A Temporal Poem
excerpts from the book Auscultation 2009.
“It was about half-past one – ‘only half-past one,’ Lucy complained – when she and Walter and Spandrell left the restaurant.
‘Still young,’ was Spandrell’s comment on the night. ‘Young and rather insipid. Nights are like human beings-never interesting till they’re grown up. Round about midnight they reach puberty. At a little after one they come of age. Their prime is from two to half-past. An hour later they’re growing rather desperate, like those man-eating women and waning middle-aged men who hop around twice as violently as they ever did in the hope of persuading themselves that they’re not old. After four they’re in full decay. And their death is horrible. Really horrible at sunrise, when the bottles are empty and people look like corpses and desire’s exhausted itself into disgust. I have rather a weakness for the death-bed scenes, I must confess,’ Spandrell added.
‘I’m sure you have,’ said Lucy.
‘And it’s only in the light of ends that you can judge beginnings and middles.”
Aldous Huxley Point Counter Point
LUCY COMPLAINS, she has seemingly passed a long evening which in fact for Spandrell, the second character, has only begun. Lucy ‘s comment reveals a discrepancy between the actual time and the psychological time that the character experiences. Spandrells’ comments on the particular mood of the evening, relates the passage of time to life’s passing, this is a melodramatic statement, it is exaggerated of course. The first statement is a passing comment that indicates the characters’ psychology whereas the second is a metaphor dividing the evening into ages. Both cases are mathematically incorrect; they are also in deviation to clock time. That wonderful invention that inserted the minutes and seconds into people’s consciousness.
Out of the three adjectives in the passage above: insipid, desperate, and decay it is only the latter that is fixed in temporality since decaying is a process, the other two are characteristics that have been given to time, although decay may also be a characteristic of a time and certainly of a time that is performed in the case of music. There may also be cases of insipid performances where the music decays and there have always been desperate times but never a time that must be performed in desperation. Rather, insipid and desperate are literary metaphors to describe a passage and are certainly not temporal indicators.
According to Rosamond E.M. Harding in her study The Metronome and its Precursors, it was not until the early 1800s that the need for a standard of measurement in music became necessary. Prior to that, the beating of the pulse was used to establish a tempo although this was also quite inconsistant since pulse varied highly from one of cheery disposition to one of choleric temperament. Of course the need to have a standard was for the performance of music, to ensure that the tempo was followed correctly. Temporal indications such as adagio, allegro, presto were, before the use of the metronome, used to suggest a certain character of music and a manner of playing. These suggestive terms were left to the performers sensibilities and judgements as to what a slow or fast tempo was.
Over time the performance indications that were merely suggestive were now being imposed with mechanical precision, i.e.
adagio was between 65 beats a minute to 72 beats a minute, presto between 176 and 182 beats a minute...etc.
It is with these seemingly modest suggestions of fast and slow that the history of the metronome cannot escape the resonances with the history of time keeping, it overlaps and intertwines, a loop with variations over several centuries. From its onset the mechanism of the metronome is tied with the development of the first pendulum clock that was perfected by Christiaan Huuygens in 1656 which had an error of less than one minute a day. This was certainly not the first mechanical time keeping device, said to be dated to around the 1300s but it was the one with the most accurate measurement. Clocks and devices such as the sundial, elaborate water clocks, sand glasses or the simple burning of a candle have existed to record the passage of time and since the mechanical clock was developed, the importance and subsequent demand for precise measurement increased.
Even the simple taking of the pulse was not to be left to hazard and had similar measurement problems during the shift from the qualitative in determining what was fast and slow to quantitative and accurate calculations.
According to Gerhard Dohrn-Van Rossum in his study of clocks and modern temporal orders he describes that around 1450 Michele Savanarola: “a professor of medicine proposed in a tract on the pulse to determine the difference between the pulse of a healthy person and that of a sick person as the difference in the pulse rate. He evidently did not know of a suitable time measure for the pulse rate and thus recommended instruction by musicians in conductor’s tempo.” Could this anecdote be the simple reason why composers and musicians then for the next three hundred and fifty years used the taking of the pulse as the standard
for tempo? In any case it does show the shared need, the parallel desires in both 1450 and the 1800s for an accurate and precise means of time reckoning.
“Time may be compared to a stream unbounded in breadth, and illimitable in length, flowing onwards uniformly and unceasingly. There is no break in its continuity. There is only one constant unbroken and interminable passage in time which pervades all space and all material things in nature."
Sandford Fleming, A Treatise on Time and Its Notation.
Sandford Fleming is known famously for missing a train and being frustrated in 1876. This caused him to propose and campaign for a system to regulate the keeping of time throughout the world. Time, in his view, may be flowing, but it must flow uniformly, without discrepancies, without error, without room for miscalculations. World Standard Time divided the earth into time zones that would allow for a synchronization of times from one city to another and from one country to another.
Train travel was increasing and coordinating all the local times that the trains were passing through without any recognized system was proving chaotic. Clock time could no longer be solely influenced by where it was located, disregarding its position within a wider and ever expanding international network of communication and transport. In other words, if one wanted to catch a train one had to know which time the train’s arrival was referring to.
