Mechanical song: Birtwistle’s rhythmic imagination
Soon the year slides past never the same twice. There is no foretelling its fulfilment from the start. These words, translated from their original medieval context and set by Harrison Birtwistle in Narration: A Description of the Passing of a Year (1963), touch on a central strand of the composer's art: his preoccupation with rhythm and the flow of musical time, not merely as a problem of technique or construction, but as a dramatic or thematic ‘topic’, offered to listeners as a focus of attention. Pulse, return, cycle, time – all such categories, in Birtwistle's music, become prime (some would say primal) concerns, as is obvious even from his evocative work titles. His early response to the Gawain text in Narration is hardly his first creative attempt to foreground music's passing beat. A great deal of compositional invention inheres in demonstrating for listeners an almost calendric-seasonal sense of growth and transformation as the music unfolds. If time's ‘sliding past’ is to be the issue, then Refrains and Choruses (1957) already advertises a concern with return as formal and rhetorical possibility: the work ends, hauntingly, with eleven reiterations of a single five-note chord, each one revoiced, so tracing a progressive change. The ticking polyrhythmic ‘Toccatas’ in the opera Punch and Judy, a decade later (1966–7), display Birtwistle's fascination with measuring or marking time's movement: they are ‘to sound like some mechanical process switched on and off’, the score indicates. This overtly mechanical line of thinking about music's rhythm extends from Chronometer (1971–2) to Harrison's Clocks (1998) and beyond. Birtwistle's rhythmic imagination invites attention at both technical and symbolic levels. Throughout his career, he has fashioned images of time's passing – in each work, the processes are recognizably his own, yet they have continuously evolved: never the same twice. His music thrives on a tension between the listener's conscious aural grasp of the passing moment and evolving awareness of slower, inexorably circling returns.
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