Music In and Out of Time

I’ve returned from the dead – the dead of semester-end academia, when one’s life is no longer one’s own. A friend wrote to tell me that my blog fans are near suicide, and while I don’t flatter myself that such is even metaphorically the case, I can take a hint.

The last day of class the students played their compositions (it’s a theory class – harmonic correctness is required, creativity isn’t). Then they, not unreasonably, demanded that I play something of my own. So I complied with the one piece of my own I can play on short notice, No. 1 of my Private Dances, which is kind of a tango. Afterwards, two students swore that my piece sounded exactly like the background music to a scene in some movie they’d watched, and that I should check it out.

Now, that a tango of mine should resemble one in a movie – or every other piano tango in existence to some extent, for that matter – is hardly cause for surprise. However, without needing to watch the movie, I feel pretty secure in my doubts that the tango in the movie did what mine does. Mine is in a kind of verse and chorus format, repeated three times. The first pass through the material is firmly in B major/minor, chromatically nuanced by an occasional F major chord. The second time through it changes to some distant keys but keeps returning to B minor at cadences. The third time it takes off: Ab7, Gb7, E, G7, C#7, A minor. In addition, at the end of each chorus comes a C dominant 7th chord which twice acts as a German 6th back to B, and once as a dominant of F, so it’s kind of a theoretical joke, playing with your expectations. The piece does something, it ventures further and further out and gets lost, it playfully changes its mind. I doubt that the tango in the movie does that, or does it the same way.

What’s disappointing – and I mean it not just with respect to these two students but to their generation in general, for this is ubiquitous – is that for young musicians, momentary identity is often everything, and what happens in the piece hardly exists. For me, the cleverly-composed course of the tango was everything; to them, merely the general sound, the momentum, texture, and flavor of the tonality, mattered. From experiences in my criticism class, I’m tempted to think that this is a listening habit inculcated by pop music. Most pop songs retain pretty much the same sonic identity from beginning to end. The profile of a pop song is crucial to its instant recognition. You can’t have a pop song that starts out “We… will… we… will… ROCK YOU!” and ends up “God only knows what I’d do without you” – though in a sense, most classical music does something like that all the time. In class I even assigned them to write descriptions of some pop songs that went through tremendous changes – such as Sonic Youth’s “Female Mechanic Now on Duty” – trying to elicit recognition of, and maybe some interest in, the fact that some music transforms itself and goes through a variety of sections. It seemed pretty much in vain. I played entire movements from Mahler symphonies, and while they came up with loads of adjectives and even elaborate pictorial scenarios, not one, except under the most obvious prodding, ventured a description that took time-based changes into account. That’s why, in my Music After Minimalism class, I’d play part of an hour-long work by Robert Ashley or Meredith Monk or anyone, and someone would invariably shout, “I know a rock group sounds just like that!” And it would, for about 20 seconds.

The late Jonathan Kramer wrote about what he called horizontal time in music and vertical time. Horizontal time was what you experience listening to the recapitulation of a sonata differ from the exposition, taking account of before and after, hearing the consonant version of Beethoven’s Eroica theme 20 minutes after that version with the dissonant C# and realizing that something has changed. Vertical time is what one experiences in the moment, without before or after, and a lot of recent composers have written with vertical time as a goal – Jonathan listed Satie’s Vexations, Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge, even certain works by Stravinsky. In fact, as the critic who most champions music in which nothing happens, I feel a little hypocritical chastising my students for only listening that way. I have the opposite trouble trying to get my classical colleagues to appreciate the timelessness of La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano, Charlemagne Palestine’s piano strumming, a Phill Niblock orchestra piece which might seem to remain motionless. I love pieces in which nothing happens. One of my own pieces is entitled Time Does Not Exist. But I think I love those pieces more because they negate my deeply embedded horizontal listening habits (sounds like I listen to music lying down), the way Waiting for Godot smashed the expectations of conventional theater because the title character never showed up.

Imagine applying this situation to literature. You read, “Though Mrs. Jennings was in the habit of spending a large portion of the year at the houses of her children and friends, she was not without a settled habitation of her own,” and someone shouts, “I know another novel reads just like that!” It wouldn’t happen, because people who read novels at all realize that what’s important is not so much the individuality of the sentences (some of which may chance to appear verbatim in other books) as what happens. And movies! How many movies have a scene in which the hero is running from a bomb and is thrown forward by the explosion? Who would yell out, “I know another movie goes just like that”? No one, because people are conditioned to experience movies in time.

But I think – and I realize I sound like an old grump but I merely note the phenomenon – we’re raising a generation who, by and large, do not think of music as something to be experienced in time. And it strikes me that the lack of that habit closes one off from the pleasure of a tremendous amount of music – even the music in which nothing happens, if not especially that music.

New on Postclassic Radio:

Night song by Raphael Mostel and his Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble

Steel Chords for pedal steel guitar and strings by Sasha Matson

Tukwinong for piano by Judith Sainte Croix, and played by her

Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto with Keith Jarrett as soloist

Alien Heart from Elodie Lauten’s early disc of piano works on Cat Collectors