Or the Physics of a Thrown Baseball & the Forward Motion of Music
A conversation between a baseball geek and a geeky choral director (any resemblance to any actual choral directors, living or dead, is purely coincidental)
Choral Director (CD): Nice pocket protector, I like the color! And that retro shirt, it reminds me of one my father wore back in the sixties! So I’ve been wondering for like forever about the forward motion of music; it’s drive, it’s momentum, and the things that get in the way of that drive, that energy. One of the biggest energy killers is late, lingering, lazy cutoffs which lead to even later echoey entrances.
Baseball Geek (BG): Are you familiar with the cutoff man in baseball? No? Ok, say a line drive gets hit to the left field wall and there’s a runner on first. The shortstop will turn to the outfield so he can relay the throw from left field to home to get the runner from first who is trying to score. This cutoff has to be clean and fast in order to work.
CD: But don’t two short throws take longer than one long throw?
BG: Actually no. In order for the left fielder to throw from the wall to home he has to throw at a much steeper angle in order for the ball to reach the plate. If he makes a shorter throw to the shortstop the angle is much less steep, therefore the ball travels a shorter distance. The angle from the shortstop to the catcher is even more flat, therefore a much shorter distance as well. So even assuming the velocity of all the throws is the same, the throws that travel the flatter arc will get to the plate faster. Even accounting for the added step of the cutoff man catching, turning and throwing, it will still be slightly faster than one long throw.
CD: Right, I’ll trust you on the physics calculations. But I’m trying to figure how one long throw and two short throws have much to do with getting 80-odd singers (odd in the nicest sense of the word of course) to make clean cutoffs and clean entrances.
BG: So imagine the piece of music those 80 wonderfully odd singers ar trying to sing is a circle. It has a beginning point and the progression of the measures travels from the starting point round in a circle and back to the same starting point.
CD: Interesting, so you’re saying oh, I don’t know, “Music Down in My Soul” by Moses Hogan, ends where it started? Come on!
BG: Work with me here, just because I use a pencil protector doesn’t mean I can’t speak figuratively.
CD: OK, the “Music Down in My Soul” is a circle, proceed.
BG: So imagine that each line of the piece has a different arc, some are long and legato say and arc away from the circle in big taffy-like loops before reconnecting with the circle, and some lines are short and punchy, maybe just a couple notes that zip from entrance to cutoff, like that zinger-of-a-throw from the shortstop to the catcher. So all these lines make up the circle and each line has it’s own entrance and cutoff.
CD: I see, I see, yes, so if any one line is late on the entrance, or even worse, late on the cutoff, it extends the arc of the line outward and makes every other line arc out further, which….
BG: Increases the circumference of the circle….
CD: Which means, even though the piece still forms a circle it isn’t the same circle the composer imagined, it’s bigger and slower, and the character, the energy of the piece is changed as the circle grows bigger and flabbier.
BG: Well a circle is a circle, I don’t know about flabbier. But getting bigger is the same as if the cutoff man threw to home plate with the same arc as the outfielder would use to throw to home in one throw.
CD: You know, I think we are onto something here, because music is all about the lines, the throws in baseball, some are big and loopy going high and far and then back down, and some are short and direct and fast. But every line in every piece has an entrance and a cutoff.
BG: Right and the sum of those lines, plus the blank space in between, what you call rests and that sort of thing, makes up the totality of the circle, the totality of the piece.
CD: Well, yes, that plus dynamics.
BG: Dynamics, like in physics?
CD: Right, sort of, musical dynamics, like the physical/spiritual properties of the musical line, their temperature, their density, the energy they generate.
BG: (very excited, pulls pencils in and out of his pocket protector as he talks) Musical notes are like molecules, they have different charges and interact with other notes in relation to their charge.
CD: (very, very excited, conducting imaginary music while talking) Wow! Yippe Skippe! Music is a vast pulsating field of energy and composers pull the notes, lines and dynamics out of that energy, giving them a specific order going round a circle of a certain circumference. And musicians have to try and put all that music in that circle of a certain size.
BG: “A circle of a certain circumference”, I like that, figuratively speaking. What should we talk about next time?
CD: How about time and movement, straight time, cut time, syncopation, downbeats…..
BG: Time is relative….
CD: Oh yes, it sure is….