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On Time

Feature

Paul Griffiths explores the evolving relationship between time and western music in the last 1000 years.

We can spend it, pass it, lose it, save it, mark it, beat it or keep it, but probably, like St Augustine, we do not know what time is. This is why we have music, to tell us.

We have Stravinsky to tell us, too. ‘The phenomenon of music’, goes a passage from his autobiography of 1936, ‘is given to us with the sole purpose of establishing an order in things, including, and particularly, the coordination between man and time.’

The sentence has regularly been cited as a pose, and a ghostwritten pose at that. But what if Stravinsky – who, after all, gave the book his blessing – was on to something? We might more commonly think that the essence of music is sound, but just as a picture needs space, within which the visual elements are placed in relation to one another, so a musical composition needs time, within which to unfold its sounds. We can regard music as a flow of sound through time, but we can regard it, too, as a flow of time made perceptible by sound – ‘coloured’ by sound, Messiaen would say.

 

‘in parallel with the development of mechanical clocks, rhythmic notation comes along’

The time flowing through the earliest written music of the west, plainsong, is perhaps the changeless, ceaseless time of eternity. The chant will stop, on the final of its mode, but this is not the end, for another chant will soon take over to continue the daily office of prayer, in the wonderful public spaces of Kings Place. Also, plainsong does not presuppose a listener; everyone was to be a performer, not so much experiencing the music as creating it, living inside it.

We start to get listeners when we have music as a secular art, with the arrival of the first troubadours, in the eleventh century. Then things start to happen, in music and in time. Strikingly in parallel with the development of mechanical clocks, in the thirteenth century, rhythmic notation comes along, and we are no longer in the smooth time of eternity but in time precisely counted out.

This counted time, which listeners can observe, gradually gave way to felt time, which carries them in its sway. The pursuit of that was the great musical programme of the Renaissance, for just as painters were creating the individual viewer, for whom the picture would be laid out like a real scene, so composers were creating the individual listener, in whose mind the music would seem to be moving in the way that time, in an optimistic age, could be felt to be moving, ever onward.

‘With tonal harmony, music could dispense with words, it had its own driving force’

It is in this way that the music of the sixteenth century, the music of Gombert, Byrd and Victoria, may be said to be realistic, because it accords with a real experience of time, as much as the work of painters of that era accords with a real experience of space. And just as the painters had a new technique to achieve their aim – perspective – so did the composers, in tonal harmony, harmony that pushed on coherently not just from one chord to the next but from the beginning of a composition to its end.

With such harmony, music could dispense with words – it had its own driving force – and we find the first instrumental pieces that are more than dances. By the mid-seventeenth century everything was in place, and music of progressive time – the music to which we are perhaps still most attached – could begin its spectacular ascendancy of a quarter-millennium.

Bach and Handel give us clear and confident time, time proceeding in ways we are invited to follow and understand. A century on from here, in the late works of Beethoven and Schubert, time’s purposes are becoming more uncertain, with the growing intuition that its orderliness may be an illusion. The measure becomes not so much the collective time of clock and calendar as the individual time of the diary, with its regular routines, its spasms of excitement and its empty days.

‘The revolving time of Minimalism, the constructed time of Messiaen, the empty time of Cage, the unknowable time of Feldman’

By the end of the nineteenth century we have the suspicion, so simply expressed by Satie, that time may not be moving forward at all but endlessly circling – as it was for the monks of the Middle Ages, and as it is, perhaps, within the nonwestern cultures whose music was beginning to enter Europe. Then jazz gave us time jolting.

Music through the twentieth century came increasingly to recognise that time steadily elapses only for us human beings, who live lives of limited span, gathering experiences and memories as we go – just as compositions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries do. All the musical turmoil of this period – and beyond – can be ascribed to a search for more universally valid frames of reference, for other truths of time.

Tonal harmony, made to convey coherent progress, could no longer be trusted. The reality of time was not that of the human lifespan, but might rather be one of haphazard events brought about by unknown forces, or of an immense stasis, or of multiple simultaneous processes unrelated to one another (the times of butterflies and quasars). Or time might not be real at all, only an illusion caused by our transitory passage through a universe fully formed in its four dimensions. Or the reality of time might be one of perpetual repetition, as the cosmos keeps expanding, and possibly contracting, through cycles of hundreds of billions of years.

All these understandings of time and more have their corollaries in recent music – in the revolving time of Minimalism, the abstract time of hypercomplexity, the constructed time of Messiaen or Harrison Birtwistle, the empty time of Cage, the unknowable time of Feldman, the imaginary time of neotonality.

Now, though, we are back with St Augustine, not knowing when we are.

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