Tag: linear time

To Infinity and Beyond

This post comes to you courtesy of Alex Gardner, whose thoughts last week on the fleeting nature of musical time (and, in particular, its urgency for compositional clarity) got my brain-motor running. Per Adorno, time is the problem of music: The way we choose to fill that time—nay, e’en to conceive of it—will necessarily define, to a great extent, who we are as composers.

Baltimore composer William Kleinsasser remarked once that it’s within a composer’s capability only to set up certain possible aesthetic encounters for an audience within a given period of time. Naturally there’s no shortage of strategies when it comes to constructing and deploying these possible aesthetic encounters: In the comments area of
Alex’s post, we identified just one axis along which these strategies might be situated—clarity versus ambiguity. One composer’s approach is to minimize noise, so to speak, by sharpening and refining the piece’s content; another’s is to maximize signal by cramming the piece’s attic full of junk.

We could have a lengthy conversation about these two contrasting means to lay a musical minefield—or about any other contrasting means framed by some other imagined dimension of music besides the one I mentioned above. The possibilities really are endless, which to me is a bit daunting: The more I think about what can happen in a piece of music, and about how many different ways there are to formulate and rationalize and structure and challenge and critique and embrace and magnify and problematize and thematize and reify these things, the less sure I can be that anyone else is liable to apprehend music the same way I do—or, for that matter, that I’ll apprehend a piece the same way one day as I do the next. As I’ve said before, I think that the actual substance of a piece of music (itself a construction) accounts for a much-overestimated slice of a listener’s experience when hearing it. There’s an infinity of ways to listen to music, sure—but this is just a simplified way of saying that there’s an infinity of ways to talk about listening to music, and to think about the infinity of ways of talking about music, and to talk about the infinity of those ways of thinking about the infinity of those ways of talking about music.



On Monday I participated in a very nice event at my alma mater that included readings of poetry and fiction, a photography presentation, and performances of two of my semi-recent compositions. As the readings unfolded, I felt slightly envious of the writers, who could simply hold their books and read to the audience themselves, and the photographer, whose wonderful pictures were exhibited in the art gallery. In contrast, presenting my music involved bringing four musicians to the campus (superb musicians who did a brilliant job), organizing a number of rehearsals, and, once we arrived, arranging for music stands, a PA system, cables, etc. And then—POOF!—the music was finished.

This is always how it happens. I know this, and yet there are still times when I feel surprised at how quickly the moments pass. It’s especially pronounced when I am performing myself; when I am working the laptop in one of my electroacoustic pieces, I am focused in such a way that I don’t actually “hear” the piece as the audience does. There have been many times when one of those performances ends, and I have to ask the other musicians, “How did it go?”

I am continually struck by the fleeting nature of a musical performance relative to the amount of human labor involved in making a single performance happen. This is not at all to suggest that making music is more work than writing a book or making works of visual art—they all involve a tremendous amount of effort. With artists who produce a physical product such as a book or a painting, however, there arrives a point at which the thing is done and can be directly experienced by nearly anyone from that point on. But in the time-based medium of music, there always has to be that additional layer of translation in linear time. Given that, when I’m composing something I always try to keep in mind the thought, “Okay, you have (for instance) eight minutes to say what you have to say, so make whatever that communication is as sparklingly crystal clear as you can!”

Sometimes if I think too hard on this issue, the whole scenario becomes completely ridiculous—like when you stare at a written word for a while and it suddenly looks as if it’s spelled all wrong—and I wonder, why on earth do this composing thing? It makes no sense. However, in the end, those moments of performance are for the musicians and the listeners to soak in. When someone says that a performance made them think about something in a different way, or gave them an idea, or that it made them forget about whatever was bothering them, I know that creating such ephemeral chunks of time in space is absolutely worth the effort. They are focused reminders that every single moment is unique.