Ha, ha? keep time: How sowre sweet Musicke is
When Time is broke, and no Proportion kept?
So it is in the Musicke of men’s lives:
[Richard II., Act V sc.5]
The soliloquy of King Richard II, imprisoned in Pomfret, is interrupted and altered when he hears music outside his cell. He has lost his throne and will be executed in a matter of moments by Exton. His time will be broken. Richard’s thoughts channel through sound to observe a relationship between rhythm and proportion. It is not the decoration of a musical surface but is a proportion that creates expectations and guides experience.
Another insightful observation about rhythm was set within a book that insists on the development of a personal experience with works of art: “Art as Experience,” by John Dewey. In this book, rhythm is seen as a product of nature:
“Rhythm,” argues Dewey, “is ordered variation of changes.” It is hard to imagine a more chiseled and inclusive definition.
“A gas that evenly saturates a container,” writes Dewey, “a torrential flood sweeping away all resistance, a stagnant pond, an unbroken waste of sand, and a monotonous roar are wholes without rhythm. A pond moving in ripples, forked lightning, the waving of branches in the wind, the beating of a bird’s wing, the whorl of sepals and petals, changing shadows of clouds on a meadow, are simple natural rhythms. There must be energies resisting each other. Each gains intensity for a certain period, but thereby compresses some opposed energy until the latter can overcome the other which has been relaxing itself as it extends. Then the operation is reversed, not necessarily in equal periods of time but in some ratio that is felt as orderly. [...] Such is the generic schema of rhythmic change.”
The first stage of understanding rhythm, then, is to recognize variation. Variations marks time and Shakespeare’s “proportion” can be “kept.”