Framing the Void: Part II

Continuing our exploration of music’s relationship with negative space.

In Framing the Void: Part I we explored the way that music divides our existence into what we experience before, during and after a piece. We also explored the relationship between this experience and the way our bodies spontaneously divide our reality into things, events, colors and individuals. Strangely, it is this shattering of reality that gives us common experience and allows different people to show up at the same place at the same time or to converse about the same topic.

Within the start/end boundaries of a piece of music, composers and improvisers play with the negative space that this time measures, creating the illusion that time is passing more quickly, more slowly or with more wrinkles than it actually has. All this negative space manipulation can be summed up in the term rhythm. Repeated sonic events like the tap of a drum or long note from a violin break silence into sections on a smaller scale so that the performer and listener can have the common experience of this rhythm. The following pieces explore the ways that rhythm manipulates our perception of time and in most cases I have chosen examples with limited melodic and harmonic motion in the hopes that the pulses will be most apparent characteristic. For added proof of this phenomenon, try not to look at the clock on the player while you listen to the examples and see if you can list them in order of length. Look for the answer at the end of the article*.

Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine: James Brown

This classic track from James Brown perfectly illustrates how symmetrically distributed negative space feels wonderfully natural, like a heartbeat. Underneath Brown’s call and response vocals, the drums, guitar and bass carve out a relentless groove, each instrument spending equal time in sound and silence.

[audio:|titles=Getup|artists=James Brown]

Da Pacem Domine: Arvo Pärt

Slower tempos allow sonic events to unfold at a glacial pace, stretching our perception of time’s passing. Some music, such as Gyorgy Ligeti’s piece Lontano, discussed in my earlier article, As Rome Burns, even seeks to stop our perception of time. While not totally static, the piece Da Pacem Domine by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt creates an almost imperceptibly slow, but natural pulse. Try inhaling on one note and exhaling on the next.

[audio:|titles=Part|artists=Da Pacem Domine]

Blues to Elvin: John Coltrane

Perhaps the most obvious choice for illustrating negative space in jazz would be Miles Davis but instead, I decided to go with a lesser-known recording by an equally ubiquitous artist. On this track from the album Coltrane Plays the Blues, Coltrane utilizes two dimensions of negative space. His tenor saxophone slides beautifully ahead and behind of the steady, walking pulse laid down by drums and bass, pushing and pulling the “time.”

On a small scale, his playing creates tiny pockets of tension and release with each pulse. On a large scale, he spends significant amount of time not playing, following the natural rhythms of a good conversationalist. Each breath simultaneously punctuates the previous phrase and cleanses the space for the next idea. This track represents a fascinating use of negative space by an artist known for his impossibly dense improvisations.

[audio:|titles=Blues to Elvin|artists=John Coltrane]

Bragada: Tito Puente

This example from Tito Puente gives us the impression of time’s passing at a steady rate through the combination of various poly-rhythms. We hear the longest pulse from the low conga, while various other instruments play what are called sub-divisions of the beat, some divided by two, some divided by three. Think about the lines on a yard stick that divide it into feet, then into inches etc…Initially, the voices emphasize the smallest subdivision but notice how, at about the 1:20 mark, the vocalists switch to a more lilting feeling instead of the rapid delivery of the opening. They create this effect by shifting their emphasis to a larger sub-division of the beat. While the overall pulse remains constant, this ensemble shows how even a slight rearranging of negative space can change the entire feeling of a piece.

[audio:|titles=Bragada|artists=Tito Puente]

Second String Quartet, Movement III: Gyorgy Ligeti

In the third movement of Ligeti’s Second String Quartet, marked Come Un Meccanismo Di Precisione, each instrument repeats a single note but at different tempos respectively. Some patterns accelerate while others decelerate or remain constant. Out of an initially disorienting web of sound, coherent rhythms pass in and out of phase and these mechanical processes use time to destroy our natural perception of it.


Panasonic Youth: Dillinger Escape Plan

Here is an example of a piece with almost no truly negative space. The vast majority of the sonic events pass with extreme rapidity. Switching between pulses at a break-neck pace, rarely expanding or contracting smoothly, this music creates an experience less like our heartbeats and more like the random firings of our neurons. Listening to math metal is not so unlike trying to pay attention to the myriad, unrelated thoughts that constantly rise and fall in even the most peaceful mind. Watch out, this is LOUD!

[audio:|titles=Panasonic|artists=Dillinger Escape Plan]

In the above examples, we can see how composers and improvisers manipulate our perception of time, or rather the negative space, framed by the beginning and end of a piece. Through music, we tap into this negative space with pulses as steady as our resting heartbeats, as fast as our most frantic moments and as slow as our most relaxed breathing. The above examples represent only a few of the ways that music frames the void of silence and each new composition or improvisation gives us a different common experience. In the next article, we will explore negative space along the vertical plane through music’s use of melody and harmony.

*Trick question! All excerpts were exactly 1:54 long. Let me know how your list came out!

Bryan Hooten is a trombonist, composer and educator living in Richmond, VA. He plays with Ombak, Fight the Big Bull, No BS Brass, Verbatim, and various other groups. He teaches Music Theory and Small Jazz Ensembles at VCU and directs the Jazz Band at James River High School. He also serves on the faculty of the Governor’s School for the Humanities and Visual and Performing Arts. He can be seen every Wednesday at Cous Cous (900 W. Franklin) performing with either Ombak or Fight the Big Bull. Ombak will be celebrating the release of its debut album, Framing the Void on April 29th 9:30 pm at Cous Cous.

  • error

    Report an error

Bryan Hooten

Bryan Hooten performs with No BS! Brass, Matthew E. White, and other Richmond-based groups. He teaches Music Theory and Jazz Orchestra at VCU.

There are 4 reader comments. Read them.