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

Author: Poudrier, Ève

Presentation details: New York University – Abu Dhabi Institute, “Musical Rhythm: Cross-Disciplinary and Multi-Cultural Perspectives,” Abu Dhabi (AUE), 21 March 2013


Abstract: 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 synchronization 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. Furthermore, 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.

This paper demonstrates that in Carter’s instrumental music, polymeter, that is, the superposition of rhythmic strands built on competing beat structures, is used as a rhetorical device to convey the presence of different temporalities. The composer invites the listener to engage in a form of perceptual “play” in which pulse sensations are communicated by specific cues (such as isochronous sequences, dynamic accents, anacrustic gestures, and articulation patterns) and then challenged. The results of a tapping experiment using a passage from Carter’s 90+ confirms that experienced musicians are able to pick out underlying regularity despite surface irregularities. These results also suggest specific strategies used by Carter to manipulate beat percepts. In this context, it appears that complexity of texture and elusiveness of the beat may be effective compositional strategies to prevent the integration of concurrent rhythmic strands into a single metric framework, and thus allow for the perception of multiple temporalities.