21 Dec 2011

Rhythm without Time: Difference & Phenomena

by Scott Wollschleger and Corry Shores

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[The following is a presentation we gave at the London Graduate School's Rhythm & Event conference, 29 October 2011. May I thank Eleni Ikoniadou and all those involved in organizing the conference, and may I thank John Mullarkey for his incredible help with my research.]

Scott Wollschleger
Corry Shores

"Rhythm without Time:
Difference & Phenomena"

Presentation at the London Graduate School
Rhythm & Event conference


Deleuze defines the phenomenon as the flash of difference communicated between the terms of heterogeneous series. Now, following Husserl, we might consider simultaneous and successive elements of our phenomenal consciousness. At any moment of our visual awareness, for example, there will be variations throughout our field of vision that are all given together at once. But even if we are staring at a motionless scene, there will still be slight variations in the way things appear from moment to moment. Yet from this Husserlian perspective, there will be associating similarities within each moment and also carrying-on between moments. A more traditional phenomenology might be concerned with how these parts synthesize into self-same phenomenal objects over the course of time. A Deleuzean phenomenology, however, would instead be concerned with the differences flashing between the simultaneous and successive series of variations. So, something appears phenomenally when it stands-out. And something stands-out on the basis of a differential relation. A Deleuzean phenomenology would regard these differential flashes as lying at the basis of phenomenal appearings.

Deleuze also describes rhythm in similar terms. The rhythm of sensation, for example, involves the differential coupling of continuously varying waves of intensity. What we wonder is whether time as we normally understand it in phenomenology and music is in fact not what is most immediately involved in our experiences of musical and phenomenal rhythm.



In Husserl’s phenomenal time consciousness, for example, each moment overlaps with its neighbors, creating a bloated and somewhat extending now-moment of our awareness. The now of consciousness is not instantaneous, and it is impossible for any moment to be discontinuous with the rest. It is on the basis of these continual overlappings of moments that objects become constituted as self-same, despite their variations over time. Also, in Merleau-Ponty’s portrayal of phenomenal time, each moment is thoroughly integrated with the rest. What we now experience already in an implicit way is indirectly announcing future phenomena, because all moments of our consciousness are woven together like a fabric. One value of Deleuze’s concept of rhythm is that is can give us a way to understand phenomenal givenness on the basis of a different sort of temporality, one which is bordering on being a sort of non-temporality.

In Difference & Repetition, Deleuze distinguishes cadence repetition from rhythm repetition. Cadence repetition is “a regular division of time, an isochronic recurrence of identical elements.” Consider if we were to focus on the ticking of a clock. At first it might begin as the phenomenon in the forefront of our awareness. But as its homogenous and redundant pattern becomes increasingly monotonous, it fades from our attention, becoming less phenomenal. If the clock malfunctioned, however, and produced irregular ticking, it would pop back into our awareness again. This is something like what he calls rhythm repetition. It is heterochronic rather than isochronic. Its recurrences appear through unequal and incommensurable relations. Deleuze writes “The reprise of points of inequality, of inflections or of rhythmic events, is more profound than the reproduction of ordinary homogeneous elements.”

Deleuze derives this concept of rhythm as heterochronic from the theoretical writings of music composers Messiaen and Boulez. Boulez speaks of rhythm in terms of an irregular pulse. He says that one way he accomplishes it is by dividing the time into such a nuanced pattern that only a machine could perform it with perfect precision. This causes the human performer to produce a rhythmic pulse that continually defies a regime of regularity. According to Messiaen, a military march is not rhythmic, because there is nothing about its regular pattern that interferes with the listener’s pulse, breathing, or heartbeats, and thus she receives no shock. He continues, “the march, with its cadential gait and uninterrupted succession of absolutely equal note-values, is anti-natural. True marching is accompanied by an extremely irregular swaying: it’s a series of falls, more or less avoided, placed at different intervals.” What seems to underlie these notions is that rhythm is characterized by motion and change; and if the same standardized patterns are repeated without variation, then the motion stagnates and loses its rhythmic feel.

