The truth is always the truth. Truth can be defined as “That which is”. In our human experience, we can learn about truth through differences. Imagine eating your favorite dessert, say tiramisu, after a long day of work and a tasty dinner. Yum. Now imagine eating tiramisu all day long. Eww! And if you ate it all the time, after a while you probably wouldn’t taste it anymore. We need contrast to experience the tastiness of the dessert, even when its inherent qualities remain the same.
It’s the same in music. Composers are aware of this need and fulfill it through the use of contrasting textures, emotions, harmonic colors, etc. In Medieval times this was called “alternatim”. The concept of alternatim permeates medieval music and can clearly be seen in the music of the Mass and the use of the “modes”. A mode is a way of moving. There are many elements in the Mass that allow for alternating ways of moving. There are melodic modes which use different notes, interpretative modes which convey different meanings through written words, the settings of the notes to text, some having many notes per syllable and some having only one note per syllable, and the alternation of contemplative Mass parts and parts which involve outward actions such as a procession. All these variables switching off from one to another create movement, contrast, and enhance focus and an experience of truth through the various motions of reality.
The book of Psalms is a beautiful example of alternatim. You can look up Psalm 57 as a example. It is a “Confident Prayer for Deliverance”. It is made of three parts. In the first part, the Psalmist calls for God’s mercy and protection in which he trusts. In the second part he describes in vivid metaphorical imagery the danger and malice of his foes. In the third part, he sings of his steadfastness and his trust in God and praises the Lord for His glory. When seen in contrast to one another, these sections are easily understood by the intellect.
Alternatim is as necessary for music as it is for life. Work is balanced with time with friends is balanced with prayer is balanced with recreation and leisure. This is the rhythm of life. We need times of struggle to learn from as well as times of joy. So the next time you feel tempted to shut out the world and practice forever, remember you will also need something to say, so go out and have some fun!