Being Time: Case Studies in Musical Temporality - Richard Glover, Jennie Gottschalk and Bryn Harrison. New York/London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019
by Richard Barrett
Time is in a real sense the fundamental stuff from which music is made, something that has been clear at least since John Cage composed a duration without specifying what sounds if any should occur in it, so at a first glance this book might seem to have a struggle on its hands to stay focused on manageably specific matters. While its chosen “case studies” (two chapters for each author, most concentrating on a single musical work) relate to the experience of time in music in quite diverse ways, the book achieves a certain unity, firstly by the constant and admirable insistence on the primacy of the listening experience, and secondly by its involuted structure: each chapter is succeeded by a postlude summarizing the responses – to both the chapter and the music it discusses – by the other two authors, a feature which rescues Being Time from any tendency to disintegrate into a compilation of tenuously connected essays. The necessarily spontaneous listening impressions which form the central focus of each chapter perhaps sit uneasily with the more conventionally academic tone of the reflective parts of the book, but they do serve to enliven and aerate the text and thus leave a space for readers to reflect for themselves on the music and ideas under discussion. It is also clear that every reader must also become a listener and experience these musics for themselves, which no doubt will involve entering at least some previously unfamiliar territory for most readers (including this one). By and large the authors avoid falling into the trap of observations of the kind “this happens, then this happens, than another thing happens,” and, if there are one or two lapses in this direction, they serve to highlight the relatively undeveloped vocabulary we possess for the discussion of musics that don’t behave in a way that can be assimilated to traditional concepts of structure and material.
On the other hand, the choice of case studies reflects what seem to be certain shared aesthetic preferences on the part of the authors, which could be viewed as another unifying factor or as a lack of breadth in their collective view of what constitutes an interesting musical-temporal phenomenon, according to the reader’s own preferences. (The case studies focus on music by Morton Feldman, James Saunders, Chiyoko Szlavnics, Ryoji Ikeda, Toshiya Tsunoda, Laurie Spiegel, and André O. Möller.) I couldn’t help wondering whether it might have been interesting to use the insights gained from the present reflections to look at some other music from a new angle, something perhaps from a very different strand of compositional tradition from those examined in the book or something from outside it. All the examples chosen involve either notation or fixed media, leading this reader to wonder (not for the first time) why free improvisation seems so seldom to be viewed as a potentially fruitful area of investigation into exactly these time-related issues, especially in the context of an analytical method that puts listening first.
Morton Feldman’s late music of course opens up issues regarding musical time, structure, material, and memory which any music seeking to explore such things since the 1980s has to come to terms with. Bryn Harrison is a thoughtful and articulate composer whose work might be thought of as “post-Feldman” without in any way detracting from its strong individuality and integrity, so that his personal account of the experience of hearing and contemplating Feldman’s 1987 composition Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello is replete with fascinating insights and reflections and (as good writing on music ought to!) sends the reader back to listen to the music in question and to hear it with an expanded awareness of the dimensions in which it changes or remains still or rotates around itself. Writing on Feldman’s music is often either vague or prosaic, and Harrison’s essay is neither, seeming perfectly poised between analysis and impression in a way that not only fits its subject matter but also expresses something crucial about the music’s inner nature. And in doing so it serves as an ideal first case study in this book. In the second chapter Harrison applies the same acuity to some early compositions by James Saunders, which in their extreme brevity occupy the opposite end of the duration spectrum. But do they really? Harrison mentions listening to two recorded versions of Saunders’s Compatibility hides itself “between ten and twenty times” each, while the same composer’s 511 possible mosaics builds the idea of repeated listenings with different perspectives into the structure of his piece (511 being the number of ways in which its materials may be combined by up to nine players, although it isn’t intended that a performance should comprise all of them). Harrison concludes that “these works really become meaningful when heard in sets or where repeated hearings are possible.” (p. 60) This thought raises the question of how some musics, even when ostensibly created for concert performance, might reveal themselves more fully outside that environment, an issue which has come into particular focus over the course of 2020, but of course wouldn’t have been regarded as such an urgent matter at the time when this book was being assembled.
The music by Chiyoko Szlavnics and Ryoji Ikeda that forms the basis of Richard Glover’s chapters seems to draw forth a more purely descriptive account. Is this because there is simply less musical “substance” in these examples to grasp hold of than in those of Feldman and Saunders? (I use this formulation only in a quantitative sense, I hasten to add.) Or because they don’t embody as individual and thought-provoking an approach to musical time as to Harrison’s case studies? Or is it that the analytical vocabulary to apply to such examples is less developed? The ideas of James Tenney are invoked more than once in both Glover’s and Gottschalk’s chapters, but even Tenney’s highly valuable theoretical concepts are in general more useful in discussing music with clearer structural segmentation than these works by Szlavnics and Ikeda. Jennie Gottschalk says in her response to the Szlavnics chapter that “the piece transforms itself (more than usual or expected, I would say) according to the questions, memory, and background with which it is approached” (p. 88), one implication of which may be that the immanent qualities of the music, as opposed to the ideas the listener might bring to it (influenced by the composer’s own account of it or otherwise), aren’t such as to encourage any particular kind of interpretation, whether concentrated on temporality or not. I was left wondering why these examples had been chosen, although I would stress once more that this isn’t a value judgement on them as music.
On the other hand, I found Jennie Gottschalk’s case studies fascinating, informative, and poetic, particularly in reference to Toshiya Tsunoda’s enigmatically manipulated field recordings, with which I wasn’t familiar before reading the book but to which I am very grateful for having been introduced. Gottschalk is more concerned than the other authors to place her case studies within a personal history of listening and in particular to discuss the reasons for choosing her other two examples. These have in common the exploration of a single natural harmonic series in what she characterizes as a “monolithic” way, not unrelated to much of Tenney’s compositional work, but using radically different resources. Spiegel’s The Expanding Universe is a pioneering early example of computer-generated music, while Möller’s musik für orgel und eine(n) tonsetzer(in) uses a much more traditional sound source, although in a sense the church organ is itself an early example of an approach to timbre which eventually leads to electronic sound synthesis. As Glover points out in his response to the chapter, these particular listening experiences seem focused on the author discovering herself rather than reflecting on the pieces’ composed temporalities, and, by way of introduction, Gottschalk describes the kind of static, harmonic-series-based soundworlds exemplified by this music as “for me at least, a very welcoming environment” (p. 135). This lays further emphasis on a thread running through most of the case studies: the idea of one or more of the principal parameters of traditional music (pitch movement, harmony or rhythm, for example) being held still, or nearly so, enabling a concentration on subtle or slow processes of change, and/or refocusing the listener’s attention onto musical dimensions which are generally more marginal in traditional music (timbre, intonation, density, and so on). Why, it might be asked, does this make them particularly suitable as case studies for investigating the experience of musical time? Or is the choice more a matter of personal taste?
However one might question its premises and its execution, this book is thought-provoking and often highly insightful, and if its form sometimes seems a little awkwardly schematic, it still comes across as a bold and largely successful attempt to make such a collaborative writing (and thinking) project more than the sum of its parts. It would be worth investigating on those grounds alone, although both its form and its content also embody many valuable insights which ought to be of interest both to readers with an involvement in composition, musicology or sound studies as well as to adventurous listeners in general.