R&D Week 0: The Tempo of Groups
I feel I’m in a good position to be writing out these Tapes for the next couple of weeks, as I’ve just started the formal 2-week R&D process for my new show, which I mentioned last week, and it mostly involves just talking to interesting people about fascinating ideas for a few hours at a time until I’ve worked out how those ideas dovetail into the show I’m making, so until February I’ve got an incredible resource of interesting thoughts to cherry-pick from, and these Tapes are a nice opportunity to document the process a bit, open those ideas up to you guys, and see what you all make of them.
This week I’ve spoken to Martin Weegmann, a therapist at the Institute of Group Analysis, about resonance, reverberation and communicative musicality in group analysis; and to composer and Artistic Director of Waste Paper Opera James Oldham about rhythm in music and in comedy and about a new field of research called “interruption science.” The thing I want to talk about in this week’s Tape is something that both of them ended up bringing up entirely independently without my really prompting for it, so it feels somehow serendipitous, and that’s the tempo and musicality of groups.
Martin told me that the way groups behave, in their actions, speech and energy levels, can be read musically as a kind of choreography, and James told me about the composer John Moran, who has developed his own pet theory on the way every group becomes locked into a tempo. Moran’s theory is that, in the early moments of a group of individuals gathering together, a group which could range in size from 2 to 10,000, that group establishes a tempo for itself which it then cannot escape until the group disbands, and that tempo is observable and measurable. When you meet up with a friend in a coffeeshop, very quickly you will establish the rhythm and time signature of the conversation you’re going to have and, while the specific patterns and shapes of your speech and movement may speed up and slow down in places, they will all be locked into the tempo you initially established. The pauses you leave will all fit into this tempo, the timing with which you pick up your cup, put it down again, raise your eyebrow, all of them will follow an observable, rhythmic pulse which you cannot consciously change. Even more weird, Moran suggests that that tempo will not be specific to you and your friend, it will apply to the entire coffeeshop – everyone in it will collectively and unconsciously have found a rhythm they are then locked into. Every action you take, and every word you say, will land in a precise moment, and the reasons for landing in that precise moment aren’t entirely in your control, they’re at least partly dictated by the pre-established rhythms of the group and the space you find yourself in.
This is James Oldham’s music studio, which he kindly invited me into for our chat. Just livens up the documentation process, y’know?
All these ideas of Moran’s are purely hypothetical, and just things he’s enjoyed thinking about and observing and figuring out – currently there’s been no scientific research into this because it’s just something he’s puzzled over by himself. Either way, whether there were a huge wealth of documented evidence supporting the theory or refuting it, I think it’s fascinating. James even said that, if I were performing a show to an audience, it would be the group that dictated the tempo of the performance, not the other way around. At some point before the show starts, perhaps in the bar beforehand or in the queue, or sitting in the seats themselves, the group would unconsciously establish their rhythm, and when I came onstage, I would need to tailor the exact timings of my show to that tempo, rather than being able to use what I was doing onstage to orchestrate the unconscious rhythms of an audience.
I found this idea really fascinating. Ultimately, I don’t know if I 100% buy Moran’s theory as a universal, cosmic rule – I think the tempo of a group can be rewritten midway through, in the way that a group walking around a zoo looking at the penguins would suddenly and radically change tempo if, say, the gorilla suddenly smashed its way out of its cage. But I suppose maybe his point is that you can only alter the tempo of a group by radically altering the purpose and nature of that group (ie. group enjoying day out at zoo becomes group trying to run away from gorilla). All this is stuff I’m still turning over in my head, and I have no idea yet how any of this will feed directly into the show I’m making, as I only went into the rehearsal room with Ben Target and Alex Hardy for the first time today, but I’m very aware of how busily the cogs in my head are turning now (this phrase in itself is about sub-conscious changes of internal rhythm, wow!) and am excited about trying to figure out a way of making a comedy show that in some way responds to and explores some of these ideas. Absolutely no idea how I’ll do that. That can be next week’s problem.
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – There’s a new series of Would I Lie To You? and my friend Zoe produced it, so I’m very pleased and proud of her.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – This week I filmed a final pickup for a short film I made with Stuart Laws, Stevie Martin, Ali Brice and Lucy Pearman, and just after we wrapped Stevie’s dog Piper punched Stu in the face and it was great.
Book Of The Week – Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life by Anne Lamott. This is a really nice little book for writers who don’t just want technical advice on writing, but wisdom about what it means to write and how to live with a writer’s mindset. I really enjoyed it.
Film Of The Week – I watched Licorice Pizza this week and, contrary to what I usually use this section to do which is to recommend stuff, I absolutely hated it. I have good friends who loved it, so I may be talking nonsense, but I thought it was pointless, tedious, self-indulgent, emperor’s-new-clothes rubbish, quite frankly.
Album Of The Week – Bright Red by Laurie Anderson. I listened to a couple of Anderson’s 80s albums last year and couldn’t get into them, but this 1994 album is great. It’s mostly spoken-word pieces over weird, spooky, Brian Eno-penned ambient tracks and it’s really odd and atmospheric and haunting and beautiful.
That’s all for this week! As ever, if you wanted to share this newsletter with a friend or encourage people to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it. Let me know what you thought, and take care of yourselves until next week. All the best,
PS Here’s Ben Target dressed as my keep-cup.