The Morning After

I’m still on a total high from my last week in Amsterdam, not because of the ubiquitous “coffee shops” which I did not frequent, but from the 2010 Gaudeamus Muziekweek which Ruby Fulton has already so eloquently described on these pages. Her reports were so thorough that there’s really no need for me to rethread here, but I did have an experience there (actually several) that I nevertheless wanted to write something about. It’s an experience that I’ve had many times before in many different places, so it’s not unique to Gaudemus or Amsterdam, but since it just happened again there it’s a way to shine one more light on that tremendous week of international contemporary music.

A few weeks ago I got fixated on the amount of time it takes to compose music and the number of hearings it takes to “get” a piece of music, which also requires a considerable amount of time. There were lots of interesting comments in response to this. But I, as well as all of the commentors, failed to mention a fascinating corollary to this whole question of the time factor in music: While music takes place in real time and therefore must be perceived that way, the process of listening to music can actually blur one’s perception of time. Sometimes a piece that lasts 10 minutes sounds like it went by in only 5, other times a ten-minute piece can feel like a half-hour.

This is exactly what I experienced at Gaudeamus last week. Some pieces raced by, a handful did not. But what made it all the more noticeable is that the programs for Gaudeamus stated the durations for most of the pieces being performed, therefore automatically giving listeners a sense of just how long the pieces would last. But because of the strange blurring that music does to the perception of time, knowing how long a piece was supposed to last was actually frequently disconcerting. I suppose one could look at one’s watch during a performance to keep track of the time, but that seems somehow rude. I’ve occasionally looked at my watch during a performance over the years, usually not from boredom but in order to know how long a section of a piece lasted, but I try not to.

However, I think all of this raises some questions that are worth pondering here. Should concert programs include information about duration? Does this help or hinder perception? What qualities in a performance make it seem faster or slower than its actual duration? Do slow pieces sound longer than they are and fast pieces faster? Or is this somehow a function of harmonic rhythm? I personally don’t find this to always be the case. The first hour of a three-hour La Monte Young Theatre of Eternal Music Big Band performance I heard in New York many years ago felt interminable whereas the last hour raced by. That piece was a single held chord.

2 thoughts on “The Morning After

  1. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Thanks for the great post, Frank!

    The issue of real vs. perceived time in live performance is fascinating to me, and it’s one which I think composers should consider. Just the other day I was lucky to see a performance of Morton Feldman’s Crippled Symmetry, for the second time (!). This runs roughly 85-90 minutes, and is fairly standard in length for Feldman. I have no way of breaking it into sections in time, since the whole piece is a sort of path traced from point A to point B. But I was thankful that the program notes said nothing to the effect of “when you heard the glockenspiel begin with the repeated 16th notes, you know that we’ve only got 10 minutes left,” etc.

    I believe that repeated listenings lead to learning a piece, where as knowing the duration leads to learning about a piece. When I first heard it, I could have sworn that the A section to the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th was only about 45 seconds long (in reality, it’s around 2.5-3 minutes). Whatever the reason for this magic being so successfully worked on me, I don’t want to diminish the moment of experiencing it by reading a timeline.

    That said, ultimately it’s nice to have the information. I had a recent embarrassing experience where I submitted a new piece to the performers. It’s in loose proportional notation, so an exact timing was impossible to determine. I told them it was around 11 minutes, because that’s what it felt like. Turned out to be 20….

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  2. mclaren

    Should concert programs include information about duration?

    In extreme cases, probably yes. The audience should know if they’re going to hear a 6-hour-long piece, or a 60-second-long piece. For more typical durations (3 to 40 minutes) probably not.

    Does this help or hinder perception?

    It certainly can gobsmack you, particularly with very long pieces or extreme short ones. Sometimes the length forms part of the compositional structure, as with collections of minute-long compositions that have recently become popular.

    What qualities in a performance make it seem faster or slower than its actual duration?

