Groove: A Phenomenology of Rhythmic Nuance.
Why philosophize about musical groove, a phenomenon whose importance to so many African diasporic musics appears self-evident? Why philosophize as opposed to, for example, specifying with greater precision the qualities of grooves from traditional music-analytical perspectives, or seeking to understand ethnographically groove's verbal discourses and cultures? In Groove: A Phenomenology of Rhythmic Nuance, Tiger C. Roholt intervenes in a contentious problematic, with groove as his terrain: that of disembodied formalism's inability to value Afrological musics, let alone to "get" them, to groove. Roholt argues that to comprehend a groove specifically is to feel it, actually to move one's body, to attend to its "conspicuous affective dimension" (p. 2), and hence the "analytical" specification of grooves' nuances falsely assumes it can adequately account for their bodily effects (pp. 40 and 51-82), which are their very defining features, the reasons we care about them in the first place. Roholt further utilizes a kind of ad hoc discursive ethnography in building his argument, which acknowledges groove's status as an Afrological music, leading him to attend carefully to groove as a distinct cultural practice, hence seeking to value it as such.
Where, then, does Roholt's properly philosophical approach to groove lie? Utilizing the descriptive resources of phenomenology, appeal is made to the first-person introspection of experiences, which are verbally shareable and thus productive of knowledge. Roholt specifically argues that Maurice Merleau-Ponty's theory of "motor-intentionality" empowers us to address the type of feel grooves convey: to understand a groove is not solely or quite to feel it, but a more nuanced (if I may) and complex concept: "to comprehend it bodily and to feel that comprehension" (p. 5, emphasis original; see also, pp. 93-122). This implies a cycle of recursion: grooves are felt, but, too, our simultaneous understandings of them are also experienced as felt. This argument enables us to mediate concept and experience in music, an ongoing concern in philosophical and theoretical discussions. By placing priority on the feel of a groove, Roholt is able to do justice philosophically to what appears to be most listeners' primary concern about groove: the feel, the feelings a groove evokes or embodies, and the way a groove makes you move.
Discussion of the feelings or the feel of a musical groove could lead to claims about its ineffability, however. To his credit, Roholt (pp. 27-38) takes this possibility seriously, in the traditional philosophical manner of arguing against it. His argument takes the form of a critique of Diana Raffman's cognitivist account of musical ineffability (in Language, Musk, and Mind [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993]), which argues that musical nuances do not admit of cognitive representation--conceptualization and recall--and are thus inexpressible verbally. (Raffman specifically limits her discussion to the pitch domain [ibid., pp. 7-8]; Roholt is concerned primarily with musical temporality.) The tenor of Raffman's analytic account is far from mystical (as is often implied by continental discussions of musical ineffability), and yet she does argue musical nuances are ineffable. Roholt argues, via his ad hoc ethnography and appeal to intuition and common experience, that musicians nonetheless find ways to communicate regarding desired musical nuances (pp. 22-26). A bass player tells a drummer to "drive harder" during the pre-chorus, to "relax into" a hypermetrically strong beat. These metaphors address microtimings nonanalytically--indirectly--and yet they are verbal expressions. The nuances of musical grooves are thus effable.
Roholt's discourse writes against a complex disciplinary problematic, mediating music studies (music theory and analysis), philosophy (phenomenology and analytic philosophy), (music) cognition, ethnography (ethnonnisicology), and even critical race theory. Interesting here are the limits and pressures this interdisciplinary problematic places on the possibility of a phenomenology of groove. For example, an ethnomusicological optic sensitizes us to Roholt's implicit ethnographic claims regarding what band members and musicians have said to him about how to "push" and "pull" certain grooves (what Vijay Iyer calls "microtimings" in, "Embodied Mind, Situated Cognition, and Expressive Microtiming in African-American Music," Musk Perception 19, no. 3 [March 2002]: 387-414); that is, appeal is made to what improvisers say, but importantly, without displaying an ethnographic method, so crucial to anthropological fieldwork. While this can be construed as a criticism, it can also always be figured as a limitation of the discourses of musicology, philosophy, and music analysis generally. Indeed, it opens an area for further research: how do specific groups of performing musicians talk about groove, and how does this talk intersect with their felt musics? (Work by Mark J. Butler would assist us in this research.) As a complementary limitation, when Roholt (pp. 123-26) speculates as to whether classical music and the Blue Danube waltz can groove, he does so without mentioning William Rothstein's analysis in Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music [New York: Schirmer Books, 1989, 3-10], the standard account, one that could give rise to analysis of the waltz's groove, or Viennese waltzes' characteristic anticipation more generally, a tradition that could cross-culturally challenge the claims to groove's defining feature as an Afrological tradition, pursued most forcefully in Iyer--which Roholt inherits and vet whose other arguments he writes against. Reading Rothstein in this context reminds us that in Eurological, "literate" music, it is often larger spans that we care about, which carry meaning, groove. Could we then hear larger timings in Afrological musics as grooving, too?
