Too Slow, Too Fast: Lockdown's Changing Tempo

For David Grubbs, an onrush of music has led to a rethinking of musical ‘speed’ itself

This essay is the eighth in a series of memos by artists, writers, curators and scientists written to the world after the COVID-19 crisis. In homage to Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), they are divided into six categories: ‘lightness’, ‘quickness’, ‘exactitude’, ‘visibility’, ‘multiplicity’ and ‘consistency’. 'Too Slow, Too Fast: Lockdown's Changing Tempo' was written in response to ‘quickness’.

In Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium he often returned to the fact that, for each quality he espoused, he could advocate an opposing characteristic: for quickness, delay; for exactitude, poetic imprecision. He was both a Libra and a dialectician, and lived for shuttling between extremes.

Albrecht Dürer, Emperor Charlemagne, 1511–13, 2.2 × 1.2 m, oil on linden wood. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons and Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg

His lecture on ‘quickness’ lends an unexpected cast to the term. These meditations on literature centre on style and here he focuses on economy of narrative expression. There’s an experience of quickness, the author maintains, when description is kept to a minimum. Calvino’s model – a legend about the Emperor Charlemagne – leaves the individual reader to envisage how it would feel to reach into the mouth of Charlemagne’s dead lover to fish out an enchanted ring.

In the time of the pandemic, in the field of contemporary music production quickness is principally inflected by the near instantaneity of digital distribution – whether in the form of recordings or streamed live events. Rooted in front of my laptop, with headphones omnipresent as never before, the experience of speed intrinsic to music itself – whether in terms of tempo, virtuosity, modernist compression of musical material, collage aesthetics, etc. – has been displaced by the speed of production, dissemination and reception.

Metronome. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The lag time between completing a project and springing it on the world was formerly predicated on mundanities such as publicity cycles, preparing the release of physical media and the impossibility of being in two places at once. In the first months of the pandemic – apart from some musicians’ sudden decision to digitally release pre-existing but previously unavailable recordings – the sharply reduced time between starting a project and hitting the upload button bespeaks a new era with regard to quickness in music.

To be certain, given my tastes and predilections I’m listening from a vantage point in which various modes of improvised and experimental music loom large – whether in the experience of music as a framing device for pre-existing sounds and field recordings, or in the challenge taken up by artists working in electronic and computer music to realize their efforts in real time. So much experimental musical activity that would have been addressed to a live audience is, instead, vectored toward recordings.

David Grubbs and Taku Unami, Comet Meta, 2020, album cover. Courtesy: Blue Chopsticks

These musics resonate differently, given the speed with which they now reach audiences. It doesn’t matter if the listener can’t keep up – none would imagine it a realistic option – with the dozens of digital releases on the new TakuRoku label, a rechannelling of the energy and community previously realized in live events at London’s Café OTO. Nor with experimental US music label Erstwhile’s AMPLIFY 2020: Quarantine Series of digital releases, posted daily as free downloads with links to lend financial support to the artists. Nor even to stay abreast of performances from Chicago’s Experimental Sound Studio’s Quarantine Concerts. (I have happily played in two of these series.) These are but three of countless such initiatives.

At its worst, quickness narrows the space of indeterminacy, of negative capability, eats away at our ability to live in the suspension of judgment. And yet, given the convergence of public health emergency and digital technology, the speed with which music appears and asserts itself in 2020 provides us with the opportunity to experience so much musical activity anew – as onrush – and enables us to understand the quickness that was already at its core.

Main Image: Photograph: Frank Lee; Courtesy: Getty Images

David Grubbs is the author, most recently, of The Voice in the Headphones (Duke University Press, 2020). His latest album is Comet Meta (Blue Chopsticks), a duo recording with Taku Unami.

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