Local author explores the rhythm section as "a musical virus." | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Local author explores the rhythm section as "a musical virus."

"It's almost like thumbsucking."

click to enlarge Victor Grauer
Victor Grauer

To musicologist Victor Grauer, the rhythm section is a mystery hidden in plain sight.

For millennia, humans got along fine without percussion, guitars and, especially, bass keeping strict time in tightly structured, harmonically familiar chordal patterns. In The Life and Times of a Musical Virus: A Critical History of the Rhythm Section, Grauer explores how we got infected with that arrangement. His self-published 2014 e-book recalls the case of the traditional Taiwanese drinking song that in 1994 became new-age group Enigma's hit "Return to Innocence": It was simply an a capella recording (used without permission) onto which Enigma grafted bass and percussion, with synthy washes.

Few listeners blinked. "Everybody just takes it for granted," he says of the rhythm section. "They assume it has to be there."

The Stanton Heights resident holds a doctorate in music composition and a master's in ethnic music, and in the 1960s spent a couple years working in New York City with famed ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Grauer, now retired, has also taught at Chatham University and in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Musical Virus traces the lineage of the rhythm section we know from rock and jazz to sources including the basso continuo in baroque music and, more speculatively, to urban popular musics of that era and African sounds the slave trade brought to Europe. Grauer theorizes that bass patterns spread in Europe largely because they told untrained dancers when to step.

The e-book ($6 on Amazon.com) is accessibly written and embedded with links to YouTube videos of musical examples ranging from Guinean djembe tunes and Bach cello suites to "Satisfaction." Among pre-jazz musics, also figuring in are gypsy music, Strauss waltzes and West Indian quadrilles.

While Grauer has broad tastes, he spends much of the book playing epidemiologist to the virus he's diagnosed. "Just about every commercial has a rhythm section," he notes. And the interesting musical intros to so many songs end up homogenized by formulaic beats. "It's almost like thumbsucking," he says. "There's something very reassuring to people when they hear the rhythm section." Worst of all is the rhythm section's capacity for cultural colonization — its own brand of globalization, flattening indigenous cultures before it. When that happens, Grauer says, "then it's really disturbing."