    Meaningful event density. If musically meaningful events occur often per unit time, the piece will tend to sound longer than it is. If musically meaningful events occur infrequently per unit time, the piece will tend to sound much shorter than it is.

    Minimalism engineered a huge revolution in music by dilating time. Slowing down the meaningful event density greatly changed audiences’ perception of time. Laurie Spiegel was one of the first to point this out — and it is no coincidence that the first concert of music at The Kitchen in 1970 which marked the inauguration of the downtown music concert scene and the early days of minimalism featured pieces by Laurie Spiegel and Emanuel Ghent. Laurie has remarked that curves of musical emotion can be generated by controlling the musical entropy of a piece. “Meaningful change in event density” is effectively entropy, in Claude Shannon’s sense — i.e., the number of available states in the music.

    So if a composer reiterates an arpeggiated triad using eighth notes at mezzoforte for 10 minutes, there are 3 available states. The entropy of that passage is much lower than, say, a total serial piece using a dozen different rhythmic values and 12 different dynamic values and 12 different pitches.

    The piece with greater event density will sound longer, all other things being equal.

    However, cognitive neuroscience also shows the human ear/brain system adapts to stimuli. If we hear constant change in a piece of music but it’s not meaningful change — i.e., no perceptible pattern is present — the ear/brain system soon begins to discount the change and the sound patterns becomes perceived as an ergodic stasis. We hear this most commonly with rain on the roof. The individual events are not meaningful, and submerge into a statistical blur. Paul Lansky used this property of the human ear/brain system in his computer piece “Idle Chatter.” In this case, a long piece may sound much longer than it is.

    Contrariwise, very low rates of change cause the ear/brain system to zero in on extremely subtle features of the sound-events. As the subtle changes of the sound-pattern become more perceptible, a very long piece may change focus from apparently featureless stasis to constant subtle change, which in turn winds up making the music sound as though it has a great deal more meaningful event density than it seemed to, and thus to make the rate at which time passes seem to change. This is what happens in a lot of LaMonte Young’s music as Eliane Radigue’s synth music. At first you just hear a drone. Then the micro-details of the sound become apparent and eventually you hear a lot of subtle changes that weren’t apparent before, so the subjective duration of the piece radically speeds up.

    This brings up a crucial point. The human ear/brain system exhibits marked hysteresis in time perception. You can slow down music a lot more than you can speed it up. Beyond a certain level of speed-up, the event density becomes so extreme that the music turns into a blur. No amount of repeated hearings beyond a certain fast tempo succeeds in making the piece comrehensible. Imagine a Beethoven symphony compressed into 30 seconds and you can see what I mean. However, you can slow down a piece of music enormously and still get huge amounts of information out of it. This occurs because the human channel capacity (the rate at which we can process information cognitively) is limited. When we hit the limit of auditory channel capacity, we lose the ability to parse information. Laurie Spiegel took advantage of this hysteresis in the human ear/brain system’s channel capacity in pieces like “The Expanding Universe” (1975) done on the Bell Labs GROOVE system.

    Or is this somehow a function of harmonic rhythm? I personally don’t find this to always be the case.

    Meaningful change is the key. Change can occur in harmony, in pitch, in rhythm, in loudness, in timbre. The cumulative total amount of meaningful change determines the meaningful event density. “Meaningful” is the key because if the ear/brain system can’t tease a coherent pattern out of the changes, it’s not meaningful, and therefore not significant for our perception of time. For instance, timbral hocketing is change, but it’s typically not meaningful change, so adding hocketing doesn’t change our perception of time. Likewise, changing notes by an octave isn’t meaningful pitch change, so that doesn’t alter our perception of time in music. The change has to be musically significant to alter our temporal perception.

    The exploration of changes in informational entropy as a means of structuring music remains a largely unexplored direction in contemporary music. Only a few composers, like James Tenney and Laurie Spiegel, have made systematic use of it to date.

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