The Speed of Sound

Gillian Welch and David RawlingsLast night I had an epiphany.

I was at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, to see Gillian Welch and David Rawlings play their gorgeous mournful music. It was an incredible show. I knew Gillian Welch was a great singer and songwriter, but it was Rawlings’ virtuosity on the guitar that blew me away.

Anyway, my epiphany started around the second song. Gillian was moaning one of her dark parables, keening her way through a heart-wrenching chorus, when she slipped into another verse and, ever-so-slightly slowed down.

I snapped out of my reverie for a moment, and thought, “Oops, did they just pull the reins in on a racing tempo?” Keeping a consistent tempo is one of the most difficult skills to learn as a musician, and it sounded like Gillian and David might have let their intensity get the best of them. Yet they had made the tempo shift completely in-sync, their harmonizing voices and interwoven guitar parts locked in tandem. The effect was as if someone had touched a finger to a record and slowed the music down a hair.

Then it happened again, at the start of the next verse. Again, their voices and guitars were synchronized, conducted by a baton only they could see.

The ebb and flow of tempo continued through several other songs during the performance. Once I realized they weren’t mistakes, my heart tugged when the songs would slow–the effect gave the music an added weight, like a moment of silence in a speech before a profound statement is made.

I’ve chisled “Thou Shalt Keep a Consistent Tempo” into my students’ songbooks ever since I started teaching guitar. “This isn’t classical music,” I’ve told them. “Rock and folk music sounds sloppy if you speed up and slow down. Even if you’re doing it on purpose, it ends up sounding melodramatic, like an opera.”

Well, since last night, I’ve decided to bust out my chisel and amend my commandment: “Thou Shalt Keep a Consistent Tempo Unless You Really Freaking Know What You’re Doing.”

Comments 2

  1. I picked up on that too…I can’t remember which tunes (maybe “The Revelator”). It wasn’t all that perceptible, but for some reason, those little imperfections are what the live experience is all about. I like your blog!

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