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Tick Tock

Feature

Fiona Maddocks muses on the way we use music to mark out and measure time, and the manifold tricks it plays upon our sense of the temporal.

As beginners learning music, one of the first mandates we are given is: ‘Keep time!’. By chance, thinking about this article, I read an interview with the former hostage Terry Waite in which he spoke about his period in captivity. (He was captured by Hezbollah in 1987 and imprisoned for five years.) He said: ‘Time takes on new meaning when you’re deprived of natural light, freedom of movement and companionship. I spent my days sitting on the floor in total darkness with no books, no papers, nothing.’ In the end, time kept him.

The humanitarian aspects of his comments are outside our scope here. I don’t want to make idle comparisons. Yet the sense of having none of the familiar ways of measuring time struck home. No watch or clock. No radio. No sunrise or sunset or full moon. Above all, no music. A short folk song, a military march, a fragment of plainsong, whatever musical culture his captors might permit, could have given Waite a tool to carve a notch on the unmarked continuum of his life. Out of such units, whether minutes or hours, cradle song or incantatory prayer, daily commute or repeated labour, we shape our days. Perhaps Waite had music in his memory. We can imagine a work we know well and love – say, a symphony by Beethoven or Brahms – and bring to mind an aural snapshot of its shape, contours, colours compressed into a glance. Unless we have formidable musical skills we probably cannot run through the entire work in our heads without the help of a score. Only a performance or recording can fill the gaps. Yet we feel we know, and in our own way, own the piece in a split second’s recollection.

One of music’s mysteries –hardly a revelation – is the way it plays tricks with time. Long ca seem short, short interminable. A Wagner opera may appear to ‘fly’ by, while a ten-minute work whose language we do not understand weighs heavily. (Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance, fast and furious and lasting but a few minutes, to me feels endless. I have nothing against the composer.) Much of this kind of instinctive response is down to taste, and still incomprehensible neurological factors. Mostly, it springs specifically from the genius of a composer, and his or her use of rhythm, harmony, tempo, counterpoint. Think of the opening of The Creation. The pace is slow, lugubrious. Murky chaos reigns. As if warning of an imminent explosion, Haydn builds tension into the harmonies, urging us forward to a crisis without actually quickening the tempo. Only when the chorus sings ‘And there was light’ does release occur. Strings and timpani double their note values. In an instant we switch from stasis to frenetic action.

‘A Wagner opera may appear to “fly” by, while a ten-minute work whose language we do not understand weighs heavily.’

Mozart’s fizzing overture to The Marriage of Figaro or Johann Strauss II’s breathless Tritsch- Tratsch Polka or, in random contrast, John Adams’s Shaker Loops, epitomise speed. Louis Andriessen’s De Snelheid (Velocity) for large ensemble starts steadily (with a wood block), skips into triple time and grows ever faster, tussling with the heavy-footed brass who strive to hold back the action. In his player piano studies, the American experimentalist Conlon Nancarrow runs wild with time, slowing down and speeding up simultaneously until all you can do is chuckle.

Praising a work for its ability to hold us as if in suspended animation can be the highest accolade. Schubert’s late piano sonatas, Stockhausen’s Stimmung, Arvo Pärt’s Fratres all have that gift. Morton Feldman wanted to liberate us in our listening. A work lasting several hours, such as one of his string quartets, or the 80-minute For John Cage, makes strenuous demands. ’My whole generation was hung up on the 20- to 25-minute piece,’ he said. ‘It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it. As soon as you leave the 20- to 25-minute piece behind, in a one-movement work, different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it’s scale. Form is easy: just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter.’

Other composers play more literally with time-watching. The clocks which tick and whirr at the start of Ravel’s L’heure espagnole, set in a clockmaker’s workshop embrace the madness of chronometry. Harrison Birtwistle’s five piano pieces, Harrison’s Clocks, began life after the composer read Dava Sobel’s Longitude. Thomas Ad.s evokes monotonous days in his quartet on tme The Four Quarters, eventually reaching ‘The Twenty-fifth Hour’, a time outside time. Ponchielli’s irresistible Dance of the Hours, from La Gioconda, outlines the span of a day. No surprise that Leopold Bloom has such affection for it in Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel which similarly traces the multiple durations, the breaths and sighs of an ordinary day – and which has music at its very heart.

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