An absence of metre is kind of cool. It’s like decorating a room white, having no books or furniture, and hanging Malevich’s White on White on the wall. You have no history, and you give nothing away when you mark an exercise with counts, but no hint of metrical accent: Your exercise might have développés and tendus and pony galops in it, but for a few chic moments before the music comes in, it’s not ballet, it’s just a sequence of movements in search of a musical identity. It could be anything.
Except, of course, it can’t. If it’s in eight-count phrases, then the number of things it could be are already limited, not just by the metrical implications of things being in eights, but by the limits of what you can play and what you can think of in two seconds. For in the absence of any metre in the marking, your brain has had no clues, no pointers, no hints to get you thinking, it’s like trying and failing to remember a password over and over again. Then suddenly, it’s time to play.
What happens then is one of two things. Either you start playing anything that comes to mind, because you can think of nothing: Old MacDonald Had A Farm, The Birdie Song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, whatever. Needless to say, however cool the exercise looked in the marking, it looks pretty trite now, like you put an ornate gold Poundshop frame round that Malevich. Or you try and improvise music that’s the equivalent of a whitewashed wall – it could be anything, because it’s nothing. For eight counts, it’s not so bad. But then you have a second phrase of four, and already, the metre that the teacher has so carefully omitted from the marking has hit you like a bend in the road. You can’t keep this up for 64 counts, because there’s no such thing as music without metre, or colour, or personality.
Just once, I was so flummoxed by metre-less marking, that I couldn’t think of anything to play at all. I just sat there, tasered by counts, while the class waited. It was as if the teacher had erased from my mind all memory of music and how it was made. It was for an exercise that was half ballet, half contemporary, and it went “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8,” very fast. The extra time didn’t help, but the class couldn’t wait any longer. I can’t remember what I played, except that I just kept hitting keys at a certain tempo, eight times in a row. It went on forever.