I am always intensely aware of the rhythm of text, not just in music, but in the very words I write. Whether in this blog, or concert program notes, or a message to a friend, there is a constant rhythmic word dance unfolding in my brain.
It even waltzed along as I composed my doctoral dissertation. You’d think a dissertation would only encompass straightforward academic writing, but I still wrote with the beat of words, syllables, clusters of phrases and sentences, in mind. I suppose it’s the musician in me. I can’t escape rhythm, and I don’t want to!
It was interesting, then, to hear, in the NPR series called Rhythm Section: Spending a Week Trying to Catch the Beat, a story on the cadences built into political speech writing. It seems that speech writers consciously build textual rhythm into political speeches. And there is a reason for that. According to Rob Kapilow, a composer and conductor who is quoted in the story, rhythm can create community: for instance, a crowd chanting at a football game, or people dancing as one to a pulsing beat. (It can even set up negative community, for as I read Kapilow’s words I had a sudden chilling image of old newsreel footage of Germans in World War II chanting “Sieg heil” as Hitler rolled past in parade! There was community there too, but of the worst kind!)
For example, President Obama’s speech writers actually figured out ahead of time how many beats they wanted in the first paragraph of his 2008 Iowa caucuses victory speech. In the first sentence they created an eight-syllable phrase, or four iambs, as journalist Ari Shapiro points out. Same cadence in the second sentence. Then they varied the pattern, but always with a sense of repetition, of mounting tempo, until the climax arrived with its rolling rhythms, “We are one nation, we are one people, and our time for change has come,”
As an exercise in rhythmic rhetoric (no politics here!), listen to the first 1 minute and 40 seconds of Obama’s speech that night. Listen to its measured beat, to the ebb and flow of phrases. You can hear what the speech writers, and Obama himself, did with the cadences, and the community of joy they created in that moment.
Don’t we as choral musicians frequently experience that kind of community? In my concerts with Master Chorus Eastside I try to bring our audience into this as well. During last May’s Out of Africa concert I invented a rhythmic word play exercise to do just that. I divided the audience into four groups, taught each group their own short, spoken rhythmic phrase, then layered it up one phrase at a time, played with dynamics and structure, built it to a climax, and before I knew it, we became a single, vigorous, happy community. It was amazing!
I had always thought that the act of singing together created choral community, but now I think it is collective rhythm as well. As Kapilow says, we are all looking for an opportunity to step outside of a “me” and become a “we.” Now isn’t that a beautifully rhythmic, and true, idea!
Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside