Monday, March 12, 2007

Off the clock

Roger Bourland has a nice post about students and early class hours. My entire freshman year in college featured a 7:45 theory and musicianship course every day from Monday through Friday. By the second quarter of the year I had figured out that I could only meet that class if I had stayed up the whole night before, treating the class as the end of graveyard shift, sleeping a bit afterwards, and scheduling the rest of my classes for the late afternoon. In practice, I just didn't sleep much, and being young and indestructable, didn't much mind it at the time. (Some friends used to joke that I was far too evil to rest. You can judge for yourself).

Musicians -- who concertize in the evening -- are generally at a time-shift to the rest of the working population. I've got both that shift and a stubborn disinclination to ever shift out of Pacific Coast time, which is sometimes awkward, given a house with children who need to meet schedules, serious insomnia, and the fact that this is European Central Time. In practice, I just don't sleep much but, now aged a bit, an extra hour now and then would certainly be nice. (The composer La Monte Young and his partner, artist Marian Zazeela have lived for many years on schedules with days of more than 24 hours, phasing in and out with the standard clock. I greatly admire this robust independence; it's one thing to go to the beat of another drummer, but quite another to go to the tick of another clock).


I don't wear a watch or carry any other portable device with the time-of-day built-in, and my attempt to do so have usually ended in loss or malfuction. Nevertheless, I still manage to be punctual, thanks to a pretty good internal sense of clock time and some help from the ample number of clocks hung about the house and in public (church towers and train stations are always handy sources of clocks).

But my internal clock does not extend to a capacity to estimate the length of a piece of music in terms of minutes and seconds. When a piece of music starts and I'm engaged by it, I go off the clock. In electronic music classes in college, the first question after playing a new study was almost always "how long was that?". I was always wrong about the duration in clock time but nevertheless, I don't think it inhibited my sense of whether a piece was over-indulgent with time.

While I suppose that that had some relevance in the days of lps and cds and before streaming radio eliminated some need to fit into strict broadcasting schedules, one of the opportunities of the moment in composition would seem to be no longer allowing these external factors to determine piece length, but rather letting material, method, and time structure at hand work out the optimal duration, whatever that might be.

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