Deleuze says that artists and musicians should hone our attention so that we directly perceive the infinitely intricate differential variations of rhythm from moment to moment. He writes, “When Fred Astaire dances the waltz, it is not 1,2,3, it is infinitely more detailed. When Africans dance, they are not seized by a rhythm demon, they hear and perform all the notes, all the times, all the tones, all the pitches, all the intensities, all the intervals.” Here is some of Fred Astaire’s infinitely intricate waltzing.


Like Fred Astaire, when Horowitz plays the waltz, he adds infinitely more rhythmic detail. Compare the mechanized midi version with Horowitz’s rendition. [Below we use Stephen Malinowski’s amazing Music Animation Machine.]


When discussing non-pulsed time, Deleuze refers us to Boulez’ Eclat. In this piece, Boulez instructs the musicians not only to vary the tempo, but also to do so in continuous variation, as if slowing down or speeding up a turn-table. He indicates these tempo disfigurations with up and down arrows. We will look at the opening part.


We might feel the acceleration in the way that the piano notes seem to tumble out with increasing rapidity. We repeat those notes, each time slowing them down so we might perceive the variation more closely.


In this clip we see Boulez overseeing the performance, and we might also sense the continuous variations of tempo.


We will now look more closely not merely at successive heterogeneity but also at simultaneous heterogeneity, which adds another layer of differential rhythm.

We see these two rhythmic differentiations at work in Michael Gordon’s composition, Yo Shakespeare, described as having “irregular rhythms, sudden, precise tempo changes, and simultaneous different meters.” Or as Gordon himself says “there's […] three types of dance rhythms going on at the same time […] almost as if there are three different dance rooms with three different dance bands playing at [once] […] playing different songs and different tempos, but somehow you […] dance to it.”

A glitch in Gordon’s computer program allowed him to juxtapose even and odd divisions of time along the motion of particular instruments. So each such instrumental voice collides with itself in a continual stutter. Yet also, each instrumental motion is in metrical defiance with the others.


Let's now consider Deleuze’s analysis of Leibniz’ micro-perceptions. They are the differential relations between perceptions that have diminished to the infinitely small. They have vanished, but the relation between them remains. To help us visualize this, Leibniz describes a geometrical figure with two triangles, constructed with the same line. As this line moves to the right, one triangle increases while the other decreases.


Yet the sides of both triangles remain proportional, so the ratio of the larger one always indicates the ratio of the smaller one. This holds even as the smaller triangle’s sides diminish to the infinitely small. They have vanished, but their differential relation remains, still discernible in the larger triangle.

Our micro-perceptions are also like these differential relations between vanished terms. For example, when we perceive green, we are really noticing the differential relations between infinitely small perceptions of blue and yellow. At their basis, all our perceptions are primarily these undetectable micro-perceptions.

Deleuze microperceptions yellow blue green differential perception animation
So the perception of green is not merely the addition of yellow and blue, like when we mix paint. Green results not from their assimilation and bleeding into one another, but rather from their jarring up against each other.

So at any moment, seeing green might be a matter of viewing differential flashes between simultaneously given tiny blues and yellows.

Now, to better grasp the phenomenality of successive variations, I suggest we turn to filmmaker Stan Brakhage.

Deleuze refers to him when discussing the infinites of variation in our fields of perception. One thing Brakhage says he likes about film are its “sharp hard clarities of snapping individual frames.” In many later works, he hand-painted every frame individually. Each one could be a work of art on its own. But, is it only the pictures that we notice when watching his films? Or is there phenomenal content to the differences between the images, which are responsible for making each new frame stand-out in the first place?

First consider this simpler example from an earlier work. Moving one frame to the next, we change from black to red then return to black, all between other shifting imagery. We will repeat this rapid transition here a few times, because it is easy to miss.


Is the phenomenon the red or the black, or is it not the shock we feel between the two?

Rhythm and phenomena in this Deleuzean sense are based on differential relations between simultaneities and within instantaneities. In other words, at their basis, neither rhythm nor phenomena are most fundamentally experienced throughout an extended flowing passage of time. They are given in immediacy. I would like to close with this passage from Brakhage where he articulates a sort of rhythmic appearance of phenomena that are given to him on the basis of their differential incompatibilities.

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