The Time of Music: New Meanings, New Temporalities, New Listening Strategies, by Jonathan D. Kramer

Composer and music theorist Jonathan Kramer proudly introduces his book The Time of Music (Kramer 1988) with the annunciation that musical time has been largely left out of musical study to date. He describes how this publication will take us through some necessary questions and musical analysis in order to arrive at some current notions of musical time. At the conclusion of the book it is clear to see that he lauds musical nonlinearity, in particular vertical music.

When Kramer discusses two particular opposing temporalities he tips his hat to philosopher Susanne Langer whose ideas stem from Basil de Sélincourt. Kramer wrestles with the difference between virtual time (the time in music) and clock time or absolute time. The reference to Aristotle’s Principle of Non-contradiction is strong throughout the book and is mentioned early on in the text to highlight the differences between virtual and absolute time. Kramer explains that the Principle of Non-contradiction is challenged in music because our experience of musical time may differ from the duration counted by a clock or any other mechanical temporal measuring device. Particular pieces of music make use of this contradiction both as a matter of consequence or as a main function. Some pieces of music might give a strong feeling that a short or long time has passed, but if you were to run a stopwatch during the music and measure it’s duration you might be surprised that the stopwatch contradicts your sense of time. This contradiction is generally accepted because people trust the clock and as a result the time of music is located as a property of the music. In Chapter One, Music and Time, Kramer tackles another dual aspect of time, that of being and becoming. These conditions are described with respect to the terms linear and non-linear. He refers to linearity recurring in the logic of western philosophy and to non-linearity especially found in Zen Buddhism. The terms are further described as Sacred and Profane with reference to anthropologist Edward T. Hall who Kramer quotes describing sacred or mythic time. Kramer also quotes psychologist Robert Ornstein in a description of linearity and non-linearity.

In chapter 2 Kramer begins to define linearity and non-linearity in music. He offers various examples of linearity of tonal progression and states that this progress within a piece of music can be characterised by change and motion. In defining non-linearity Kramer refers to stasis, the persistent absence of change. He also clearly sets out the circumstances under which composers of the late twentieth century were better equipped to embrace a wave of musical non-linearity due to the dawn of electronic technology and to an increased awareness of music from cultures in which linear progress is not always a foremost characteristic. Kramer introduces the term Vertical in reference to music that is non-linear in structure with particular focus on the musical phrase and it’s quality of suggesting progress within a piece of music.

Phrases have, until recently, pervaded all Western music, even multiply-directed and moment forms: phrases are the final remnant of linearity. But some new works show that phrase structure is not necessarily a component of music. The result is a single present stretched out into an enormous duration, a potentially infinite “now” that nonetheless feels like an instant. In music without phrases, without temporal articulation, with tonal consistency, whatever structure is in the music exists between simultaneous layers of sound, not between successive gestures. Thus, I call the time sense invoked by such music “vertical.” (Kramer 1988 p.55)

Kramer’s definition invites me to question verticality and how some vertical music can sound like it contains phrases that imply linear structure? Later in the same chapter, Kramer elaborates on his definition by analysing the phrase formations in works by Terry Riley. He explains that the rising and falling phrases that occur in this work may at first seem to resemble linear music. The phrases however do not take priority over each other and no particular phrase is dominant or takes the role of introducing or concluding the piece. The phrasing here is continuous and non-hierarchical. In the following pages Kramer discusses the difficulties of such temporal categorisation and by doing so accepts that although the examples he cites to illustrate various temporalities are specifically demonstrative, they are such because of their definitively unique temporal characteristics.

