John Cage’s seminal book Silence includes his 1944 essay, “Grace and Clarity.” While the piece is primarily about dance and choreography, Cage writes more generally about all time-based arts in this paragraph:
“With clarity of rhythmic structure, grace forms a duality. Together they have a relation like that of body and soul. Clarity is cold, mathematical, inhuman, but basic and earthy. Grace is warm, incalculable, human, opposed to clarity, and like the air. Grace is not here used to mean prettiness; it is used to mean the play with and against the clarity of the rhythmic structure. The two are always present together in the best works of the time arts, endlessly, and life-givingly, opposed to each other.”
Viewing art through this lens of grace and clarity can be very useful in both its creation and appreciation: what is the framework this piece is based upon, and how is that structure subverted, undermined, or played with? These dual conditions of grace and clarity “lie under and beneath, over and above, physical and personal particularities.” Cage gives the examples of jazz (“The best performers continually anticipate or delay the phrase beginnings and endings”) and Indian music (“Players, dancers, and audience enjoy hearing and seeing the laws of the rhythmic structure now observed and now ignored”).
Shakespeare wrote in the meter of iambic pentameter almost exclusively; he found his rhythm, and played gracefully within it. The voices of singers like Björk and Frank Sinatra fly freely around the bar lines established by their instrumental accompaniment.
My composition teacher Mario Davidovsky encouraged me to throw monkey wrenches into the straightforward mathematical structure of my music. Adding a bit of unexpected chaos into a piece can bring the laws it’s based upon into greater contrast. John Zorn does this in his musical game piece “Cobra.” The piece involves very specific rules which determine how players interact with each other. However, at any time, any player can put on a headband and become a “guerrilla.” That player can then ignore the rules and play anything.
Last Sunday at my Morning Tune-up sound & rhythm meditation session, we explored this idea of grace and clarity. The group stepped in sync with each other, clapping a simple two-beat rhythm: mathematical, basic clarity. One person sat in the middle with a doumbek drum. This person played the role of grace, freely playing anything outside of the pulsing rhythmic structure. Each person would take a turn at the drum, moving from clarity to grace and back again. People could feel the sense of support while in rhythm, and a sense of being in a flexible conversation when outside of it. The clapping rhythm alone was not musically interesting, and would have felt monotonous by itself. The drumming was so free that it would have sounded formless without the contrast of the rhythm.
Cage’s concept of grace and clarity remains a useful perspective today.