A Modern Sense of Time

In the first chapter of his 1988 book The Time of Music: New Meanings, New Temporalities, New Listening Strategies, Jonathan Kramer proposes different kinds of time that are created by contemporary music, e.g., gestural, multiply-directed, vertical (static), and moment (mosaic) time. Listen to nos. 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9 from the “Listening List 1” (a copy can be found in the “Handouts” folder, in the “Resources” section of classes*v2) and think about how each piece might challenge some of the assumptions about musical rhythm and temporality inherited from Western musical practice leading to the twentieth century, what Kramer refers to as “linear time” (i.e., where the succession of events is understood as the consequence of past events).

Pick one piece that you find especially interesting and write a commentary about your temporal experience when listening to this piece. How is time organized ? What kind of time is suggested by the music? How does listening to this piece influence your perception of time flow and/or time perspective? Does musical rhythm as embodied in this piece challenge your definition of it? If so, how might it be expanded? And finally, how can Kramer’s ideas inform your listening (and a psychologically relevant definition of musical rhythm)?

As you are listening and thinking about these questions, you might want to revisit the “Quotes about Musical Time” distributed last week, especially nos. 5 to 10. Feel free to include ideas from these quotes in your post. (Please post your initial comment by Sunday, January 27, 5:00 PM.)

15 thoughts on “A Modern Sense of Time

  1. Studie II by Stockhausen gives a disjointed, spacey, feeling, as if hubcaps are bouncing down an alley but are unaffected by the usual gravity which would make the pattern of their collisions familiar. The spacey air is furthered by the diffuse breathy quality to the longer tones. Although usually people hear the onsets of notes more strongly than their endings, because the endings fell at such jarring moments (out of whatever time or rhythm I seemed to sort of be entraining to), I was much more attentive to the patterns made by the endings of notes and phrases.
    Time is not organized in regular metric divisions. Studie II seemed to me to be an example of multiply directed time (or moment time, I wasn’t quite sure), as the scattered phrases conjure up images of angles and shards (giving the disjointed, moment sense) radiating in all directions (giving the multiply directed sense). Part of the song’s multiple directionality for me is in the dynamic changes as well; lines which crescendo seemed to be coming towards me, and those that decrescendo shoot away from me. While listening to this piece, I did not feel the usual time passing linearly but rather, felt I was exploring one time whose space expanded by the sheer force and impact of each melodic shard.
    Whereas on the first day of class, I defined rhythm something along the lines of “measured durations ordered to create patterns,” this work’s rhythmic sense seems to defy my implicit assumption that the patterns would be recognizable, repeatable, and make “sense” under the rules I learned from listening to other pieces in my life. The shards of sound shattered that thinking. Taking this piece and the others on our first listening list into account, rhythm does not necessarily have to have a pattern (at least a repeatable or recognizable one). I wonder if you all think the ordering of durations (in a very technical, basic definition of rhythm) must be deliberate to warrant calling a series of such sounds music? Must they be ordered by a human? This piece was. How do we distinguish between sound, noise, and music in terms of the rhythms they contain?

  2. It seems to me that we will have little problem calling Stockhausen’s piece ‘rhythmic’, so long as our definition of rhythm is quite flexible, especially where it regards metric regularity or structure. Although such a flexible definition might find a place within the philosophical or music theoretical literature, would it do so well in cognitive psychology? At least in my own field of perception, dominating cognitive theories of rhythm (as highlighted by Tan et al.) have defined rhythm overwhelmingly in terms of temporal regularity or structure; as we have read: (1) Sensory Information Processing Theory “focuses on the way in which listening incorporates an internal counting mechanism that essentially computes statistics from musical structure”, and (2) Entrainment Theory is a process in which “one rhythmic pattern achieves and maintains synchrony with another pattern.”