The impact of technology on time in music is discussed in chapter 3. Kramer describes some compositions from the early twentieth century that have almost no repetitive form or phrase and he implies that the dawn of recording technology coincided with a surge in this kind of music. By the time performances were being widely recorded and distributed, composers were beginning to respond to the simultaneous shift of compositional method and audience listening habits. He defines mobile form as a response to this shift. In mobile form, the sequence of sections within a piece, are permitted to differ from one performance to the next and as a result, recordings of individual performances are nothing more than a partial document of the overall work. Kramer quotes from a conversation between he and Stockhausen (Kramer 1988 p.69) in which Stockhausen states that a recording of open form is akin to a photograph of a bird in flight. The difference between the bird and its photograph is as vast as the difference between a performance in open form and its subsequent record.

Stockhausen once compared the recording of one version of an open form to a photograph of a bird in flight. We understand the picture as showing but one of a multitude of shapes the bird may take. But which is the artwork, the bird or the photograph? And which is the composition we are hearing, the abstract open form that we might intuit with the aid of score or program notes, or the realization on the fixed, carefully engineered recording? (Kramer 1988 p.69)

Musique concrète is described alongside other methods of tape splicing editing. The absence of a performance is discussed here, as is a composer’s experimentation with continuity. Kramer compares this method of making music to methods employed by filmmakers of the 1920s particularly the Russians, Kuleshov and Eisenstein. The concept of Absolute time is introduced by Kramer’s description of tape works by Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Kramer states that absolute time is determined by certain discrete durations that are specific to a piece of technology. Riley uses the method of tape head echo to generate repetitions of musical phrases. The recorded sound is passed through the record head directly from the play head of a machine so the sound is heard again less than a second after the first recording. This technique was used on the album A Rainbow in Curved Air (Riley 1969). Steve Reich’s method of making tape loops is also described as the use of an absolute duration within composition. Reich simultaneously played several loops of similar duration in order to generate phasing within his work. The chapter continues and includes Kramer’s comparisons of human performance and sequencer playback. He focuses on the rhythmical inaccuracy of human performance compared to a computer program and the chapter concludes with a brief description of the rapid turnaround time from composition to performance aided by modern computer software.

The chapter on meter and rhythm opens with an acknowledgment that many theorists have tried to describe meter and rhythm. Kramer’s definition of meter is concise and communicable. He describes meter as if it is a point on a graph where axes converge. In this sense meter doesn’t constitute sound. Kramer refers to the point of meter as a timepoint.

We hear events that start or stop at timepoints, but we cannot hear the timepoints themselves. A timepoint is thus analogous to a point in geometric space… Space itself is three-dimensional; a plane has two dimensions; a line has one, and a point has none… Musical events give us information about which timepoints are significant (accented), but we sense rather than literally hear the degree of metric accentuation at each timepoint. (Kramer 1988 p.83)

He goes on to describe types of accent and questions whether meter points are necessarily always evenly spaced within a piece of music. The chapter concludes with metric analysis of the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, op.13. He offers analysis of passages from the works of Schoenberg and Webern using an array of terms defined in different chapters of the book. As Fraser does in Time as Conflict (Fraser 1978), Kramer uses a list of temporalities that enable him to handle the material of his analysis. He updates his list of temporalities throughout the book. Here is my summary of the list;

Absolute time There is linear procession of moments.
Social time The system of time organisation reliant on timetables and plans.
Clock time The linear procession of moments as described by the reading of a clock.
Virtual time The subjective time felt by a person absorbed in listening to a piece of music.
Gestural time The significant gestures within a piece that determine the continuity.
Goal-directed time The musical events move toward foreseeable conclusions.
Nondirected time The musical events move toward unforeseeable conclusions.
Multiply-directed time The musical movements occur in multiple directions.
Vertical time There is no differentiation between past, present and future. There may be no separate events.

