Time and Western Man

There’s new, and then there’s “New.” There’s the newly-made thing which had not before existed, and then there’s the new idea, after which all sorts of previously unimagined newly-made things can be created. Composers are putting out new music constantly and exploring new ways of doing things, like combining classical and pop styles and structures. But composers also have to confront the sense that there is possibly nothing New to be done, that after 12-tone procedures, aleatoric music and Cage’s 4’33”, Tom Johnson’s Failing, a Very Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass and especially Alvin Lucier’s astonishing I Am Sitting in a Room, there are no new concepts to invent or undiscovered countries awaiting exploration. That’s no small crisis for a creative artist, much like what physicists will have to face once (if?) a Theory of Everything is finally knit. The idea of what else is there to do crosses the mind, and if it doesn’t leave one paralyzed, what’s left is still craft, refinement and a lot of good music-making.

I’ve felt that crisis myself, but lately I’ve felt it was premature, that there is still a barely touched conceptual universe out there for music to explore, the universe of Time. This may seem counterintuitive, as Time is the sole dimension in which music propagates its existence, but it’s ubiquity and invisibility has left it mainly unconsidered, like the water that flows seemingly automatically from our taps. But it’s the dimension that has resisted study, analysis and philosophy through the centuries – minds as brilliant as Augustine and Einstein have described the experience of time, but no one has actually been able to clearly say what it is. Perhaps that’s best left to composers since it’s their medium. All music uses Time, most takes it for granted and a few works explicitly explore that dimension. I don’t feel that there is a ‘high concept’ approach to this, one simple and profound idea that will knock the world on its ear. The structural elements of music – harmony, melody, meter, form – are all based on the idea of artifice, existing because we make them, and so can be rhetorically and logically demolished and rebuilt. Time exists outside of us and we can only observe it and be borne by it. The challenge is to find our place inside it, and explore that place.

This has been happening more frequently (not newly), in a grass-roots, unorganized way that owes a lot to the spread of digital music making technology and the rise of electronic dance music styles. With software tools like Max and Csound, artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre have been able to play with Time in highly complex ways by breaking down the flow of rhythm and patterns of beats into small, discrete units, each one a subdivision of time, then putting all the pieces back together into a whole pulse that, yes, you can dance to. It’s a very digital media style, where anything and everything can be sliced into ever thinner units that are explicitly binary (on/off/on) then recombined into what we perceive as a continuous flow. The goal is to create a beat, and a byproduct of this technique is to parse time into a seemingly infinite inward turning spiral of components, like Xeno’s paradox. We always get to the next beat, but inside the ear, the mind and the algorithm is the possibility that we will keep crossing so many halves of the previous unit of time that we will never actually reach the next. This has hardly any parallel in academic music, although composers working on their own and in smaller groups have playing with the same possibilities of the quantification and malleability in time. It’s the mix of this music and the possibilities of musical Time that has me listening again and again to the latest CD from Alarm Will Sound, a/rhythmia.” The recording is an explicit exploration of ideas of rhythm and pulse in music stretching from the 14th century canon ‘Le Ray Au Soleyl’ to contemporary masterpieces and, yes, Autechre. It’s also an inviting trailhead for a path leading into musical Time, and it’s both intellectually stunning and a pleasure to hear.

The ensemble has been working their way towards this point over the past few years. They’ve already released an interesting set of live arrangements of dance music from Aphex Twin, “Acoustica,” and performed a program of arrangements of player piano studies by the composer Conlon Nancarrow, who realized his goal of setting multiple, complex strands of tempo and meter against each other through the analog equivalent of today’s digital tools; he plotted out his pieces and hand-punched them into player piano rolls. They are far too difficult for one person to play on the piano, but Yvar Mikashoff of the Ensemble Moderne pioneered arrangements of the pieces for chamber ensembles, and they are becoming a welcome part of the contemporary music repertoire, as delightful as they are experimental. Two Nancarrow arrangements appear on the recording, Study No.6 and Study No. 3A. The latter piece is radically slowed down from the original, which sounds like two dueling roadhouse pianos playing at a truly crazed, inhuman tempo. Nancarrow was one of music’s great congenial radicals, and his pieces, which are built from canonical structures and use mixed and opposing tempos and meters usually played at a frightening pace, are both intellectually stimulating and great fun. The method may boggle the mind but the style is mainly jazz, blues and boogie-woogie, and the ensemble plays the music with great suppleness and pleasure.