    Far from being just a theoretical quirk, however, rhythm defined as temporal regularity/structure/pattern has provided a useful tool for investigating questions about how the mind works; for example, on synchronicity (e.g., movements among humans, or the interplay between speech and gesture), on temporal attention, and on expectation. But Studie II does not seem to conform very well to either of the abovementioned theories, given that it does not present an easily perceptible structure (notwithstanding the possibility that one might work out some kind of structure via music theoretical or other analytic means).

    So when considering whether or not to call pieces such as Studie II ‘rhythmic’, it seems one useful question to ask is: Could calling it thus add any progress to our understanding of how the mind works?

    Remembering Catherine’s artful description, it seems Studie II has the greatest potential to lend insight into our subjective perception of time. However, it remains less clear to me whether or not this temporal distorting value is necessarily unique (differing, say, from other time distorting life events, e.g., near-death life experiences, or states of ‘flow’ as typically experienced during sex, exercise, or meditation).

    Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the piece’s induced temporal experience is in fact not strictly unique, and assuming we would not also choose to term all the other aforementioned life events as ‘rhythmic’, perhaps we could still argue that Studie II’s uniqueness derives from the intentionality behind its composition: the composer has deliberately manipulated our temporal experience via the creation of particular auditory events. However, although intentional creation may lead us to think of such a piece as ‘music’ or ‘art’ (as psychological studies have suggested we do), it is unclear to me what exactly such intentionality adds to our understanding of rhythm per se (esp. as a window into the mind). For this reason, I am more inclined to describe Studie II along the lines of ‘a musical piece featuring disconnected, auditory events’, than as ‘rhythmic.’

  3. The treatment of time and rhythm in the Coleman piece, “Eventually,” was particularly interesting to me. At the very beginning, when the theme is presented for the first time, one of the most immediately salient qualities of time is the extremely quick pace. The running notes of the melody are played almost too quickly to distinguish from one another, and I felt that the fast tempo made it difficult to consciously keep track of meter and rhythmic patterns – I wasn’t able to recognize a comfortable tactus that also allowed me to better follow the rhythm in the piece. Nonetheless, I felt very strongly that the opening section was rhythmic, and that it contained a rhythmic/metric structure of some sort, even if I couldn’t consciously follow it. I also felt that the rhythm was rather linear, in that the theme seemed to progress in a logical, causal way. This, to me, exposes an aspect of the psychological processing of musical rhythm that we have not talked much about to this point: that rhythmic processing can, perhaps, exist without us being consciously aware of it or able to describe its effects (i.e. that a portion of rhythmic processing might be to some extent modular).
    While this fast-paced thematic section is repeated at the end of the piece, the bulk of the piece’s content is instrumental improvisation. In my opinion, the improvisational portions seemed to combine multiply-directed time with nonlinear time. The constant pulse of the bass created a very linear sense of time (which makes sense: the bass most often continues to play the chordal basis of the theme under the soloist); but the pulse of the bass was frequently contrasted with a completely different pulse in the drums. However, these instruments were sometimes difficult to attend given the outbursts of the solo saxophone (and, later, trumpet). These outbursts were so fast and frantic that they almost sounded random or completely out of time, giving me more of a sense of nonlinear time – of each outburst being its own entity, existing in the moment, not leading to the later ones. In this way, I found my perception of time in the piece switching between multiply-directed, linear time (in the bass and drums) and nonlinear time (in the soloist) depending on which instrument(s) I was attending. This gives rise to another important point about musical time: it appears to be quite dependent on attentional distribution.

    • Totally agree about the dependence on attentional distribution. As soon as my ears realized how sporadic the melodic outbursts were, I latched on, almost exclusively, to the drums and walking bass line and was struck by the sudden accelerations and decelerations. I wonder what determines which part we tend to give our attention to…

  4. Vertical Thoughts II by Feldman immediately creates a sense of desolation, throwing the listener into the middle of an unknown language. I would say that the opening gestures create a sense of vertical time through the held notes in the violin. It seems that the performer plays these notes with little to no vibrato and I wouldn’t be surprised if Feldman specified this, because rather than the listener hearing the pulse of the vibrato, the listener is left without an obvious sense of time, thus creating a “frozen” moment of vertical time, as Kramer puts it. At the same time, I did sense a different kind of pulse to the elongated, non-vibrato notes in the beginning. It was almost like the pulse of the wavelengths of the notes, and maybe even of the natural decay of the note as it was bowed.

