Great Moments: The Downbeat

Last summer I walked into a clothing store on Michigan Avenue in Downtown Chicago with my sister and was immediately drawn to the music playing in the store. Right away, I asked the store greeter about the artist of the song, but was disappointed to learn that no one, not even the store manager knew anything about it. “It’s just part of the playlist that they told us to play” was all I got.

Somewhat dismayed, I tried to analyze the song before it ended, trying to capture some characteristics of the music that would help me locate it later.

I never found the name of the song, but the music nerd in me quickly uncovered the reason behind my momentary obsession with it. I jotted down the choral progression in my head. Simplistic. Vocal quality? Electronically tinkered. Bass. Yep, that’s it.

The song’s underlying rhythmic flows and ebbs, clear, succinct, and with a matter-of-factness, anchored and helmed the ambient soprano vocal to perfection. Today that impression of the song still hangs with me. My memory reveled in the aftermaths of those emphatic downbeats, so translucent and forward that they still pulsate in my memory.

The impressions from those moment in the song can be described as the music equivalent of the deadpan realist photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the stoic, minimalist decree against subjectivism. It also reminded me of a more sparse and slower version of Power Soca, the ultimate “jump and wave” dance genre from Trinidad and Tobago that deploys the effects of downbeats on every level of the sound apparatus.

Bernd and Hilla Becher’s “Water Towers”

Downbeat. The sense of the now, immediate, uncluttered present, a respite from the ruminative cud of everyday minutiae. The music of downbeats is music of the sentient, empirical, a defiant of the momentary, free from the interpretations and convictions that envelops us from day dawn to day break. The post World War II Swing’s relaxed soft-off-beat eludes confrontation and affords escapism. The emphasis on the downbeat demands the predictability of silence to which it precedes. It does not deluge us with trite upbeats that drives us to the point of paralysis. Instead, we are given the opportunity to “hear” the silence without all the white noises. Its triumph is its uncompromising simplicity.

As true in music as in life, sometimes I need to be hit with the reality head-on, like the downbeat, with no room to hide from my realities. The unrelenting beat of that song reminded me of the pressing beat of time and the road ahead. It keeps the mind from slowly deafening, from being driven to paralysis.

Perhaps in more ways than we realize, we appreciate the simplicity and crave the mundane. We come to appreciate whiteness above color because it is calming and stripped down and, surprising invigorating. The confrontation gives way to resolution. The silence thereafter allows us to breathe, count, and punctuate so that we can face the next moments with more life and momentum. It challenges us to open up to new meanings and awarenesses so that we can fully embrace the arrival of the next downbeat.

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