Rhythm can be viewed as the friendly structure of a comfortable environment or the rigid bars of incarceration; I prefer the comfortable environment.
What are the qualities that make music personal? Probably everybody would agree that it is our individual mix of tone quality, dynamics, manner of articulation, vibrato and our personal treatment of rhythm. Initially, these are skills that are learned when we begin to study a particular instrument; they begin as any new skill, awkward and uncontrolled but in time, after study, they become dependable and stable musical skills. The individual mixture of these qualities is as unique to our to our musical voice as our fingerprint or DNA.
As these basic musical skills formulate we’re faced with an infinite number of decisions that will make our playing musical and personal, among these is the modification, manipulation and personal touches we apply to rhythm; this is called rubato, when, where and how much of it to use differs in all musicians, that is the magic of music.
Many believe that rubato along with dynamics are the key to musical expression, I among them, but an experience 50 years ago in the late 1960s slightly modified that view. An exciting new recording came out called “Switched on Bach”; it was the music of Bach programmed on Synthesizer. As well as being an impressive eye-opener to an exciting new instrument, it demonstrated the musical energy of absolutely perfect rhythm. It was also an amazing eye-opener regarding articulation in the bass and contrabass registers and put into abundantly clear perspective that focused articulation was a strategic part of clear rhythm and that articulation was in fact the fine-tuning of rhythm.
Normally rubato is a slight relaxation of strict rhythm and the stressing of certain notes, usually coordinated with dynamics and/or harmonic progression; its use and how much rhythmic liberties one takes is very personal. Frequently today, we see both conductors and instrumentalists, drastically distorting the rhythm while desperately trying to impose some personal musical signature into standard repertoire. Imagine a young conductor trying to convert Beethoven’s Symphony #5 into something that is uniquely his or an instrumentalist playing a standard concerto in some new and untried way, maybe it’s wonderful, frequently it’s distorted and maudlin. However, even when the piece is hardly recognizable there are merits; it exemplifies for us the limits and prevents us from making the same kind of dubious decisions. It should also be mentioned that, like vibrato being used to cover up an unstable tone, Rubato is sometimes used to mask unstable rhythm.
Quickly, it should be said that there is no right or wrong here, it is personal and as time passes we all change in our musical tastes, I only point out that perhaps striving to be unique is not as important as holding to some degree to the integrity of the composer. If the music is good our use of the personal aspects of musicianship i.e. dynamic, vibrato and rubato, in other words our musicality, will lead us in the right way and it will be absolutely unique. Perhaps when we simply let it happen rather than impose an aggressive individuality, we will achieve a more beautiful result.
June 10, 2009, Le Domaine Forget, Quebec Canada