    I think Feldman uses this very simple sense of the “wavelength” pulse to create a rhythmic structure that later grounds the listener. In fact, there is almost a sense of linear time in which there are sequenced phrases that truly do respond to each other. For example, one of these phrases responds to its predecessor with a condensation of the prior statements.

    It is also quite important to take note of Coleman’s placement of silences, which are frequent and relatively long in duration. I think at times, the silence creates a sense of vertical time, in that the material previously presented is frozen in space for the listener to view. In this way, the silences allow the listener digest the previous material, creating organization when Coleman presents a new idea. At other times, the frozen time of the silence violently interrupts an idea in its own flowering, making those silences even more painful. Through his purposed decisions in phrase structure, silence, and held pitches, Coleman reveals unsettling coherence in what at first seems to merely threaten.

  5. I greatly enjoyed the feeling of multiply-directed time present in Schnittke’s “Minnesang.” The contrast between the tempos of the melody and accompaniment made me feel as though time existed in a space outside of normal rhythm; however, it also had enough regularity to feel predetermined, as opposed to the randomness I felt in the works by Carter and Coleman. Instead, the regularity of each layer of “Minnesang” allowed me to experience the flowing chords to a greater degree than usual. The effect, I would argue, is almost the inverse of Cramer’s ideas; rather than allowing me to escape absolute time, I felt as though this piece allowed me to escape the shackles of musical time and to actually experience the sonorities in absolute time. I particularly enjoyed the moments when one tempo dominated, as around (2:35), when the melody asserts itself and establishes a tactus. At these times, I am reminded of the piece’s context so that later returns to absolute time (such as at 3:00) are more greatly appreciated than they might have been isolation, when I might have ignored the harmonies in favor of finding a tactus.
    Nothing in this piece truly challenged my understanding of rhythm; it simply felt as though 2+ contrasting rhythms coexisted for a time.

    • Could you be a bit more specific in what you mean by a sense of “absolute time” that is experienced while listening to the musical work?

  6. When listening to an unfamiliar piece of music, my ear tends to latch onto familiar structures. In Coleman’s “Eventually,” I immediately recognized the jazz idiom and my ears grabbed onto the rhythm section— the drumset and walking bass line, when it existed. This could certainly be because of my experience in jazz band rhythm sections, or simply because it provided the most regularity/ stability—- but I heard this regularity in a modular way, with the pulse constantly changing. Once the piece settled into a groove of temporal regularity, the drumset and bass line might accelerate or decelerate into a different “module.” These accelerations and decelerations into different pulses happened without transition, making me feel in the moment as though I were experiencing Kramer’s “mosaic time.” However— I agree with Leah in that after the piece was over, I felt as though I had experienced some degree of causal linear time.

    The most interesting phenomenon I observed in “Eventually” was the manipulation of the flow of time. Because of these pronounced accelerations and decelerations of the pulse of the percussion and walking bass lines, I felt as though time were speeding up and slowing down. This is certainly a testament to music’s power to manipulate the flow of time, which we tend to perceive as a steady, measurable continuum in the absence of music.

