It’s About Time

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

As Cage knew well, time is the commonality in sound & silence. Taken a step further, it’s easy to see that temporal structure is the commonality in all music, no matter from which culture or even from which species. Generally speaking, it could be said that the ways of organizing pitch is what distinguishes each music tradition, while the ways of organizing time is what unifies them. All sound/silence exists in time and what turns it into “music” or “sound art” is the acknowledgment of some sort of temporal landmark. Mozart’s cadences, Indian music’s “sam,” gamelan’s gong structure are all ways of saying, “we have arrived here and now we’re off again.”

I’m thinking of this these days because I have a job transcribing some of Gerry Mulligan’s solos and have been struck not only by the beauty of his playing, but by the beauty of his compositional structures. One’s not really aware of these structures unless you sit there counting out the beats and the measures. That’s one of the reasons I love Indian music concerts; most of the audience is following the rhythmic cycle with hand gestures. But in most temporal art, structure is much more subliminal. A friend of mine once sped up The Rite of Spring to where the entire piece lasted about 5 minutes. You no longer heard pitches, rhythms and orchestration. You were able to listen to the structure of the piece as a you would a melody. Jim Tenney writes about these sort of perceptual “gestalts” in his Meta-Hodos.

As I wrote out the structure of Mulligan’s K-4 Pacific in numbers of measures (8,1 // 8,4,1 // 8,4,8,4, etc), it reminded me of some of Cage’s pre-1950 rhythmic structures as well as that of some flute music from Borneo I analyzed years ago. Perhaps this says more about my analytic process than it does about these musics. But I do believe that if we expand our perceptual gestalt and eliminate those pesky (and subjective) issues like “emotion” and “content,” we are left with some fundamental truths about perception and communication.

Am I being too simplistic here? What do you think? (You can write comments if you’d like.)

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