Susan McClary (in. "Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition," Cultural Critique no. 12 [Spring 1989]: 57-81) has probably made the strongest claims for groove as a value, as a cultural practice we should value, rather than a disinterested play of forms. There is an undeniable sense of advocacy in these writings, which Groove shares. But is the discursive location of groove in nuances or microtimings (for example) guided by something other than values? Iyer (pp. 395-400) makes the strongest claim for the affirmative, arguing, based on research both cultural and cognitive, that Eurological musics tend to experience temporal plasticity largely at the level of the beat (rubato, changes in tempo), whereas Afrological musics do so at the level of timings smaller than traditionally notated, measured timings ("microtimings," which Roholt calls nuances). What is at stake in this difference? One is the ongoing critique of the Eurological tradition of the Cartesian, non-bodied formalist listener and subject from the specific perspective of an Afrological tradition of music performed and situated in a cultural and physical presence and actual bodies: bodies moving, dancing, participating. The discursive practice of using Eurological conceptual tools to bear on Afrological traditions and practices--evident in all of these discussions about groove--would benefit from discussion of work by V. Kofi Agawu.
But why is groove dependent upon nuance, microtimings, with the prototypical example being jazz drummers' and West-African-derived musics' practice of playing before or behind the beat? What, that is, of playing on the beat, simply playing in 4/4, four on the floor: why is this not a groove? Why, here, is a type defining the general category? Why do grooves have to be nuanced in order just to be grooves? Surely there must be examples of grooves that are not particularly nuanced, but are still perfectly groovy. In the tradition of theorizing about groove, "groove" and "nuance" appear to be honorifics as much as defined aspects of musical activity; they embody values.
So, then, a specific counterexample, which might seem counterintuitive: Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal," I would argue, is typically felt as a simple groove, overlaid with complex rhythmic aspects. That is, the rhythmic patterns of the main groove are typically felt as a groove on the eighth- or quarter-note levels. That is the beat at which my upper body hinges forward, or forward and back, gets excited, wants to shout at how great a groove this is. I can choose to dig the other rhythmic nuances, at other hypermetric or lower levels--certainly the "ow" exclamatory pause in Jackson's voice on the "and" of the second four, which both stops the flow (the groove), holds it momentarily in midair, and yet prepares the bass drum and snare's dives back into the metrical and rhythmic fabric--but I need not for the groove to exist for me as a felt and fully real phenomenon. Indeed, I might argue it is precisely the simplicity of the drum- machine-like percussion and staccato of the keyboard bass relative to the center of the beat that holds the power of this groove, keeps me locked in, committed to the musical flow, the rhythmic nuances surrounding this groove providing respite, fun, and play. There is something robotic about this groove, precisely not nuanced. and yet it grooves, hard. I might argue it is precisely against this mechanical precision that Jackson's famous "antigravity" lean seems impossible and yet so awe-inspiring. The groove in "Smooth Criminal" might be my favorite groove ever, in fact, but I do not typically feel it on a nuanced level. I move my body directly on the beat, but am able to hear it groove otherwise.
In Groove: A Phenomenology of Rhythmic Nuance, Tiger C. Roholt has offered ns the gift of clear thinking about a phenomenon that can seem either ineffable because solely bodily or obvious to the point of requiring no comment, either ideologically neutral or instead ideologically overdetermined, and that locates many feelings about and desires for music as a cultural practice. We can express gratitude to Roholt for mediating, challenging, and clarifying discourses about groove--from the musicological to the cognitive--that themselves embody values and aspirations from cultures as diverse as the Afrological and Eurological. By experiencing Groove, by bodily performing it, we are able to participate in its unique joys, which Roholt explores expertly.
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