Can mu­sic be ‘fast’ or ‘slow’?

BBC Music Magazine - - Thefullscore - IL­LUS­TRA­TION: MARIA CORTE MAIDAGAN

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

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