Monday, January 9, 2023

Time out of time: The eternal return of the rhythm people [Bang on a drum!]

Jochen Szangolies has an interesting post at 3 Quarks Today, Dinner For Nietzsche: Rhythms, Rituals, And Eternal Return, Jan. 9. 2023. It speaks to some of my central concerns, time, rhythm, music, and ritual. He opens:

Time presents itself, depending on the context, under two different modalities: cyclical and linear. Linear time moves always forward, carrying us from past to present, ever towards an uncertain future; while circular time, the time of clock hands, sunrise and sunset, and recurring seasons, sees us back again at our origin.

These would seem to be somewhat in tension. But I find that time, perhaps like all the great mysteries, is only enriched by its seeming contradictions. Take ‘stopping time’, as it is sometimes portrayed in movies—that is, holding everything frozen. How long does such a state last? What is the difference between it lasting an hour, a day, or an eternity? In the absence of change, time is robbed of duration. But in an instant of time, there can be no change. Hence, any instant, it seems, might as well be an infinity, held in the palm of your hand.

Toward the middle he has a wonderful story:

Time’s cycles are often marked by ritual, and none more so than the turning of the great celestial clock. One of the most cherished rituals in Germany is to usher in the new year by watching the 1963 comedy sketch Dinner for One, recorded in black and white by the NDR (you can watch it here, if you’re not familiar).

The plot is simple enough: Miss Sophie intends to celebrate her 90th birthday, and has invited her four closest friends. Unfortunately, they have all since passed; nevertheless, she is unwilling to forgo the ritual, and thus, her butler James stands in for each. As this includes a toast with an alcoholic beverage at each course of the evening’s meal, contributing to a progressive inebriation, hijinks, as they are wont to, ensue.

I can’t quite say how the tradition came about, but it’s taken seriously—up to half of all households catch at least one of the various showings on New Year’s Eve, and it is the most often repeated programme on German television. In 2018, Deutsche Post even issued a commemorative stamp. My father’s laughter, always renewed at the always same cues, is a fond childhood memory.

The sketch is, in my unqualified opinion at least, a hilarious masterclass in comedic timing, but I doubt that alone is reason for its popularity. And it must strike one as quite strange: comedy, resting to some degree on surprise, seems to be the genre least well-suited to repeated viewing. But I think there is a lesson here, about what one might call the willing suspension of inurement: to let the new return, as new, again and again. To suspend the modern, cynical seen-it-all attitude in favor of a renewed, wilfull naiveté that renounces all pretense of aloof sophistication in favor of laughing, again, again, and then again at James’ struggle with the tiger’s head.

Still later there is this observation:

Strangely enough, there is some support for such a notion in physics: the phenomenon of Poincaré recurrence means that a dynamical system, typically after a very long time, will return to a state arbitrarily close to its initial state (provided the system is bounded in a certain sense, and nothing ‘flies off to infinity’). Taking things a step further, physicist Julian Barbour has indeed argued that there is no such thing as time, there are only moments—little slivers of eternity—which differ from each other in small details, and are ordered only in retrospect, by ‘later’ ones carrying traces—memories or records—of their predecessors, like a picture of a picture.

And that, as I observed in a comment, is at the center of my book, Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. And that gives me a chance to link to the literature on synchronized clapping, a phenomenon I discuss at the end of my third chapter, "Fireflies, Dynamics, and Brain States," pp. 67-68 (you can read a final draft here). Here is a nice video of the phenomenon. It's from Budapest.

The synchronization doesn't fully emerge until about 49 seconds in, and then it is very clear. But you can hear it trying to get out. It then ebbs and flows until the end of the two-minute video.

You might also want to take a look at my working paper from 2015, The Magic of the Bell: How Networks of Social Actors Create Cultural Beings. Here's the abstract:

It is well known that music can engender altered states of consciousness that are difficult to interpret scientifically except as odd malfunctions in the nervous system. In this paper I report a phenomenon known among some musicians as “the magic of the bell”: the emergence of high-pitched twittering sounds when a group is playing interlocking rhythms on different bells. These sounds cannot be attributed to any of the musicians and they emerge only when the group is a group is playing bells with passion and precision. I argue that those sounds arise through interpersonal coupling among the musicians and that the ‘naïve’ temptation to attribute them to a ‘spirit’ or ‘spirits’ can be reconciled with a close description that does not presuppose non-physical entities. Those spirits should be conceived as the embodiment of non-mysterious and physically coherent group process. This argument has ramifications for how we think of time and how we think of longer cycles of group life.

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