When we make music, we get to decide how to break up time. Time becomes our clay. Here’s how you mold it.
The way a musician divides time—how one delineates the musical space—is consistent with the way he or she sees the world. So first, decide how you see the world.
One of the most effective ways of breaking up time is also the simplest—dividing evenly. Humans love repetition and routine—they get on the same subway car every morning, eat the same sandwich for lunch everyday, and watch the same TV show every Tuesday night. Breaking up time evenly is good for getting people to dance. Dance can be your worldview. I think Madonna is a worldview. Listen to “Borderline” and you will understand. If you keep going, keep repeating, dividing regularly for vast stretches of time, you can achieve a hypnotizing effect. You can drown your listeners in the permanent, immortal pulse of your music. The minimalists—Steve Reich, Philip Glass, LCD Soundsystem—are like those pre-Freudian hypnotists that would dangle a pickle in front of you until you fell into a therapeutic trance. Sometimes, repetition can hypnotize people and make them dance—imagine a drum circle in the darkness of a Gambian night, the rhythmic pattern iterated and reiterated on goatskin, the overtones of the djembes swirling in tandem with the legs of the tribesmen.
Are you more emotional? Even melodramatic? Try this. In the nineteenth century, Romantic composers called for careful stretching of their ostensibly even metrical grids. They called this leeway “expressiveness.” Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt wrote directions like rubato, espressivo and con affetto to instruct players to slow down or speed up artfully, to inject sighs and whimpers between their notes, to transcend the rigidity of the grid. The Romantics’ worldview, simplified, was that life was pretty dramatic.
Stravinsky used metrical changes to craft a mercurial, eccentric musical world. He could make these changes aggressive, as in The Rite of Spring, or elegant, as in his wind octet, or the Histoire du Soldat suite. The Rite is cacophonous and surprising at every turn; it is music of the body, of hardness and realness. The octet and Histoire are tamer but no less physical; their shifts in meter evoke the bumpiness and angularity of life. Progressive rock bands like Rush and Yes also made use of changing time signatures. However, potential prog-rockers beware: this insistence on switching meter can get tiring. I think Rush’s worldview has to do with making things complicated for the wrong reasons, but that’s another battle. Deerhoof breaks up time in a similarly erratic way. I like them. Their worldview is something like: “whoah, wait!”
One of my favorite ways of delineating time is not delineating time. In the second half of the 20th century, composers toppled almost every barrier that restricted the musical space, time chief among them. Though they usually used barlines to guide their players, who still owed debts to time, they molded time into unrestricted, freely contracting and expanding musical organisms. Large orchestral works by Luciano Berio and Jacob Druckman, chamber music by Olivier Messiaen and George Crumb, and art rock pieces like Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” leave you swimming, with no perceivable gridlines to hold on to. In the instructions for his orchestral work Atmosphères, György Ligeti writes, “There is no such thing as a beat.”
One of the reasons why Beethoven was so modern for his time was that he, like Pink Floyd and Ligeti, realized the irrelevance, the tractability of time. In his late piano sonatas, he saw that rather than conform to time he could shape it around his struggle—a world slowly receding from deaf ears, a retreat into a tempestuous but silent inner life—and all its crises and revelations
So those are some ways you can break up time in music. Recognize, though, that all this work molding the musical space is for naught. We can’t experience musical time as it’s presented to us; music gives us too much to think about. Our brains are busy absorbing the patterns of music, playing a game of tension and release, of memory, expectation and anticipation. When you listen to music, you are almost always in the past and in the future, but hardly ever in the present. Your brain is spinning and it’s confused and it’s trying to make sense, trying to organize. Trying to capture a point of view.
Originally Published in the Fall 2012 Issue