  7. Studie II by Stockhausen would seem to clearly fall into the camp of music experienced as nonlinear or moment or mosaic. Likewise, this piece would resonate with a philosophy of being rather than becoming. Its most striking feature seems to be its unpredictability, in terms of sound durations, tones, and volumes. My mind, perhaps related to a combination of Western training and innate aspects of auditory perception, tends to seek that which has some degree of regularity or at least predictability. I found very little of either in this piece, except perhaps for the predictability of it being unpredictable. Although my previous sense of rhythm and perhaps definition of this concept included structure and pattern, after reviewing some of the definitions of rhythm in the readings/quotations, my view of rhythm has somewhat liberalized. If one views rhythm along the lines of quotations one and five and defines it as “order and proportion of motion,” then the sounds of Studie II qualify as rhythm. The sounds clearly demonstrate growth and decline as well as stasis over time. While listening to this piece, I found myself moving from looking for something to just experiencing the fluctuating tones, volumes, and other parameters of the moment. In fact, different aspects of the music seemed to take center stage for me over time with my focus of attention often shifting to that which changed the most. Dramatic or changing events are also most easily remembered. In any case, my experience did reflect a shifting awareness as suggested in quotation ten, with one aspect of the music rising to the center of focus while other aspects retained some degree of awareness in the background.

    While my definition of rhythm perhaps has expanded to include Studie II, I would still argue that this piece fails to achieve high marks in term of auditory appeal. Again, appeal is subjective and is a function of past experiences/training, but I suspect that the majority of people would find this piece less appealing, both intellectually and emotionally. Again, regarding temporality, I must confess that while listening to Studie II and although I knew the excerpt was brief (at least by external clock standards), I found myself wishing for the end to come quickly.

    I would thus support Jameson in terms of a flexible and liberal definition of rhythm to include Studie II. Like De Freitas, I see this piece (as many pieces) as providing insight into our time perspectives, although not necessarily unique. As implied earlier, my perception of time seemed to slow during the piece, given my lack of enthusiasm for it. However, perhaps more importantly, Studie II encouraged me to live in the experiential moment (nonlinear) rather than attempt to predict or plan for the future. For me, that shift helps my balance.

  8. By far the most challenging pieces in this first listening list for me was Concert PH, by Iannis Xenakis. When I first heard the tinkling, rolling rhythm swell in volume and seep into my consciousness I thought that I was listening to thousands of glass fragments falling onto an ever growing pile, a pattern that was completely random, and one that directly confronted classical understandings of rhythm.

    Functionally, the image that first came to mind seems to be quite accurate. As time progresses, other, isolated sources of “tinkling glass” can be heard. These surge into focus, adding another layer to the ever shifting, restless “rhythm” that remain suspended throughout the two minutes fifty seconds piece, before fading back into silence. Even though this piece is by no means long, while listening to it (especially through headphones) I had thought that it was much longer, partially (I presume) due to both the complete lack of any landmarks, besides occasional accents of tinkling, which had no regularity, and the inability to form expectations. Even if there was some consistency in tempo, the onsets came far too quickly to establish any internal recognition of a beat. When the piece finally faded into the murky silence, it came without anticipation, or surprise.

    I find myself thinking of Kramer’s concepts of musical time in retrospect, particularly of vertical time. While listening to the piece, the ever-present tinkling rejected the idea of any progression, instead suspending the progress of time. Without regularity, relativity was difficult to determine, and the independent onsets became, to my mind, a single stream of duration. One can make a case that this piece featured some “multiply-directed time”. After all, superimposed above the vertical presence underlying the piece, tinkling sounds with various characteristics, such as a straight falling rhythm, or a more stuttering tinkling, could be heard. However, multiply-directed implies direction, a trait that was absent from the proceedings, along with acceleration and deceleration. The separate inserts of tinkling led to more presences of duration, alternate durations if you will. Gestures were nonexistent, and separate moments became a stream of events.

    By the way, my image was incorrect in terms of how this piece was produced. I looked into this piece, and it turns out that it was created by charcoal burning sounds, manipulated using studio effects by ear.

  9. Xenakis’ Concret PH makes use of vertical time – the little particles of sound (which Xenakis described as “lines of sound moving in complex paths from point to point in space, like needles darting from everywhere”) all sort of lump together into a static texture. I was struck by how so much activity at this micro level could produce stasis at the macro level. The effect seemed intuitive and uninteresting at first, but upon further reflection, I realized that it posed many interesting questions about the limits of our attention. Why do we perceive all of this activity as one texture? Is it because of the speed with which the piece moves from one particle to the next (the darting needles)? Is it because there is too much activity, that the sound is too dense? A combination? Is there a threshold of speed or sound density at which we stop perceiving the movement of individual lines and start perceiving a larger, static mass?

