DAVID KRONEMYER: The concept of the “drum circle” long has been used in certain primitive tribes and other ad hoc gatherings as a means of facilitating social interaction and calibrating group attunement to a single pulse. Drumming is rhythmic and percussive. It is loud. When people drum together they synchronize their timing. Time no longer is comprehended as seconds or other fixed divisions of moments. Rather it wholly is defined by the tempo of the group. It creates a different form of liminal temporality.
I became interested in how it might be possible to implement the philosophy of the drum circle in the context of small group psychology. I also had several other objectives. I wanted to synchronize the rhythm to the beating of the human heart, which is the most primordial, fundamental rhythm of human life. I wanted to devise a method whereby individuals could become aware of their own beat; evaluate how it varied from that of the group; and then attempt to calibrate it back to that standard. I wanted to introduce an element of discernment into the process, that is, becoming aware of small divisions of time. I wanted the participants to become more mindful. But I also wanted for it to be possible for learning to take place, which occurs when the individual acquires the skill to undertake these tasks successfully, and be aware that she/he is doing so. I wanted the participants to become more mindful.
To bring this about a studio where I occasionally produce records and conduct other musical experiments acquired several dozen older-vintage drum machines of the type that used to be affixed to combo organs sold in shopping malls (at least that’s my recollection of their primary mode of being). These offer a variety of enticing rhythms such as “waltz,” “fox trot,” “rumba,” “cha-cha” and my favorite, “60s go-go beat.” They typically offer a rude, analog sound, which is selected by pushing a preset button. Tempo is controlled by a dial with differing gradients of accuracy.
It is not possible to synchronize the timing of this generation of drum machines except by turning the dial. It is not possible to get two machines into perfect synch; invariably they will drift over time. The drum machines either overshoot or undershoot each other. It is possible for the operators to keep trying to get in synch, but they only ever will approximate doing so. [There is a wonderful device, no longer in production, called the “Russian Dragon” – rushin’, draggin’ – which gives a visual indication of when two machines are in synch.]
Later generations of drum machines became synchronizable, first with a timing reference called DIN-synch; and then with MIDI. They became capable of triggering oscillators, envelopes and filters. They evolved to using digital samples instead of analog waveforms. While these drum machines are very interesting and useful they lack the visceral primitive qualities of their earliest predecessors, some of which actually qualify as electronic antiques.
I performed all of the interconnections necessary to power and amplify 12 of these devices – two for each member of the six-person group. I then also connected to the sound-system a CD I had sampled and looped, which reproduced the audio of a beating human heart.
This lead to a series of interesting outcomes. As participants drifted on and off beat they became aware of their separate identities. They devised an active intention to get back in synch, which required them to reorient themselves towards the group. They acclimated themselves to the dynamic of the group as they observed the predicament of others involved in similar calibration activities. They acquired expertise as they became progressively more adept at manipulating the tempo control of their individual machine to accomplish this outcome. They became adventuresome as they shifted into a different rhythm, which in turn introduced a new variable and destabilized the process of staying on synch. They became sensitive to the beating of the (prerecorded) human heart. While I can’t say for sure it’s likely that, over time, their own human hearts became synchronized to the rhythm established by the group (using the audio recording of the heart as a point of reference).
The experiment lasted about an hour. During this period the participants achieved the experimental objective of “losing track” of clock time and becoming more mindful of the “reorganized time” supplied by the group. No participant believed they had participated for more than say half its actual duration. As we discussed the exercise after it was over, all participants averred they experienced a greater sense of felt connection with the other members of the group. They had participated in something generative and primordial.
The heart-beat reference was crucial to achieving this objective. Unlike an arbitrary timing reference (e.g. a metronome, the instructions of a leader, or simple anarchy with each person doing what they felt like doing) it is grounded in a basic environmental experience of human existence.
I have a theory, which is that ecological timing references are an important element of what’s involved in being-in-the-world. Real-world timing references include the rising and setting of the sun; the earth’s rotation; the revolution of the earth around the sun; the phenomenon of precession; and others. These in turn became ecological pivot-points for spiritual practices such as those set forth in the Book of Hours and other daily liturgies based on the passage of time. In the Catholic Church these include lauds (dawn prayer); prime or early morning prayer; terce or mid-morning prayer; sext or mid-day prayer; none or mid-afternoon prayer; vespers or evening prayer; and compline or night prayer. Islam’s requirement for prayer five times a day has a similar structure. Significantly the time for the performance of these rites is not fixed by clock. Rather it varies with the earth-imposed constraints. We do not impose our will on the world. Rather (metaphorically) it imposes its will on us.