What would an attempt at synchronizing people’s experience of time look like? How does one compose with such fluctuating material ?
Notes on the Metronome Series
Metronome Series # 1 and #2 A Temporal Poem is a work with two stanzas in the guise of a score: one a composition for ten channels with the sounds of metronomes and the second a performance based on the work that this piece makes reference to: Poeme Symphonique by Gyorgi Ligeti.
Ligeti wrote this piece in 1962 for 100 metronomes consisting of two pages of instructions on how these metronomes were to be procured, as well as how it should be performed. Although often considered as a frivolous piece, or a minor composition it does produce the polyrhythm that Ligeti was fascinated by. As it begins there is the full chaos of the metronomes all beating together with indiscernible patterns, the stasis made up of innumerable movements, these elements are present and developed further in his later compositions.
What is fascinating about this piece is the autonomous nature of the metronomes, once wound and with the tempos set the piece constructs itself, varying at each listening and at each performance. The patterns produced are unexpected and fleeting, there isn’t a passage that one can reconstruct or remember through its repetition. Still, (and here a pause is necessary) it remains uniform, ticking away, simple monotonous beats.
It occurred while listening to a hundred metronomes beating at different tempos that I was actually listening to different pulses and perhaps even listening to peoples’ experience of time. The experience of time before it was regulated and synchronized, before it was standardized and imposed upon our daily routines to the last minute. Time can still be insipid, rather charming, or running at the blink of an eye, the experience of each passage remains a myriad. This has not changed.
In Ligeti’s score there is no intention of synchronizing the metronomes to create set rhythms, besides the starting up of the metronomes (which was impossible to synchronize in a performance setting) the piece continues without any outside interference, guided by the mechanical hand. What better way to explore tempo than by using the device that measures it.
John Cage made the remark that it is only duration that is common to both sound and silence and that structure based on duration would be a more accurate way of exploring silence.
A composition with metronomes at different tempos
A one handed composition with different arm lengths
It is simply all about duration
A duration that is not recorded; there is only one hand to the metronome
One hand for the beating of time.
Let us change the instrumentation
Not 100 metronomes but 100 human timekeepers
Where what remains is
“A tempo stolen, broken, a time at once flexible, abrupt and languishing, vacillating like a flame under the breath which stirs it, like the ears of a cornfield undulating under the soft pressure of the warm air, like the tops of trees inclined here and there at the caprice of a sportive breeze.”
Chopin is known for his extended use of tempo rubato, a playing style that momentarily disregards the strict tempo either by speeding it up or slowing it down for emphasis. An emphasis produced through change of tempo, an accentuation that is independent of attack (volume) and tonality.
By taking the instruments away from the gestures there remains a silence, a silence that is performed by counting with the simple movements of a conductor, 100 people gesturing at different tempos. Their instructions are to follow a strict tempo but this will invariably be modified during the performance.
People tend to synchronize with each other; they tend to be influenced by each other’s movements. Overwhelmingly in this group there will be discrepancies and the subjectivities will gain prominence.
To go back to discrepancies and continue with subjectivities; one can think of Erik Satie’s wit and poetry in the guise of performance indications.
One of them is: “Arrive an hour late!” Satie did a way with bar measures in most of his scores ensuring that there wasn’t a strict tempo to his pieces. Instead, he decided to use intentionally cryptic and playful indications for performing his pieces such as “like a nightingale with toothache,” “haggard in your body,” or “on your tongue.” Thus ensuring that the performance of his works would always have a different character.
One wonders why no one has taken it upon themselves to try and measure and notate what “dry as a cuckoo” would be? 99 beats a minute? “With tears in your fingers” at 40 beats a minute?
This seriously preposterous task is proposed in Metronome Series #3 For Erik Satie, by asking the performers to beat time at their convenience, following a selection of his indications.
The conductor’s duty is to measure these subjectivities with a stopwatch and note them.
The subsequent gathering of measurements over the years will form a collection that future performers of Satie’s music may consult, at their peril, and use as a standard.
This collection will be named, bien sûr, Satie’s Standard Time.
"'The trouble with fiction,’ said John Rivers, ‘is that it makes too much sense. Reality never makes sense.’
‘Never?’ I questioned.
‘Maybe from God’s point of view,’ he conceded. ‘Never from ours. Fiction has unity, fiction has style. Facts possess neither.’” A.Huxley The Genius and the Goddess
Harding, Rosamund E, The Metronome and Its Precursors.
Henley-on-Thames Oxfordshire: Gresham Books, 1983.
Fleming, Sandford, A Treatise on Time and Its Notation.
Ottowa: MacLean, Roger & Co., 1888.
Listz, Franz, Chopin. Leipzig: Breitkopf, 1879
Rossum, Gerhard, Dohrvan, History of the Hour. Trans. Thomas Dunlap. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Published by Argobooks 2009 | © 2009 Tisha Mukarji & argobooks