Playing for Set Dancers
My band has been preparing for a gig. We recorded a tune, and when I listened to it, I was horrified to hear a tempo as ragged and floppy as an old stuffed bunny.
I play Irish flute, specifically dance music. I love the rolling beat, the pulse of the tune lifting and driving dancers through the set. The beat needs to be crisp and perfect to move the dancers.
But that what wasn’t what I was hearing in our recording.
So I’ve spent the last week practicing with a metronome, first lilting the tune in time with the flashing red LED, then trying to match my flute playing to that maddening strobe.
It’s amazing how that little pulsing light seems to slow down and speed up as I play a tune. At first I thought there was something wrong with the metronome, but of course, there’s nothing wrong with the electronics; it’s my playing that’s uneven. But gradually I’ve managed to tame my out-of-control tempo, and the tunes sound all the better for it.
Painting isn’t like playing a flute, but visual arts don’t exist outside of tempo. I think that paintings have their own internal tunes. My favorite paintings are those that make my brain feel like I’m seeing music. Sorolla paintings play tunes to me. Zorns are full of music. Sargent is something like a symphony. Surprisingly (because I prefer realistic work) Paul Klee paintings are like small pipes and fiddles.
I find that external noise while I paint influences a painting’s tempo. My most successful paintings are done in silence, when I really listen to the painting and pay close attention to the pulse that each passage requires. I listen carefully to hear fast strokes that are well conceived; slow shapes of color placed just exactly where they need to be; staccato or slurred edges; the pacing of high and low values. I’m always asking myself, how do I encourage the viewer to dance through a painting?
When I paint, there’s no steady tick-tock of a metronome, other than the drum of my blood and the deep sound a painting makes when it’s making my heart dance. Only if my heart is shouting “house Maggie, mind the dresser!” will I have a chance to let others hear that internal music.