Music and Time

Recently I sat with a few friends discussing various aspects of some our favorite music and recounting personal experiences of live performances. Joe Way, author of the program notes for the Sierra Chamber Society, recalled an experience he had at Sheep's Meadow in New York's Central Park. It was a midsummer concert, and tens of thousands of people were attending a live presentation by the New York Philharmonic. Joe was far in the back of the audience, and the orchestra was just a small far-off rectangle of color illuminated in the stage lights. The concert was being broadcast live, and people around him were listening to their radios. Joe observed a strange phenomenon. He was aware of the music on the radios before the actual sound from the stage reached his ears. During our discussion I remarked that this was probably due to the fact that the music, after it had been converted to electrons by the microphones on stage, moved at the speed of light through the connection to the broadcast studio and transmitters, and eventually to the antennae of the radios in the amphitheater. The sound from the stage was moving at the speed of sound. (The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, wheras the speed of sound is variable, but can be assumed roughly at 740 miles per hour). Thus even though a far greater distance was traversed when the music passed as electrons through the radio link, it arrived sooner to Joe's ears than did the sound waves from the stage.


Since that conversation I have been thinking about music as an element of space-time. One of the most significant scientific principles uncovered in this century was Einstein's realization that the Newtonian concept of Time as a constant everywhere in the universe was incorrect. In actuality, time is relative. As a body speeds closer to the speed of light time slows down for that body in relation to bodies moving at slower speeds. For all intents and purposes this difference in time means little for us as we live out our daily lives in a three dimensional universe on the surface of planet earth, but the consequences of relativity on a cosmic scale are more far reaching. Nevertheless, I found Joe's anecdote about the two different speeds of music to be an example of Einstein's principle on an incidental level. Additionally, I began to think about the performance of music as a relative experience. That is to say, each of the performers brings a little of himself or herself to the performance, just as the listener brings their own preconceptions, or lack of them to a musical encounter.


There is both time within music and time outside of music. One of the more specific maxims of musical interpretation is tempo, which in addition to being the Italian word for time, refers to the pace of the musical presentation. As in Einstein's universe, music does not always flow at the same pace everywhere, either within the piece itself, or from performance to performance. The tempo can slow down and speed up with a few bars, frenzied one moment, languorous and dreamlike the next, or it can roll on at the same pace like a large machine dominating everything in its path. The relative relationships between these speeds produces an emotional effect within the listener, which can vary from audience to audience. The sheer complexity of the subjectivity inherent in tempo and its effects is complex and beautiful, a type of artistic measurement of the relative time within a piece of music. (Specific performance philosophies can even be argued ad infinitum and become the cause of academic controversy, like the debate over Beethoven's metronome markings.)


Time outside of music, to my mind, refers both to the recollection of the performance in the memory of the audience and performers, and to its capture by a recording process. As a member of the audience we each possess memories of musical performances, and if they were profound or delightful we recall them with pleasure. We can recall the date and time, the hall, what we had for dinner before or after the performance, with whom we sat, and how we felt during the performance as we were caught up in moments of aethestic arrest. This type of time capture is transitory. The performance happened once and can only be recalled in memory. The apprehension of music in time via a recording process allows us the opportunity to play a specific moment over and over again in order to see more deeply and subtly into that production. Here there is a moment of time living inside of time, for each replaying of the recording occurs at a specific instant in and of itself. It is as if we can build a museum of musical minutes in which we are free to wander whenever we please, observing arrested moments of time like paintings displayed on the wall.


Joseph Campbell, the mythologist and storyteller, said "Music has a role apart; for it deals not with forms in space, but with time, sheer time. It is not, like the other arts, a rendition of what Plato calls 'ideas' but of the will itself, the world will, of which the 'ideas' are but inflections." The uniqueness of Music as an art form is that it exists outside of the world of objectivity. Present in a static form in the printed score, (or in the captured kinesis of recordings and personal memory), it flows from a musician's instrument and suddenly becomes fleetingly tangible in time and place. It can be measured by its tempo and rhythm, harmony and counterpoint, and it has a beginning, a middle and a resolution. But when the last note has been played, and the intervals have been measured between the notes that have ceased, music disappears back to its kinetic hideaways: the score, personal memory, the digital recording. We live in a world of forms, some created by Nature, others by the incessant activity of human industry, and we grow used to the physical tangibility of those forms, the objective quality of which we tend to agree on. All of the arts take these forms and blend them into new forms, some of which can be hung on the wall or placed in front of civic buildings. Music grasps the same forms and creates a tapestry that breathes in pure time; it hangs like a river in front of us and never ceases in its inexorable flood. Toru Takemitsu, the contemporary Japanese composer, wrote a hauntingly beautiful piece for percussion and orchestra entitled From me flows what you call Time. Rather than just being a title, this phrase could be a definition of the satisfying function of music in a world hungry for art.

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