Losing Control

When it comes to particular music-listening experiences that descend on me every so often, the feeling of not knowing what time it is—a feeling Frank J. Oteri likens in a recent post to severe jetlag—is one of my favorites. Having discovered American minimalism more or less in reverse, starting with Adams and late Reich in high school (where, like Yes and the Police, they were very impressive) and much later giving Young and early Riley the attention they deserve, I encountered this very radical sensation firsthand long after I knew what it was supposed to be. I suddenly understood why the temporal-epistemology- challenging effect of the Chairman Dances and Electric Counterpoint seemed never to kick in: It’s predicated on a certain threshold of actual clock time, dependent on certain constraints of musical material and a certain attitude toward musical rhetoric and formal contour. Neither of those aforementioned pieces fits the bill. However, the very long works Frank names—For Philip Guston, The Well-Tuned Piano, and so on—furnish an ideal environment for making experiential discoveries over a lengthy time-frame. (That’s one more reason, to climb back on a perennial soapbox, not to print the durations of pieces in the program.)

Jetlag is a frustrating condition because it reaches inside us and confounds our circadian rhythms. It demonstrates, in concrete physiological terms, our helplessness to regulate our own bodies. Moreover, jetlag is a uniquely new phenomenon as of the last fifty years or so, a consequence of widespread commercial air travel. The symptoms of jetlag are, in a manner of speaking, symptoms of our loosened moorings as temporally and geographically coordinated beings. They’re symptoms of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. And just as jetlag makes us powerless to set our endogenous clocks, one of the things that makes concert music exceptional—and very long pieces are a prime example of this characteristic—is its ability to deprive us (with our permission, of course) of experiential control.

There’s no reason not to decide, all of a sudden, to stop listening to an .mp3 on your laptop in your basement. It’s not like you’re in a room full of people who will look down their noses at you for it. It’s not like you’ve paid for the privilege of hearing it once—you own it, and you can go back and hear it again whenever you want. You can exert a tremendous amount of control on your experience of recorded music, forcing it to make itself available to you on your own terms. Not so with concert music—or, at least, less so. Even a relatively short piece like 4’33″, to name a listening experience that’s been known to provoke a weird kind of anxiety in an unsuspecting crowd, can wrestle a lot of that control back. I hope I’m not misinterpreting Frank’s jetlag/long piece homology too egregiously, but it’s very instructive, I think. But what do you think? Am I missing Frank’s boat—or plane, I suppose?

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