structural prin ciple that has ever been employed, if artistic power be judged by the rangb and expressiveness of the structures to which the principle gives rise; but other musical traditions have used other devices. The drum has been used with wonderful effect to enthrall the ear, to push away, as it were, the world of practical time, and create a new time image in sound. In our own music the drum is a subsidiary element, but there are records of African music in which its constructive power is paramount.7 The voice, in such performances, serves essentially to contrast with the steady
tone of the drum—to wander and rise and fall where the purely rhythmic element goes on like Fate. The effect is neither melody nor harmony, yet it is music: it has motion and autonomous form, and anyone familiar with many works of that sort would probably feel their structure and mood almost from the opening beat." Langer, p125 Feeling and Form