January 12, 2016

Thanks for hesitating

I spent last weekend packing up our house so we could move, listening to David Bowie the whole time, beginning with the new album, Blackstar, then following the hard drive on its automatic pilgrimage through the rest of his catalog. Then I woke up on Monday, saw that Bowie had died, and continued packing, and listening. And I thought about rubato.

Bowie's rubato, the way he expressively pried melodic phrases loose from the underlying rhythm, was, I think, an expression of the old-school pop singing in his genes. It could be flamboyant, particularly in ballads—Bowie's soaring 1976 cover of the Dmitri Tiomkin-Ned Washington standard “Wild is the Wind” practically never touches rhythmic ground—but more often, it was subtle. In his lower, baritone range, he would make consonants heavy and long, stickier than most, the gravity tugging the melody into his own orbit. (“I Can't Give Anything Away,” the final track on Blackstar, is elegantly saturated with this.) Sometimes he would keep the rhythm crisp until the very end of a phrase, the melody suddenly turning louche. Consider, in “Golden Years,” how Bowie's repeated, offhand punctuation—“wop wop wop”—is never quite in time.

The earliest, classical rubato was a scrupulous give-and-take: if you took extra rhythm in one place, you had to give it back somewhere else. Pop and rock's underlying rhythmic grid likewise squares rubato's demonstrative distortion. Bowie made great use of that. On “V-2 Schneider,” the Kraftwerk homage/critique from the 1977 album Heroes, Bowie's saxophone is off-beat the entire time (a dubbing error Bowie left in), flesh-and-blood at constant odds with the machine-like drive. Bowie's vocal for his 1983 hit “Let's Dance” similarly slips the bonds of its pinpoint dance rhythms. Throughout the 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, such tension echoes that between the rock-star Ziggy persona and those around him, the singer incurring debts the band necessarily pays back. Bowie's rubato always pulled the spotlight onto the individual, true to his most longstanding artistic concern, stretching from “Space Oddity” all the way through Blackstar: the human need, for good or for ill, to assert one's significance in the face of fleeting time.

I concede: rubato is not the most obvious thing to consider in the wake of Bowie's death, even for someone who, when introduced to Bowie's music (by Jack Miller, my best friend in high school), responded not to the personae, the theatricality, the defiant weirdness (it would be years before I was comfortable enough in my own skin to pursue those virtues), but to Bowie's exquisitely chameleonic technique. Even in that regard, Bowie's rubato is hardly the most distinctive thing about his music. But it felt appropriate. Rubato is, after all, borrowed time—what, it turns out, Bowie knew he was living on when he made Blackstar, what we all live on, whether we acknowledge it or not.

And, besides, its earliest classical practitioners didn't think of rubato as borrowed time; rather, they called it “stolen”—and Bowie stole it the way all great performers do. Like Robin Hood, they take an outsize share of life and give it to us, we who never have enough of it. They redistribute the limited wealth of existence so we all can have a little more. And so I pack boxes, watch my daughter dance around the living room to “Heroes,” and, for a while, believe that, somehow, I can stretch my allotted span on the planet—stealing time, just for one day.

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