Time Off

Being away from this computer for two weeks has triggered a personal writing flood. So here is a bonus, impromptu diatribe inspired by my return from recent journeys halfway around the world: the time difference was exactly 12 hours. I ought to have the world’s worst case of jetlag, but apart from falling asleep during my co-op board meeting last night (which might have been completely unrelated), miraculously I don’t. By landing in the evening in both directions, I was tired enough after a long flight to fall asleep at the “proper” time in both time zones. And, ironically, I’ve found it easier to forget about the other place’s time with a 12-hour shift since 3:00 is actually still 3:00.

One of the most common things said about music is that it’s about time. Yet music’s relationship to time is rather amorphous, as anyone sitting with a stopwatch during a performance would attest. Two different live performances of the same score, even ones with the most meticulous metronome markings, rarely wind up having the same duration.

There is a vast difference between absolute time as measured by clocks and perceived time as felt by performers and listeners. This is why an exciting musical performance that lasts twenty minutes can feel like it has raced by in half that time and a dull one can feel like it’s gone on for over an hour. The magic of music is that, while it exists in time, it has the ability to bend time—at least psychologically.

But these days, there’s been a trend for some concerts—particularly in high profile venues—to mention the duration of each piece in their program notes. It seems a violation, if not a downright betrayal, of the impact music can and should have. Sure, I know, we’re all so busy. Some of us need to know if we’ll be able to catch the second set at that club after the concert; others need to be able to tell the babysitter what time they’ll be home. But surely presenters could offer an approximate total duration for a concert without giving away the goods for any of the specific pieces. Despite how much I love hearing music, I must confess that I’ve stared at my watch after being told how long a piece would be in advance. I could claim that checking the time can be a good way to chart the structural progress in a composition; but let’s face it, it’s a distraction.

In a way an affective performance of a piece of music is like dashing jetlag. But once you start putting up all those reminders of the time, you might run the risk of even the well-traveled listeners starting to fade out.

7 thoughts on “Time Off

  1. jbunch

    Now we just need to keep score
    At least we don’t have countdown LCD clocks at either side of the stage yet! I had a teacher that was adamant about puting the approximate time of each movement/composition that I wrote at the top of the score. I know his suggestion was to help the performers get a sense of the scope of the piece, but I wonder if that information leads to a constricted interpretation of the music in the same way you suggest that program times potentially tamper with how a piece is experienced by the listener. When you estimate yourself to have reached the “golden mean” temporarlly for the piece, are you going to be distracted by the expectation of a major turning point in the music? Does that sort of thing have the power to shipwreck a listening experience?

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  2. sumusic

    I for one listen to a 3 minute piece differently than a 30 minute piece, and when that information is included in a program I welcome it. There have often been instances when listening to music I am not familiar with (“new” or otherwise) where I start to get settled into a piece and it’s over. Had I known the piece was 5:13 rather than 15:13, I would have been listening for smaller structures, faster developments, and (depending on the era the music was written…or not I suppose) the aforementioned “golden mean.”

    With no intention of reigniting the debate over multi-movement structures, I react to the listing of timings in the program in the same way I do the listing of movements. It is information for the listener that they may choose to use or not.

    Imagine, if you will, sitting to hear a new string quartet titled, “Life in the Fast Lane” and the title is all that is listed in the program. Little do you know it consists of three one minute movements and by the time you catch on to this structure the piece is over and, as with many premieres, you may never hear it again. Had you known this piece would be over before you had time to let the title sink in, you may have been able to appreciate it just that little bit more.

    I suppose the difference here is interpreting the listing of timings as an analytical tool rather than a scheduling assistant.

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  3. dalgas

    Time has come today
    I personally don’t want to know the timing. A good piece will tell its own time, feel inevitable (even when it surprises us), no matter how short or long.

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  4. Colin Holter

    I’d much rather discover the form of a piece than confirm it based on a timing in the program as I’m listening. The experience of hearing a piece end before a conclusion is expected, for example, can be very compelling; I guess prefer to encounter questions, rather than answers, when hearing a new piece. My problem with listed timings is that–although they may stroke my analytical “composerly” gland–they deprive me of those incredible heuristic moments.

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  5. mmacauley

    I agree with mmarion/sumusic that timings, by indicating the scope of a piece, can be a helpful listening aid; yet I also agree with dalgas and Colin Holter (and Frank Oteri) that such information can interfere with an authentic listening experience, and arguably should be unnecessary — the music should speak for itself.

    Two possible compromises occur to me.

    One, let the composers indicate their works’ timing in the program notes. Listeners who wish to learn something about each piece before listening to it may read the notes; those who prefer to encounter it on its own terms, unaided (or unprejudiced) by explanation or knowledge of its timing may ignore the notes. (Listeners who prefer not to know the composer’s name, the piece’s title, or the instrumentation before the players enter the stage, may of course forgo picking up a program.)

    Two, indicate imprecisely the duration of each piece, such as 0-5 minutes, 5-10 minutes, under 10 minutes, over 10 minutes, 10-20 minutes, about half an hour, or whatever. While this might look rather strange, it has the advantage of advising a listener that “Life in the Fast Lane” is not a half-hour opus, while not planting overly specific expectations of how long it is or when it will be over.

    Concertgoers unable to stay for the whole program can usually get the information they need from the ushers.

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  6. sumusic

    Macauley makes a good point about listing timings in program notes. Thinking back on programs I have seen, I prefer seeing this information in the program notes as opposed to the actual program.

    I agree with Colin on his comments regarding a non-analytical response to listening, but only to an extent. If I am listening to a Haydn symphony I am not familiar with (let’s say something in the upper 20’s) I can kick back and enjoy it knowing that I can get recordings, a score and all matter of research to discover more about the piece. But when we are dealing with music being premiered (and especially music presented on a smaller scale) it is likely that one listening is the only encounter we will have with that piece. In that instance and in that setting, I am usually switched on and listening analytically as I know it is a rare opportunity, and any information I can have beforehand to appreciate the piece is welcome.

    That being said, if the composer wants you to approach the piece with no bias or information, it should most certainly be at their discretion as to list or not list timings, movements, or even a title.

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