Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Time for Music

A commentator alerts me to a very interesting article by composer Jonathan Berger, "How Music Hijacks Our Perception of Time." When he relies on his own experiences, the article is fascinating and worthwhile, but when he references marketing and neurological studies, I am rather less convinced. Here he is on Schubert:
One evening, some 40 years ago, I got lost in time. I was at a performance of Schubert’s String Quintet in C major. During the second movement I had the unnerving feeling that time was literally grinding to a halt. The sensation was powerful, visceral, overwhelming. It was a life-changing moment, or, as it felt at the time, a life-changing eon.
This is, to me, unimpeachable testimony based on the highly-trained ears and discrimination of a composer. Let's have a listen:

I might not have put it in those words, but I see what he means. A lot of Bruckner symphonies also start with a seeming suspension of time, as does the Symphony No. 1 of Sibelius. But then he goes on to make this odd claim:
While music usurps our sensation of time, technology can play a role in altering music’s power to hijack our perception. The advent of audio recording not only changed the way music was disseminated, it changed time perception for generations. Thomas Edison’s cylinder recordings ... held about four minutes of music. This technological constraint set a standard that dictated the duration of popular music long after that constraint was surpassed. In fact, this average duration persists in popular music as the modus operandi today. This, in turn, influenced the way music of longer duration was heard. The implicit effect on the classical music industry was disastrous. To put it bluntly, the subjective perception of the length of time withered the collective attention span for listening to music.
I dealt with this claim at some length in this post, "How Long is a Song?" in which I cite numerous examples from the 14th century on of how many pieces, both instrumental and vocal, tend to be around three or four minutes in length--going back centuries before the invention of the phonograph. And I also cite the counter example of Hey Jude, released on a 45 and of seven minutes duration. This whole idea that technology has been an important influence on song length is just nonsense.

But, when he gets back to his own observations about Schubert, he has a lot of interesting things to say. This is also an interesting passage:
Neuroscience gives us insights into how music creates an alternate temporal universe. During periods of intense perceptual engagement, such as being enraptured by music, activity in the prefrontal cortex, which generally focuses on introspection, shuts down. The sensory cortex becomes the focal area of processing and the “self-related” cortex essentially switches off. As neuroscientist Ilan Goldberg describes, “the term ‘losing yourself’ receives here a clear neuronal correlate.” Rather than enabling perceptual awareness, the role of the self-related prefrontal cortex is reflective, evaluating the significance of the music to the self. However, during intense moments, when time seems to stop, or rather, not exist at all, a selfless, Zen-like state can occur.
I think that intense listening, or playing or composing of music does tend to put us into a special state of mind in which we do seem to lose ourselves. This is probably why the joke about Rachmaninoff is so funny. The story goes that his manager noticed him looking around the auditorium during one of his solo recitals and afterwards asked him what that was about. Rachmaninoff replied, "well, I've been having doubts about your accounting lately, so I was counting the house!"

Speaking of suspension of time, here is how Björk does it:

I expect the estate of John Cage to be filing suit any day now...


Marc Puckett said...

I'd love to witness that lawsuit being argued, the attorneys for JC on the one side, for Bjork on the other.... Think of the witnesses who might be called to testify!

I agree totally with your praise for Prof Berger's self-description/analysis of his own reaction to/relationship with the Schubert. As to the science, well, I shake my head in pleasant agreement without actually knowing anything much beyond what the text in front of me says.

I specially appreciated JB's citation of Mann-- there are wonderful passages in Magic Mountain dealing with time etc, in one of which the character Joachim is praising the usefulness of a simple tune that occupies or consumes a... I want to say a period of four minutes but I expect that is my memory playing tricks.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wouldn't that make an interesting opera libretto: the Cage vs Björk Trial!

I am most familiar with Mann's book Doktor Faustus. It was many years ago that I read the Magic Mountain, sounds like I should revisit it.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of lawsuits... I am curious to hear your take on the Gaye estate's (winning) lawsuit against William Pharrell for plagiarism.

I find the whole thing ludicrous on so many levels. Pop music has a limited range so recycling old ideas is inevitable.

But there's something more pernicious at work. Of course shameless plagiarism exists and should not be tolerated: all artists must try to make an original contribution. But it's the idea that "borrowing" or even "stealing" is bad that gets me. Baroque musicians were trained by retooling the works of the old masters. Incorporating elements from the past was an essential part of their craft. Of course, what you made with it was the ultimate test -- but what Pharrell Williams is accused of doing is something Bach did all the time (and Handel even more).

The Beatles were notorious plagiarists (like Led Zeppelin). So what? The point is that they stole from others to create a unique work of art that distinctly theirs.

Blurred Lines borrows from Marvin Gaye's Got to Give it Up, that's true, but it's a complete different song (a pretty bad one if you ask me).

Bryan Townsend said...

I have a couple of items about that case in today's miscellanea post. I think that there are two fundamental principles that are running up against one another here. On the one hand, pop music is a commercial or industrial process akin to sausage-making given an aura of artistry by promotion and marketing. But at the same time the illusion is cultivated that every pop musician is a true artist, marching to the beat of their own drummer, a special unique snowflake telling the story of their deep inner emotional life. With a backbeat. All this stuff about inspiration and doing a homage to another artist is to be understood as the actions of those who are still deeply original people. A case like this tends to shatter the illusions. Different pop songs tend to have the same underlying structure the way different Chevrolets are built on the same chassis.

Bryan Townsend said...

But I would hardly call the Beatles, one of the few truly original musical groups in pop, "notorious plagiarists". Led Zeppelin, yes, the Beatles, no. There was a court case about a couple of lines of the lyrics to John Lennon's Come Together, but the music itself was completely original. I think there was a George Harrison song that was shown to be too similar to another song. But really, this is just the amount of legal maneuvering you would expect with a group that successful. Money attracts lawsuits the way honey attracts flies. The Beatles were doing some genuinely new things. Led Zeppelin were recycling old blues songs with bigger amplifiers.