Sometimes I’m amazed when I realize the number of clocks I encounter every day: on the wall, on the stove, on the phone, on the screen I’m typing on now. Reminders of the passage of time seem ever present.
But it’s not really the passage of time, is it? It’s the current time. Unlike the clocks I grew up with — clocks with faces and arms and reference points around a circle – the clocks that surround me now designate only the moment I am in, without context, without motion.
I grew up with those other clocks, so a certain experience of time as circular, as something that moves at a specific, physically articulated pace, is ingrained in my sensibilities. Those sensibilities are gradually being overtaken by new ones, sensibilities in which time is a number, then a different — usually larger — number the next time I look.
I wonder how that shift in the experience of time impacts the music I write. I wonder how it impacts the music written by composers who have not experienced that shift, composers who have grown up with time as a number that just becomes a different number the next time they look.
With all the clocks I see over the course of my day, there is a sound long familiar to me that I no longer hear: the sound of a clock ticking. I know there are plenty of clocks that still tick off the seconds, but I rarely come across them anymore, whereas that used to be a fairly common experience. I don’t have to wonder how that change impacts music, I’ve seen it. In the early decades of midi, I used to joke about how frequently students would bring me music in which the tempo was one beat per second – quarter = 60, in metronome parlance – showing how prevalent the ticking clock was as their experience of time. Now I seldom see quarter = 60 in students’ music, it’s no more common than any other tempo designation.
I wonder how many of them have never heard a clock ticking.
Instead, increasingly they bring me music that calls for hellishly fast tempos, quarter equals 240 or more. I wonder what that means, within this context of the passage of time, as the passage of time is one of music’s salient features.
Of course, it can mean many things, some of them contradictory. But it definitely has meaning, because we can’t ever totally divorce our experience from our music-making.