Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Meaning By Sound

While reading Ellen Bryant Voigt's excellent The Art of Syntax, I came upon this quote from Robert Jourdain's Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy:
The two conceptions of rhythm are sometimes referred to as vocal (for phrasing) and instrumental (for meter). Phrasing is "vocal" because it naturally arises from song, and thus from speech... Meter...derives from the way we play musical instruments.
Voigt uses Jourdain to talk about syntax and poetic meter, about the tension between the sentence and the line, the syntactically "natural" (speech, more or less) and the purely artificial (the poetic line).

Perhaps it is stretching Jourdain's (and hence Voigt's) distinction a bit, but conceive of phrasing as a child's song: it is spontaneous, very possibly monotonous, and potentially endless: it has only the staff of time passing to give it shape and pattern. It may never develop into something recognizably musical (or recognizably so only on an enormous scale -- eventually, even the most patternless tune will repeat, if only because the combination of notes is finite. But who wants to wait around for that?). But it is also recognizably human, perhaps precisely because of its seeming incompletability, its shapelessness.

Meter, mean, like 0s and 1s, operates on a smaller scale. It is mechanical because its scale and scope are so limited. 1234. Think of an oil derrick and its binary rhythm: UPdown UPdown UPdown UPdown. If meter is, as Jourdain says, "instrumental," it is mechanical in its very conception (instrumental = of an instrument). And which instruments do we use to measure the work done by machines? Meters, of course. Inhuman, or, at the very least, artificial, but also very useful.

Naturally, this got me thinking about lip syncing, the ultimate present-day tension between human speech and machine-like rhythm. Surely everyone remembers this:

Watch Ashlee Simpson lip sync screw up on SNL in Music | View More Free Videos Online at

Some of you may even remember this:

Elsewhere in the world, there was this (from Portugal, the band's name is apparently Squeeze Theeze Pleeze. Yikes):

And this:

But then of course there is the inimitable John Lydon and PiL:

The folly, one wants to say after seeing the expression on John's face at 00:39, is in expecting the human, the vocal, to even care about microscopic matters like meter, like mechanism. (Also note just how similar Ashlee's dance in the first video is to John's dance in the last. Hmm.) Still, we do. We want everything to come off, to "run" smoothly, including ourselves. There must be some sense to our speech. Hey, everyone's dancing, right?

Still, for me, as for Voigt, it is much more fun when things don't run smoothly. Speaking of the "competition" between phrasing and meter, she quotes Robert Frost: "A sentence is not interesting merely in conveying a meaning of words. It must do something more: it must convey a meaning by sound." He wants to rein in the ramble of phrasing with the grid of meter.

But I think too often now, so enamored and thoroughly comfortable with the mechanical, we approach things the opposite way (as the questionable musicianship above amply demonstrates). A sentence is not interesting merely in conveying a meaning by sound. It must do something more: it must convey a meaning of words. This is a struggle that I often have as I revise my nonfiction, making things less musical and more meaningful, which is odd because I spend so much time doing the opposite in revising my fiction. But regardless of which direction I am working in, I am always working in that gap between the two, and wondering how deep the rift really goes.

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