Syncopation involves a rhythm that disturbs our perception of time as a regular flow, producing the feeling that time may be coming out of joint.
In music, syncopation is intrinsically connected to the offbeat. Contrary to the beat, the offbeat is the stressing or the accentuation of the least expected moment within a time measure, producing momentum in what could be perceived as its weaker part. The offbeat and the beat are completely dependent on each other in that there is no sense of time without rhythm, and there is no rhythm that does not contain both. What interests me in syncopation—this interval or gap between the offbeat and the instant before the beat establishes itself—is how it pulls the beat, how it resists becoming the beat, how it offers an alternative space adjacent to it, whether in a rhythmic situation or, figuratively, a social or political one.
Syncopation is an essential rhythmical feature in reggae and jazz, intimately connected with African-American music traditions and, historically, with slave songs. In African music, the syncopated attack pulses are supplied by various drums and other percussive instruments, but during slavery in the U.S. drums were forbidden. Slave owners feared they might be used to transmit messages between individual slaves or slave communities, so syncopated rhythms were instead produced by clapping and tapping.
Syncopation is also closely tied to our sensory intuitions. I think the body feels close to the offbeat, whereas the brain feels close to the beat—to the more expected and evident. If we imagine the beat as a wave coming toward the shore—an event that you can see ahead of its arrival—the offbeat, by contrast, is the undertow that compensates for it, the invisible wave that pulls you offshore.
For me, syncopation extends beyond a music bar: it’s about having a moment of suspension, which might even be as long as a bridge. A bridge is a section in a song that has a significantly different melody or rhythm from the rest of it. It alienates the listener from the song itself, from the very self of the song, keeping one’s attention while suspending one’s belief. A bridge halts a song in the sense that it aims to go against both what preceded it and what is about to follow. In the bridge, suddenly you feel rupture—your sense of the flow of music and time has been interrupted. The bridge, like the offbeat, suspends the momentum of the song, yielding alienation instead of confirmation and familiarity.
Every song we love makes us feel complete, in the sense that within the song we feel at home. While it lasts, it surrounds us, it gives us everything. I like the idea of the bridge as something that pierces the bubble and lets you catch a glimpse of the outside. It’s like a piece of subjectivity that breaks with the established subjectivity of the song.
These parameters inspire me: this idea of questioning the given flow, or resisting what has already been established. Bridges, like syncopation, go against the expected. They carry an energy that I would call almost political. Bridges, after all, are also moments of drifting within a song, and in this sense parallel the dérive of the Situationists—for example, the way one might ramble through the city, using the urban space not as originally planned but against the prescribed flow, creating situations that can liberate us from everyday thought or experience.
This is why I imagine syncopation as something that can evolve in space as much as in time. I like the idea that it may carry its momentum beyond the notion of musical time and bring attention to the least expected places or least regarded spaces: real places and social spaces that question conventional values and resist established norms. Syncopation can help subvert the sense of order and routine in our lives. I think that, whereas the strong beat is guided by strict repetition, the offbeat produces difference and distinction. If the first signifies order, the latter allows for diversity and openness. While the established order wants to exclude anything that may question and rupture its proficiency, syncopation can embolden the weak, give relevance to the marginal, and expand the scope and purpose of society.
I see syncopation, for instance, even in the application of color, the political action that is central to Dammi i colori (2003), my video featuring an urban painting project led by artist and politician Edi Rama, then mayor of Tirana, Albania. While it’s tempting to read Rama’s chromatic renovation of a poor neighborhood as an instance of avant-garde utopianism, the colors were not meant to revive any idealistic promise but to reinitiate the desire for public space and the hope that things could change.
If it were a utopian project—there’s something authoritarian about utopian ideology—the colors would have been painted to correspond with the volumes of architecture. Rama’s colors, importantly, did not aim for this kind of visual uniformity, but instead overlapped irregularly with the volumes—most of them illegal architectural interventions meant to expand living space—in an out-of-sync way, creating a visual noise. So the work generates a visual syncopation out of volumes and colors, and politically it’s an offbeat intervention.
After the fall of Communism (and a lousy post-Communist transition) in Eastern Europe, people felt nausea in regard to utopia. So Rama knew his project had to be different—it had to instigate hope without ideology. In Dammi i colori, if utopia is the beat, hope is the offbeat. Of course, I’m stretching my interpretation here, as I’m no longer speaking of common musical terms but of how the meaning of offbeat, bridges and syncopation extends in my experience and my imagination.
—As told to Natalie Bell
“Anri Sala: Answer Me,” at the New Museum, New York, through Apr. 10.