Can music be ‘fast’ or ‘slow’?
The idea of speed in music makes sense, doesn’t it? We know that some music is faster than others, which is why the prestissimo finales of classical symphonies and Rossini’s operas create such fizzing momentum. This is fast music, as the crotchets and quavers fly by, as opposed to the slow pace of a Bruckner adagio or one of Mahler’s farewells to life, in which the pulse of the music is so drawn-out as to be almost imperceptible.
And yet, speed in music is really an illusion. At the most fundamental level, there is no di erence between the music we call ‘fast’ and the music we say is ‘slow’. Whether it’s pulsing at 160 beats per minute (the kind of speed that the DJS of Ibiza get to at the end of their sets, roughly the tempo of the Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture) or 40bpm (the etiolated slowness of the Prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal), all of this music is moving through the air in soundwaves at exactly the same speed: the speed of sound is dependent on environmental conditions, but in a concert hall at around 20 degrees Celsius, soundwaves move at around 767 miles an hour.
So when composers are manipulating this sense of speed, they’re playing with an illusion, they’re sculpting our perception of time for the duration of their track, their symphony, their opera. The mystery is that the illusion feels real to us when we’re listening, or when we’re dancing. They turn these pulsing soundwaves into physical sensation.
But to really put the physics of speed into perpsective, the composer Anna Meredith and I needed to ride the rollercoasters of Thorpe Park. Obviously. For Anna, rollercoasters are lessons in how to structure and sculpt the experience of speed: each ride is a couple of minutes of exquisitely calibrated barrel-rolls and inversions,
Rollercoasters are lessons in how to structure and sculpt the experience of speed
speedings-up and slowings-down, all based on the laws of gravity that drive the entire experience. What goes up – as the carriages crank up to the top of the hill, and your heart and stomach seem to leave your body before your lungs fill with an involuntary scream of joy and fear as you plummet towards the ground – must come down. Anna Meredith wants her music to have the same irresistible power that one of the rides of Thorpe Park does, and in her Five Telegrams, composed for the opening of this year’s BBC Proms season, and her album Varmints, full of majestic banging tunes, it really does.
She’s not alone: Sibelius becomes a compositional time-lord in his Fi h Symphony, in which the second half of the first movement is one of music’s longest, most powerful speedings-up; there are the violently fast experiments of Speedcore, dance-music that pushes music to prestissimo and beyond; and there’s Beethoven. For his Tenth Symphony, he dreamt of creating a ‘new gravitational force’ in music with new kinds of speed and time. Beethoven, I’m sure, would have loved Thorpe Park.
How does music fit in with our perceptions of speed? Tom Service and composer Anna Meredith take a short ride on a fast machine to find out