Kramer also defines linear and nonlinear time. Linear time refers to events that stem from earlier events in a piece. Nonlinear time refers to events that stem from a piece’s overall idea or theory. Kramer dedicates a chapter to Moment, Moment time and Moment form. He defines moments as,

…self-contained entities, capable of standing on their own yet in some nonlinear sense belonging to the context of the composition. (Kramer 1988 p.207)

Moment form allows priority for each item or article of time within a piece of music instead of giving prime concern to the time of the whole work. Kramer describes how Stockhausen and many other twentieth century composers sought to allow music to have a smooth overall texture by this means. He cites Stravinsky, Messiaen, Debussy and Bartók as generators of this mosaic form and compares moment form to some Japanese art. The composer Elliott Carter is mentioned as a critic of moment form simply for his personal desire to retain an underlying subtly linear structure within a piece of work. Kramer describes some of the paradoxes of moment time that are founded in its reliance on the audience’s memory. The main paradox is that moments can only be compared to one another by the audience once they have all been heard, which implies that the audience should perform the impossible and not experience linearity during a live performance.

The eleventh chapter on The Perception of Musical Time addresses the psychological question of how virtual time, as perceived by an audience, compares to clock time. Kramer indicates that this area of psychology is studied by some scientists but presents obstacles in that it is such a very subjective area to quantify. Memory is brought back into the fore as Kramer discusses the necessity to remember timepoints to be able to compare sections of a piece from memory and subsequently comprehend their duration. He describes the human mechanism of cumulative listening, which is the active storage of musical information while we are listening to a piece of music and after it has finished. Kramer refers to William James in his description of the specious present and describes notions of the duration of the present. He states that according to some psychologists the present can have a clock time duration of up to 10 seconds.

In the chapter on Time and Timelessness Kramer opens by stating that perceived timepoints are used to achieve chunking of durations within a piece. This information is then used in order to make decisions about the overall duration of the music. Vertical music often removes obvious timepoints and other auditory cues usually associated with chunking memory and determining duration. Kramer quotes psychologists that link certain conditions with the reduction of linear thinking. These conditions or activities include meditation, dreaming, hypnosis and some mental illnesses. It is Kramer’s implication too that vertical music possesses qualities that may distort a listener’s sense of duration. He posits Thomas Clifton’s argument against his own. Clifton is quoted describing the thoughts and consciousness of an audience member. The thoughts provide some form of linearity to the listening experience and therefore resist the claim of nonlinearity within the music. Kramer replies to this point with descriptions of his personal experiences of timelessness in music. The example he describes where he attended a performance of Erik Satie’s Pages mystiques (1893) in 1971 gives clear insight into Kramer’s transition from linear listening to vertical listening during the performance. As a section of the work was repeated for numerous hours Kramer found he quickly became frustrated and almost bored by the early repetitions, however this soon shifted into the pleasurable absence of expectation.

I had left behind my habits of teleological listening. I found myself fascinated with what I was hearing… I became incredibly sensitive to the smallest performance nuance, to an extent impossible when confronting the high information content of traditional music. (Kramer 1988 p.379)

Towards the end of the book, Kramer arrives at conclusions relating to his appreciation of vertical music. He reiterates a reference to Fraser’s temporal levels in Time as Conflict (Fraser 1978) and by hinting at world cultures he suggests that an awareness of the possibilities of temporal experimentation in art is good for you.

The nonlinear mode of thinking is present to some degree in everyone and in every culture. Our left-brain society has tried to suppress it. But, in reaction against the excessively linear values of our technological society, vertical music has become an important force in recent years. It is a holistic music that offers a timeless temporal continuum, in which the linear interrelationships between past, present and future are suspended. (Kramer 1988 p.387)

FRASER, J. T. (1978). Time as conflict: a scientific and humanistic study. Basel, Birkhäuser.
KRAMER, J. D. (1988). The Time of Music: new meanings, new temporalities, new listening strategies. New York, Schirmer.
RILEY, T. (1969). A Rainbow in Curved Air. New York, CBS Records.

1 comment:

  1. and don't forget that vertical time in physics is called imaginary time. The visionary insight of Kramer is now also made precise in mathematical music theory (see Guerino Mazzola: The Topos of Music, vol. III, Springer 2017)