    Though there is a feeling of stasis, the sound does change. Xenakis’ piece employs particles of sound that talk to one another, that interact and that allow the music to evolve gradually and organically. He changes the overall texture in a fairly imperceptible way, changing the whole by moving the imperceptible parts. This kind of developmental technique, which exploits the attentional limits which make us hear a dense stasis, reminds me of the slowly changing sound masses in Ligeti’s Atmospheres or Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.

    An additional comment that probably sounds like it contradicts all this talk of stasis. In my first listen of the piece, I started to perceive some sort of narrative – nothing goal-directed, but some sort of linear progression. I started attributing much of the change and activity that was grabbing my attention to ghost characters acting out some hollow, vague story. It feels like sort of a stretch—and I think that might be the point. Maybe we have an inclination towards (sometimes falsely) attributing non-human (in this case, musical) activity to characters and people-like things. I’m reminded of a study that Brian Scassellati, who works in the Computer Science and Cognitive Science departments at Yale, talked about in his guest lecture in my Intro to Cog Sci class last semester. In the study, subjects automatically and unconsciously attributed a human story to an animation of two triangles chasing each other. Maybe something similar could be at work in this music.

  10. I was particularly intrigued by Zukofsky’s “Vertical Thoughts li.” My first time listening through the piece I became accustomed to the general soundscape of piano and violin and then my mind wandered and I was lulled into a very mellow state. During this first listen I thought that time seemed to be organized in a non linear fashion in that past events had no relationship to the present or future. The piece seems to consist of fragmented splashes of sound that are not rhythmically or melodically related. It sounds more to me like an experimentation with the different sounds that can be produced with a violin and piano combination, than a through piece of music. In relation to absolute clock time, I thought the piece made time go really slowly. It had an effect on my psychological or subjective time, in that absolute time seemed to creep by during the piece.

    After listening several times to the piece, I found that the progressions of sounds did seem to fit in a contrived linear fashion, meaning that the future and present events were based on the past events. I also found the piece very creepy as I listened to it more and more. There are several instances where there seems to be human breathing in the piece, and the juxtaposition of breathing with very inhuman flurries of sound is jarring because it is strange to imagine a person making this kind of music.

    The rhythm of the piece is too fragmented and slow for me to perceive. It doesn’t seem to be completely non-rhythmic like some of the other listenings, but it is not regular enough for me to understand.

    I thought that Kramer’s idea of music creating time was interesting in the context of Zukofsky’s piece. In some way “Vertical Thoughts li” creates it’s own strange sporadic extremely drawn out time. However, my perception of this time is very much relative to my familiarity with absolute time and other musical times I am used to. I wonder if Zukofsky is really creating time, like Kramer would put it, or if his piece merely pulls against the kind of time that people are more accustomed to.

    • I mostly agree with your description of the piece. Some might call this style of composition minimalist, or post-minimalist. The most captivating thing about this style of writing obviously is not the motivic content, but the effect that the overall atmosphere has on our perception of subjective time. The piece is rather a-rhythmic, perhaps with one recurring rhythm of short-short-long. Feldman’s particular use of silence in this piece is fantastic, where the silence that shrouds the musical fragments helps the listener to focus in on them. From my experience, only through intense focus of musical ideas do we finally “lose” a sense of time. Or as Stockhausen describes it, “If we realise, at the end of a piece of music–quite irrespective of how long it lasted, whether it was played fast or slowly and whether there were very many or very few notes–that we have ‘lost all sense of time,’ then we have in fact been experiencing time most strongly.”

    • Oops, the way it uploaded into my itunes made it look like Zukofsky was the composer.

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