Monday, March 23, 2009

Life in Three-Quarter Time

This post is a paean to the arts, especially music, and especially the three-quarter time signature. In music, three-quarter time means that the rhythm of the music is played in a pattern of three beats to the bar, instead of the more common four, and usually with emphasis on the first. It is the rhythm of the waltz and carries with it a lilting, cheerful disposition. It is the seemingly silky smoothness of two dancers masterfully floating and turning across the floor to a Viennese waltz. To the listener and viewer, it is the expression and symbol of effortless joy.

In contrast, work, or labor, is not effortless, though it may be enjoyable. To be sure, the dancers and musicians who portray this effortless joy have spent hours and years perfecting their craft. The end result of their efforts is the effect the craft has on the consumers of music and dance. That effect is pure emotion, a child-like not-a-care-in-the-world fun. The effect of art is to enable us to experience this carefree joy and thereby to rest and refuel in order to carry on with life’s labors. The three-quarter time signature in music does this to me par excellence.

In a larger perspective, life in three-quarter time represents the ability to perform the tasks of one’s daily life, in both family and career, in a manner that expresses effortless joy. Not that the tasks are effortless, but that the enjoyment in performing the tasks is uninhibited by what to some appear to be enormous obstacles. These obstacles are usually mental rather than physical, such as feelings of drudgery when going to work every day or hassles and conflicts of dealing with family, bills, and chores, etc. Everyone experiences these barriers to some degree and at some times. The person who lives in three-quarter time, however, is inspired by the prospect of daily obstacles and views the challenges as opportunities with which to have more fun in life.

The impetus for this post was a recent experience my wife, daughter, and I had that enabled us to witness fifteen or so twenty-something singers, actors, and dancers who exhibited and projected life in three-quarter time. We attended a regional production of a Broadway musical and were allowed to tag along with a high school class that interviewed the performers afterward. The exhilaration and relaxed confidence of these young performers, especially right after a two-and-a-half hour staging, were obvious. Despite the fact that a show business life can be grueling with audition after audition (and rejection after rejection), every one of these performers exhibited what I call the spirit of three-quarter time. To observe it on stage and in person was a treat; it enabled us to live in three-quarter time for those few hours. That the music and memories of the performance keep playing in our minds two weeks later only adds to the experience.

It is a rare person who knows what he or she wants to do in life at an early age. It is equally rare to find someone who feels about his or her job, “I have so much fun in what I do—I’m amazed they pay me to do it!” Yet, this is precisely what these young performers exhibited and, in some cases, admitted. It is this early and untainted, anxiety-less certainty of what one wants to do in life that enables a person to overcome barriers as if they were not even there and to work tirelessly and without any evidence of labor in the many hours and years required to achieve a goal. Though actually working very hard, the appearance and, often, psychological feeling of such a person is that of floating and turning through life to a waltz.

While not everyone can regularly achieve or directly experience the spirit of life in three-quarter time, and the young performers my family and I observed may not be able to maintain it throughout their lives, nearly everyone can experience the general feeling vicariously through art, either as performer or consumer. For me it is most often achieved through music, especially the three-quarter time signature.

I do have other associations in music with three-quarter time, but they are a bit more technical: the quarter-note triplet and harmony in major thirds. They evoke in me the same feeling as three-quarter time, but perhaps they should be a topic for another day.

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