Speed and Velocity
ON the difference between SPEED & VELOCITY while improvising on the violin.
One aspect of free improvisation that has always remained important to me in over 30 years of practicing it, is that the processes of this kind of music are fast and immediate. Even if the apparent speed of the music sounds slow, as in much of the new orthodoxy that revolves around the idea of extended minimalism, the way in which the music manifests itself is instantaneous; there is no score, no form, no conductor, no set of assumptions to get in the way. But then maybe 'speed' is not quite the way to describe what is taking place.
Speed, for me, is the rate at which something moves through linear time (a piece of music with tempo markings, for example). Speed is about the metronome. Speed is something regular and reliable, like cleaning your teeth.
Velocity is about momentum. Velocity is about the nature of movement, it is unreliable like quantum mechanics. Velocity is not only dealing with the quantity of motion but also the qualities of time and motion. The moving body or the moving sound contains material that directly influences its velocity. It is a self reflexive system and cannot be broken up into its constituent parts. Sound can only exist as a transforming medium. You can't keep it in a box, or even a file.
Some things happen to the nature of sound when it starts to accelerate. For example, a repetitive sequence of notes or a scalistic passage, which may point to an underlying sense of tonality, can morph into a zone of sonic ambivalence pointing to many tonal possibilities.
Variations in Velocity can change rhythm into pitch, pitch into rhythm. In this respect, the slip/hold actions of the bow on the string should be seen as the building blocks of this fundamental ambiguity.
A passage of music without velocity takes little time for the brain to perceive where it came from and where it is going. Music existing at high velocities takes the time with it, out the window.
Velocity often has little to do with the observance of linearity, it is often alien to the constructs of musical convention. But it may be a physical origin that links, on one hand, the sparks of energy caused by a bow stroke accelerating along a node in a string to the rapid manipulation of pitch, in the violinist's other (independent) hand.
If our neurons functioned at twice the speed, then linear time would appear to be twice as slow as it is now perceived. A violinist could use this situation to some advantage if the intelligence in his fingers was able to utilize this newly enlarged haptic space (the world of active touch). On a lower level, the haptic sensors allow the relevant touch information to feed back to the relevant brain centres and provide updates to the outgoing commands. On the upper levels of high velocity violin playing, there is no time for such information exchange. The task of tracking and adapting bowing control generates too much feedback information. To prevent a seizure of the whole system, high velocity playing necessitates throwing away in real time much neuron activity. In many respects high velocity playing should be regarded as a useful cognitive purge.
However we are then left with the conundrum, what holds together the state of velocity? Is anything monitoring the complexity of these fast moving positions, forces, and motions. What is the flexible glue that stops the whole thing falling apart? The violinist recognizes it but neither he nor the scientist nor the public can encode it.
Like trying to grab hold of sound itself, the analysis of velocity turns to sand in your hands.
©jon rose 2003