Tuesday, April 12, 2016

It's All About Time

I don't have a good tag for this kind of post. Sometimes I just slap on the "aesthetics" tag, but even that doesn't quite work for this post so I am defaulting to "music theory". Equally inaccurate, but possibly less misleading?

Music is a "time art" like theater and dance. But while those involve bodies, sets, costumes and props in space, all music really involves is time: vibrations in time. A musical note or pitch is nothing but a certain frequency of vibration brought to us by compression waves in the air. The tuning note "A" vibrates at 440 times per second. Melody is nothing but an organized sequence of pitches. Harmony is nothing but groups of notes heard together. Rhythm, again, is nothing but attacks heard in time. So music, all of music, is really just time heard in various ways.

This is exactly why it is so mysterious. It is easy to look at a theater set or a photo or video of dancers and get a sense of what is going on. But to see what is going on in music you have to look at a score:

Click to enlarge

Only someone with musical training can figure out what is going on there. But it is all about time. That is a brief section from this piece, Eight Lines by Steve Reich:


Obviously, at least at the beginning, there are two things going on: the quick arpeggiation in G# minor in 5/4 divided 3+2 and the long, sustained notes in the violin. The clarinets add another rhythmic pattern and after a couple of minutes a melody appears in the flute:

Click to enlarge
Part of the genius of Steve Reich is that he can construct rhythmic constellations that seem to both project forward with great energy while at the same time seem to be rotating in the same place. It is the tension between these two things that keeps us listening with fascination.

It is all about time. Reich underlines for us the essentially temporal nature of music by taking away pretty well everything else. Most of his music has very little in the way of melody or harmony, which leaves rhythm.

Music is time, but time is a pretty mysterious thing. Aristotle is supposed to have said that "Time is the most unknown of all unknown things." And in Book XI of the Confessions of St. Augustine he says:
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not: yet I say boldly that I know, that if nothing passed away, time past were not; and if nothing were coming, a time to come were not; and if nothing were, time present were not. Those two times then, past and to come, how are they, seeing the past now is not, and that to come is not yet? But the present, should it always be present, and never pass into time past, verily it should not be time, but eternity. If time present (if it is to be time) only cometh into existence, because it passeth into time past, how can we say that either this is, whose cause of being is, that it shall not be; so, namely, that we cannot truly say that time is, but because it is tending not to be?
Uh-huh. Which reminds me of a different passage in the same book where Augustine answers those who ask what the Lord was doing before he created heaven and earth by suggesting that he was preparing a hell for those who pry into mysteries!

I suppose that what we almost seem to sense in the music of Steve Reich is this eternal present. His pieces do not really seem to begin and end, they seem to always just be there, swirling in the moment.

Here is Music for a Large Ensemble by Steve Reich:


11 comments:

Anonymous said...

This last piece is a good illustration of the paradox that great art sometimes is thinly separated from torture. I really love the ingenuity of the music, I'll confess, and yet I can well imagine the CIA using it to coerce someone into confession. I suspect if it were only percussion, it would not have this manic quality. It's the presence of an actual melody that moves the piece into mental illness territory.

Bryan Townsend said...

I know what you mean. There are two common reactions to hearing Steve Reich. One is fascination with the ingenuity, as you say. And the other is an increasing annoyance because the music seems so static or something. I'm not sure exactly as this has never been my reaction. But I would love if you could explain how the presence of a melody moves the piece into mental illness territory?

Christine Lacroix said...

I thought maybe Anonymous wanted to say 'the absence of a melody'. While listening to 8 lines I found myself actually starting to like it...a little.

Bryan Townsend said...

I was wondering myself, so I just went with what he or she said. Yes, the Octet/Eight Lines piece is really very likable. It is rather like very refined bebop.

Anonymous said...

I think we're accustomed to obsessively repetitive percussion (rain, clocks, trains, horses) and it doesn't get under our skin. But why would a one-bar melody repeated a million times drive you nuts? Melodies create resonances that percussion doesn't and this in turn acts on our auditory cortex differently. For one thing (for reasons I don't understand), we're much better at remembering melodies than rhythm. I often ask people to give me the rhythm of Ravel's Bolero and they almost always get it wrong. But ask them to sing Hey Jude or countless tunes and they'll get every note right. I think the madness of a repeated melody is akin to the spoken words. Imagine yourself locked up in a room with a speaker uttering the words "And now you must pay your taxes!" in perpetual loop. This is the surest road to madness!

Another way to say is that earworms are always melodies, not mere rhythmic patterns.

Bryan Townsend said...

That is a very plausible analysis! I hadn't thought of it, but you are right, earworms tend to be melodic, not rhythmic. Though there is this little harmonic sequence that keeps plaguing me. Steve Reich does not have a lot of what we would call real melody. His repetitive structures are mostly rhythmic with some harmonic arpeggiation. But the pace of the harmonic rhythm is very slow.

David said...

Bryan, this was a most interesting post with an intriguing concept: the inescapable link between music and time. Somehow, since reading this, I have been listening to a lot of Max Reger's music. Not his organ works but his orchestral compositions (Sinfonietta, Ballet Suite and Beethoven Variations). From my listening, Reger wrestled with all of the time elements you describe (melody, harmony, rhythm). It occurred to me that Reger is a composer most often maligned and side-lined, probably because of his failure to move out of the late Romantic idiom. If you are up to it or interested, I would benefit from your thoughts on some of his unexplored music. Like some actors that get type-cast, I think Reger deserves better.

Marc Puckett said...

Fascinating, that melody and rhythm are maybe processed differently in the brain itself. Like Christine, perhaps, I find the Reich is listenable, in this context, or maybe in a concert, but sitting at home I doubt I'm ever going to listen to Eight Lines again; who knows, I'm open to persuasion-- perhaps one day there will be headphones that'll provide a temporary 'fix' to my brain's lack of receptivity to this or that. And, while you were being jocular (ioculariter!) of course, St Augustine does actually write that he would rather say nescio quod nescio, 'I don't know', than make the facetious (iocosus, iocularis) Gehenna-for-the prying remark, perhaps embarrassing the questioner. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

David, thank you for an excellent Idea for a future post. I really hardly know the music of Reger at all!! There is just so much 19th century music. So I will take him up as a mini-project.

Steve Reich has the capacity to drive listeners mad. But I'm glad you enjoyed, a bit, this piece. I have to be careful quoting St. Augustine in this company.

./MiS said...

I'm late to this discussion but thankfully the internets don't care much about time and, anyways, my comment has nothing to do with what you've been discussing. I would like to pick on something you wrote in this post about time. I would bring to your attention the fact that music is not only about time. It also is about how space influences time. It's not as obvious as dance or theater but space is very much part of the music even if its role is very subtle. The spacial aspect influences how music is composed, how it is performed and also how it is perceived by the audience. Music has also evolved with the spaces in which it was performed, although I don't think that the spaces were the driving force behind evolution of music, it was probably its social role but it was moved through churches, amphitheaters, salons, rooms, concert halls, stadiums. Even elevators.
A lot of aspects of music practice has to do with space: articulation, instrument placement, tuning. Yes, most of these issues involve time (reverberation, speed of sound, etc) as those timing subtleties influence our perception of music. Ok, I know that that the post wasn't about that kind of use of time. And I will not get into the theatrics of using space for music as is, arguably, not central to (some) music, although narrative in music... ok! I stop now!
I do realize that it's nitpicking but thank you for reading.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, you are quite right! My posts are never the last word and in this case I was exaggerating for effect. In fact, in recognition of the points you are making, a while back I wrote two posts on music and architecture and how some pieces are written for particular spaces.

Not nitpicking at all!