Multiple temporalities: Speeds, beat cues, and beat tracking in Carter’s instrumental music

Author: Poudrier, Ève
Presentation details: Joint Conference of the American Musicological Society (AMS), Society for Music Theory (SMT), and Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), New Orleans (LA), 3 November 2012

In the music of Elliott Carter, multiple temporalities usually involve the simultaneous presence of contrasting speeds and beat structures made tangible through the use of different character-patterns, tempo fluctuations, and long-range polyrhythms. From a psychological perspective, the cognition of multiple temporalities involves the perception of separate auditory streams, the association of each stream with a contrasting rhythmic process, and some form of parallel processing. Sensorimotor syn- chronization studies show that people are generally very good at synchronizing with regular periods, but when faced with competing beats listeners typically integrate these into a single metric framework. In Carter’s music, regular beat structures often recede to the background in favor of rhythmic irregularity and cross-accentuation, thus challenging listeners’ ability to perceive clear or enduring beats. Nonetheless, from Carter’s writings and interviews, it is apparent that the composer writes for a listener that is not only able to pick up on these temporal manipulations, but also to form predictions about future events, and that this process contributes to the communication of musical meaning. By activating competing beats, the composer invites the listener to engage in a form of perceptual “play” in which pulse sensations are used as a rhetorical device and are communicated by specific cues, such as isochronous sequences, dynamic accents, anacrustic gestures, and articulation pat- terns. In this context, complexity of texture and elusiveness of the beat become effective compositional strategies that prevent the integration of concurrent rhythmic strands into a single metric framework, and thus allow for the perception of multiple temporalities.