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Notes from a Composer. Part 3 : Time Travel

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 15:40 UK Time, Wednesday, 17 August 2011





Composer Michael Zev Gordon is writing a new piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Here's his third post explaining the process and his thoughts along the way.

 time travel image

Time changes. We know that the same period of time feels very different depending on so many factors: what you are doing, the intensity you are doing it with, your interest in it, your mood, what's going on around you. An hour can feel like a minute, a minute and hour. And things that seem an eternity in the present can appear as almost nothing in the memory. Music's orbit is time; as I heard the Finnish composer Kaiha Saariaho once remark: we composers are the masters of time. Our notes are shaped in it; they direct the listener through it. Music can appear to speed up the passage of time or spread it out to unchanging stillness, or anything in between. And I want to bring this into explicit focus in my new piece.

Up until the later 19th century and into the 20th, interest in how time passes in music was fairly rare. Pieces were of course fast or slow. But rates of change of musical events were comparatively steady regardless of speed, directedness towards cadence points standard. Even now, most music does not play too much with time; a 3-minute fast piece does not necessarily appear to last less than a 3-minute slow one. And yet, if you think, say, of the stillness and subtle fluctuations of notes and silence at the start of Debussy's Prelude a l'aprés-midi d'un faune, or the shifting patterns in Morton Feldman's music, you know very different kinds of musical time are involved than in Mozart or Tchaikovsky. Much of this interest in time in the 20th century and beyond has, I think, to do with slowing it down, towards a sense of what I like to call infinite time. There are specific ways to do this: by subverting or submerging pulse or regularity, or conversely, as in some of the early minimalists, reaching towards stasis through extreme repetition. Much of this has in turn come from Western responses to the East: drawn-out spaces in Japanese rituals, cycles of repetition in gamelan music, vastness in Indian raga or Arabic maqam. Such infinite time interests me a lot. And in the 4th and last movements of my work I want to dive into it. But I'm interested in 'fast time' too, and especially the expressivity one can approach when time types give way suddenly to each other. Talking with the English composer Gabriel Jackson, he suggested to me that for the image of infinite time to be satisfying in music, it has to work against something else - that if one is aware only of time slowly passing, all that is achieved is monotony. It's something to bear in mind, even if boredom thresholds are such subjective matters. One person’s heavenly lengths in the slow movement of Schubert's String Quintet is another’s pure tedium.

Certainly my piece will be made up of many kinds of time: time that pushes on, time pulling back, directed time, which is then undercut by something apparently timeless and without direction, ebb and flow. I want to see too if it's possible to have the perception of two or more times layered together as well as juxtaposed. I want to try to evoke the idea of past time re-entering the present, through quotation of other composers' music. Finally, I want to bear in mind Morton Feldman's distinction between time and timing: one perceives music inhabiting the former when drama disappears.

But my piece will have time and timing. Why? Because my music is not a modernist monolith. It is a pliant postmodern mixture. And I want time to be expressive: to press out into music the constant interplay I feel between my human passions on the one hand - and on the other the tug towards something of deep serenity, of unchangingness, of numinous stillness.

Next time, a look at the first movement, which I'm nearing finishing: Lost Worlds.



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