There’s also a lot of fun in English composer Benedict Mason’s music; he is represented by five selections from his Animals and the Origins of Dance. These short pieces are reminiscent of Nancarrow and another unique 20th century composer, Carl Stalling, who wrote music for Warner Brothers cartoons for decades. Stalling also experimented a great deal with musical Time, although not in a necessarily directed way. The frantic, quick-change pace of the cartoons demanded a similar accompaniment and Stalling had the considerable skill to provide it. Hearing his music separate from the images is a dazzling and sometimes exhausting experience, one where time seems to have a narrative beginning, then a sudden stop and restart, and on and on, all the while conveying a professionalism of quality and massive amounts of humor and charm. Stalling was an accidental pioneer of discontinuity in music, a concept that is a fruitful paradox; musical ideas can start and stop, jump from one to another without development or stylistic continuity, but like the jump cuts in “Breathless” the flow of musical time is still continuous. Time cannot be discontinued, so the task is to keep digging for spaces inside that flow. The Animals pieces have the Stalling qualities of transition-less jumps and high-spirited fun, along with Nancarrow’s melodic grace and deliberate exploration of kneading the pulse of time into longer and shorter stretches. They also serve as interstitial comments that knit together the greater stretch of time enclosed in the disc, their flavors blending seamlessly blending the past and the present.

Composers have been thinking about time, consciously or otherwise, for centuries, and the way cultures have experienced time through those same centuries is reflected in the recording. Nancarrow saw the tracking of time through mechanical and electric clocks, while Mochipet and Autechre know digital time, not the measure of motion but the recording of on-off moments. Harrison Birtwistle straddles these worlds, and his Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum, while intellectually appropriate, doesn’t fit the overall musical spirit of the CD. His dance rhythms are covered under a layer of compositional complexity and don’t reveal themselves to the ear as directly as the other tracks. The piece is worthwhile, but Alarm Will Sound is usually effortless in making complex music appealing in a non-judgmental, cross-genre way, and Birtwistle seems like the fuddy-duddy at the party. In contrast, the ancients – Ciconia’s canon and the ravishing Payton MacDonald arrangement of the “Agnus Dei II” from Josquin’s Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales from the 15th century – are gorgeous and musical. They express a far more subjective and internalized exploration of time, the sense that it is measured in stillness, in moments set aside for the contemplation of the immaterial and otherworldly. The canon is proof that seemingly new ideas frequently have been around for ages – six hundred years ago a composer thought of making music in which more than one tempo was being played. The mass is a small part of the massive endeavor in human culture of considering and anticipating the End of Time, and this two minute moment on the CD, as it approaches its end, is a powerful, beautiful and mysterious highpoint during which time may indeed seem to stop. It is over too quickly.

The Intelligent Dance Music arrangements are important in this context. While the “Acoustica” CD is an amazing display of musicianship, repeated listening shows a little Aphex Twin goes a long way. With just two tracks of similar music on the new recording, the contrast of methods and concepts is demonstrated with precision. Again, this is unbelievable playing, transferring music, like Nancarrow’s, that was made through particular means because of the seeming inability of humans to actually play it. Well, Alarm Will Sound plays it and in doing so makes something more of it. ‘Desert Search for Techno Baklava’ and ‘Cfern’ maintain a steady, underlying beat and tempo on top of which they press together competing subdivisions of the same sense of time. Digital tools make this possible, but digital tools also regulate what seems to want to be irregular. The musicians here maintain the same steady beat, but the ability of people playing woodwinds and drums to apply different physical force to attacks and accents, different emphases, means that the sensation of irregularity over the regular makes these pieces into things much more interesting than how they began.

All this variety surrounds the central pole of the record and the concept, defined at one end by Michael Gordon’s Yo Shakespeare and a movement from Gyorgy Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto. Gordon’s piece is given its second recording after its debut on the seminal Icebreaker CD of 1992, which is beyond welcome. It’s already an incredibly important contemporary work, and it’s deeply exciting to hear it again, with a different flavor. Icebreaker’s premiere performance is a little faster, a little rougher and, in retrospect a little stiffer. It has the excitement of musicians discovering something new, but along with that newness is the feeling of conscious effort in mastering something so difficult. The combination of almost twenty years of having the work in the ears and the incomparable ability of Alan Pierson and his musicians produces a powerful new version. Yo Shakespeare is a polyphonic piece, moving through sections that combine two or three repeated musical phrases, but the phrases are essentially at independent tempos and they push together in a conflict that is simultaneously unnerving and exhilarating. This is music that threatens to open a tear in the fabric of time, through which we are dared to step. Alarm Will Sound plays this with tremendous assurance and a real rock and roll swagger, which it demands.

The appropriate, final comment on all the rest is Ligeti’s ‘Movimento preciso e meccanico,’ which emphasizes a mesmerizing and slightly woozy instability of pulse and time. The music features the sharp attack of keyboards and pizzicato strings and conveys the aural sensation of the winding up and then running down of mechanical clocks, in the line of the composer’s experimental and still delightful Poème Symphonique, where 100 metronomes are wound up and then set to run, each slowing down and stopping at a different rate. Although the dimension of time flows consistently around each one, the subdivisions of the flow that each metronome marks have their own length, pace and pulse, and the music on the CD has this sound. It is the fundamental expression of what’s at the core of this music and this unique and brilliant recording – we can play with time as much as we want, but when the playing is done, time continues to carry us, invariably, into the future.

[A companion iTunes playlist is here]


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.