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Dancing with Bach

It's always interesting when artists talk about arts other than their own. Last Sunday I was listening to the poet Rowan Williams (yes, the one whose day job is running the Church of England) talking about favourite music on Private Passions. If you're reading this before next Sunday, it's well worth a Listen Again. At one moment, talking about the rhythm in music and poetry, he points out that, 'We are creatures built on stress and slack: systole and diastole.' Many would realise that rhythm - a pattern of stresses - is innate in us because without a heartbeat we'd be dead. Not for nothing is the standard slow-dance track set at seventy beats per minute, as are our resting hearts. But Williams isn't saying just that: he's saying that we are created by and for a two-beat rhythm. Our hearts actually go stress slack, stress slack, stress slack, and so does our breathing, and the whole of our body's pulse, and the more I thought, the more I saw how much of the nature of storytelling and its written forms, too, grows from that fundamental characteristic of homo sapiens.

First, it reminded me of one of the most persuasive parts of Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots, in which he anatomises what he calls the constriction-and-release structure of just about any basic human story-plot you care to examine. I remember specifically him unpicking stories like that of Odysseus, or possibly Jason, as a series of encounters which constrict the hero often physically, always metaphorically, until there's no option but to struggle till he reaches freedom. Eventually, after a series of these experiences - the narrowing of danger then widening of freedom - the hero reaches (earns?) his reward of a kingdom, a wife, and a safe and powerful place in the world. Booker draws the analogy with the classic James Bond adventure plots, but I don't think it's stretching a point to add in the Bridget Jones type plot, which, while ostensibly being romantic comedy (Booker's fascinating about comedy, a subject that's much more rarely anatomised) also has this pattern.

Realising that, I thought of the classic plot-and-character-building interrogation that creative writing teachers use: "What does your character want/need? What does s/he do to get it? What gets in the way? What happens then?" What happens then, of course, is that whether or not the character got what they wanted, their situation has changed; a pause for breath, and a new need becomes clear. Baby pianists are soon taught that if there are two beats in a bar, the first one is stronger, and you could say this is a four-four version of the same rhythm.

Then there are the rhythms of prose which writers must learn to exploit, to make the most of the physical, non-logical experience that the words can induce in the reader: slow and fast, long and short, mono- and polysyllables, staccato and lyrical. And if we're talking about rhythm at that level, what could be more fundamental than the iamb? Williams talks about how we forget the 'absolute physicality' of poetry and music at our peril - the tense and release - and the iamb is the human pulse: stress and resolve, rise and fall. Even though a three-beat rhythm - the waltz and its cousins - will get some very inhibited feet moving, because we bipedal creatures can't ever resolve it, the most irresistible rhythm of all, I would argue, is its dancing child, six-eight: two pairs of three.  Each dancing three is one half, then the other, of the human pulse. It's no coincidence that the key to hearing just a little of the greatest musical mind of all, is to play Bach as a dance.

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