Monday, January 08, 2007

Time Brackets

John Cage had a marvelous way of demonstrating things to non-specialist audiences, for example, the time brackets which are a feature in much of his later work. Standing, he would explain that he would use his arms like the second hand on a clock (a conducting technique he first used in the Concert for Piano and Orchestra), starting with one arm at twelve o'clock, and then moving clockwise, switching to the other arm at six o'clock and continuing on to twelve. He instructed one (or more) person(s) to (each) make a single sound -- typically percussive or vocal -- within the course of that revolution. Now, with a single person, he or she could make their sound right at the beginning, twelve-on-the-dot, and then the rest of the revolution would be an extended decay, release, rest, and wait for Cage's arm to return to the top. Or the player could try to hit the precise middle point in the cycle, a syncopation that -- as Cage's movement was continuous -- was difficult to judge as accurate or not. Or the player could wait 'til the last possible moment to make their sound. Or one could try to get their sound in at a point relatively unmarked by any discrete position on the clock-face. In practice, some players would jumpt the gun, inserting a grace note, if you will, before the clock began, and others were inevitably too late, either coming in after the revolution, or failing to make their chosen sound. The point of the exercise was, of course, that all of these possible realizations, each of which describes a unique formal relationship, can be interesting, and, potentially useful for music-making.

I believe that these relationships are interesting both as immediate psychological responses -- responding, for example, to the tension created in our perception of the ratio defined by the sounding event between elapsed and remaining time -- and as representations of abstract or primitive forms. And when more than one player was involved in the demonstration, the relationships between the multiple sound events -- independent or congregating, detaching, fusing or flocking -- gained additional complexity in terms that might include the sociological.

There have been some performers (conductors, mostly) who have chosen to remove the extemporaneous element from the realization of scores with times brackets, typically by specifying precisely beforehand when a sound should begin and end, instead of allowing the player to make these choices on the fly. While I dislike this practice for its deviation from the spirit of a performance ideal with which I largely identify, and it does strike me as recomposing Cage's work rather than taking the courage to do ones own work, I can take considerable solace in the fact that actual performers will respond to the more specific notation by introducing additional nuances, if at a much more local level. All of the nuances described above for the ordinary time bracket will be reproduced -- early or late entries, on-or-off a perceived metric, and sounds simply missed or mistaken -- because, if it hasn't been noted before, rubato has a fractal dimension.

1 comment:

Mary said...

Happy New Year - and thanks for the new page format. This is so much easier to read! Have a fantastic 2007.