Friday, July 18, 2008

Temporary Notes (2)

Zero time. In a number of his "cuing" pieces, Christian Wolff used an notation indicating the number of sounds which were to occur within a number of seconds of clock time. X:Y, X in the space of Y. At certain points, Wolff gave a time value of zero, which he indicated meant that the duration was unmeasured, free to be determined by the performing musician.

In his late works, beginning with an extraordinary string quartet, Luigi Nono included a large number of caesuras, and his ceasuras are notated in different shapes and sizes, intended to indicate differering lengths, related roughly in measure to one another, but without a rational measure. Caesura is, of course, a term from classical prosody, in which it is a break in the continuity of a poetic metre, an expressive device. The notated poem, classically, did not notate ceasuras, but contained -- rhythmically and semantically -- the potential for their use in performance. In performance, the realization or the withholding of that potential is a powerful rhetorical device, playing with expectation, and its disappointment or satisfaction. Yes, I can't get no.

Rubato, so goes the schoolbook definition, is "stolen time". Stolen from where? And by whom? In extra time really stolen from a metrical stream, to be returned, as if one were balancing a checkbook to a zero sum? Or can that time come from -- or disappear into -- zero time, outside of the movement proper. In practice, rubato is a much theft as interpolation, and can be carried out at both the most local and most global levels, whether making the slightest changes in the lengths of metric feet or in inserting entire sections of music into larger movements.

It may be that musicians abhor a metrical vacuum, the casually attending ear turning any series of passing attacks into pulse, rhythm, metre, phrase, form. It also seems to be a constant that traditions of unmeasured music making -- like the French baroque unmeasure preludes, or the Indian Alap, or Arabic taqsim -- are highly improvisatory, or better yet, extemporaneous ("out-of-time"; albeit within some composed or traditional structure) and that time spent unmeasured must be followed by metric time. The non-metrical is prelude or upbeat to the metrical.

Zero time. What of the time in which we we are not making or attending to music proper? From the slightest ceasura, in which Carlos Kleiber took time to smile, acknowledging music made more than well. Or South Indian musicians who stop in the middle of a piece to clear a throat or to retune only to begin again as if completely uninterrupted? Or the time before, after, and between movements of a work; restless and essential time when music is not being made but pondered, anticipated, contemplated; time that resists counting like a breath held; not counted but potential understood as an upbeat to metrical time to come?

I'm out of time.


Marc Chan said...
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Marc Chan said...


Beautiful post. Lately, I've been thinking alot about the idea of caesura (and as always, slow motion), not only in music, but in film and dance as well, so it's doubly pleasurable reading what you have to say.

Interestingly enough, there's a parallel post on a literature/ philosophy/ ecology blog that I read with its own take on the temporal nature/ function of slowness and the pause. Thought you might be interested.


James Ross said...

Yes, a lovely, ruminative, positively rubato post. It's so much simpler to notate metered music. And to interpret metered music. Rhythm can be counted. How do you count unrhythm? Music tied to notation tends to be measured, metered. A middle ground is the pulsed, but not metered (in the sense of regular and periodic ryhthmic groupings), jor section of alap.