Monday, September 16, 2013


The original version of this text was written in Dutch, written for the Flemish literary journal DWB as part of a special on music and literature. It discusses some ideas that were in the background of my mind while composing Toccata III for two glockenspiels. Here is a recording of this piece, on the UbuWeb page on my music, of a live performance by Duo Vertigo (Niels Meliefste and Claire Edwardes) from 2004: Toccata III [MP3]

At the end of 2001, I caught a glimpse of an echo in time. I don’t mean a memory, flashback or reflection in the now of something that had happened before, but I could see the shade of a movement that was able to exist in several moments at once, that could let two points in time echo one another, without the one point having to precede the other.

That is not how we usually experience time, and it seemed to me that the shade had to exist within another kind of present, a simultaneity of multiple moments, that within our normal time should occur within some linear order, but that would enter into a different relation within the time of the shade. In that way, this echo-time was adding an extra dimension to linear time itself. Between the two moments the shade moves back and forth in its own echo-time, and that way an extended present comes into being, a present that is no longer the point of intersection that separates the future from the past, but one that encompasses both future and past in an internal dynamic within still unknown extra dimensions.

The occasion was the request to write a piece for the two percussionists of Duo Vertigo, Niels Meliefste and Claire Edwardes. We were talking about the possibility to organize a concert in the series that I was programming at the moment in Amsterdam, and without thinking too much about it I blurted out that I would like to contribute a piece of my own for two glockenspiels. Immediately upon saying that I saw the shade of the movement before my eyes, seeing how it would echo back and forth between the two instruments, with the two layers of the music illuminating one another, without being in a linear relationship of question and answer. Rather, the two would form each other’s mutual reflection or echo.

This led to a composition called Toccata III: a work in which the two players simultaneously play motives that are based on simple ascending and descending scales and arpeggios, in a constant tempo relationship of three to five. Figures appear in both parts in repeating mosaic-like patterns, making the whole unfold to kaleidoscopic effect, in which the motives would continually shift across one another into changing combinations. While listening this leads to a dislocation of temporal experience, because as a listener you can’t entirely tell at what moment you heard a motive exactly, or even which part played a particular motive first: the faster or the slower one. Additionally, the patterns contain a polyphony within themselves (much in the way that J. S. Bach could weave an entire polyphony into a single melodic strand in his works for solo instruments, such as in the Cello Suites.) Since playing is always simultaneous, the ear of the listener can always jump from a line that it hears within one part to one within the other part, making the piece as a a whole into a very complex crystal of potential paths of listening. Performed with the complex resonant sound of the glockenspiel, a sonic world comes into being of an indeed almost hallucinatory spectral quality.
The score was furnished with a motto from J. G. Ballard, out of his short story News from the Sun. In the aftermath of 9/11, for a few months Ballard was the only prose writer that I could read at all. It was a time in which an intellectual hardening seemed to spread all over the entire Western world at astonishing speed. Everywhere, the attack on the Twin Towers was received, almost even welcomed, as finally a real moment in time, a fixed point, an origin out of which finally the axes could be laid down of a coordinate system to measure good and evil. For people of a great diversity of political positions, this event could serve as the irrefutable proof of their particular insights and as the unmistakable announcement of an epoch of truth in time. The religious become more religious, those who hated religion began to despise religion more, anti-imperialists saw empires finally teeter while experts on terrorism were making calculations of risk assessment and intelligence analysis in order to unfold even grander visions of mad carnage. A mythomaniac composer saw an artwork of cosmic destruction and a literary journalist who was considered influential in the Netherlands saw a final end to postmodernism. Everywhere, time was pulled taut. Myself, I went back to one of my first favorite authors, the only one who at that point seemed to have anything meaningful to say about the relationship between modernity and violence – and about escaping linear time.

In News from the Sun, Ballard presents a mysterious illness that is encroaching on the entire world.  It is a spiritual kind of disease, a consequence of the travels through space which humanity has embarked upon. The exploration of space has opened humans up to a completely other way of experiencing time, and that mode is spreading like wildfire. Those who suffer from this disease (which will in the end come to include all humankind) no longer experience moments as being isolated within a linear progression; instead, subsequent moments are increasingly compressed into ever more static, but also ever deeper experiences of time, perhaps a bit as in cubist painting, only more brilliant.

As in many of his stories of that period of his career (the 60s and 70s), the main characters are gradually being initiated into this resplendent new world liberated of linear time, which also has the effect that their normal, old existence grinds to a halt entirely. Ballard’s obsessive evocations of a time that disappears from the world seemed to me to be more truthful and fitting to the big trauma of the New World Order than the many battle cries of the Epoch of Truth, and by taking up a quote in my score I made his work godparent to mine:

The sky was filled with winged men. Franklin stood among the mirrors, as the aircraft multiplied in the air and crowded the sky with endless armadas. Ursula was coming for him, she and her sisters walking across the desert from the gates of the solar city. [...] Happy now to be free of time, he embraced the great fugue. All the light in the universe had come here to greet him, an immense congregation of particles.

There exist strong similarities between Ballard’s vision and the image that I had in mind while composing Toccata III. But in the end, the visions do not coincide. If Ballard evokes the transition of linear time into static time, my composition remains a musical composition throughout, working with motives and motions, which always retain an aspect of linear development. What I was interested in was to see motion, or gesture, as such, and to pry its quality loose from a temporal fabric that would be linear by necessity, in order to fashion deeper forms of time out of it. Just as positing a mystical form of time as a contrast to linear time may not be a sufficient answer to the stasis of the ideological hall of mirrors, the swamp of lies, of covert operations and manipulations that the world had gotten trapped in during the Bush years following 9/11 (and I’m not sure we’ve quite managed to get out of that swamp today).
Music lets us experience how an act defines time. However, the time of a musical action (a motive, say, or every single sound that is emitted) is not subject to any absolute measure, neither being formed of pointillistic nows, nor existing within static infinity, but it always comprises an internal measure and composition that determines its specific quality.  Such temporal units I will call time zones. Put together, time zones can merge into a fabric that we could call a music(-al composition). The specific composition of time zones determines the form of a present, of a space within which acting is possible.

All time zones are accompanied by other time zones, they reflect on one another. Sets of time zones can compose themselves into a linear process, a one-dimensional time with future and past, but other compositions of time are possible as well. Time zones can mutually act on each other, let their particular measures interfere with one another; they overlap and form lines, fields, circuits, zones of unanticipated dimensions; they compose into larger time zones or divide into smaller ones; and both the pointillistic now and eternity are limit cases of temporal compositions. The time of gesture, which always has its own measure and composition, is primary; life in the world such as we lead it, one of many possible compositional results.

Not only can we dethrone linear time or expose the present such as we live it day by day as a false kind of time, but we can also deploy time and motion as the building blocks for creating another experience of the present. One that is deeper and more livable than the rhythms of the world as we know it, and more so than those all too brilliant and static visions. A present that invites us to acting differently.


Chris Willie Williams said...

Our mutual friend Anne pointed me to this post, and I just thought I'd quickly say that I think it's lovely--both your musical composition and the thoughts underpinning it. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

very interesting article indeed, also the music that can be listened at while reading. Thank you