Friday, 3 February 2012

Keeping Time

I recently had an outing to London to see a play.  This was "The Lady Killers", based on an old Ealing comedy film, originally starring Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom and Alec Guinness. The current play is written by Graham Linehan, of Father Ted and Black Books fame. It's a story of five crooks who plan a bank job. They take lodgings with an old lady, Mrs Wilberforce and pretend to be a string quintet. None of them can play a note.  Each criminal character might be seen as representing what was wrong with the morality of post-war Britain, the old lady in contrast suggesting a mythical tradition of English goodness, kindness and upright honesty. The theatre and the play thrust you body and soul into a world gone by; the moral questioning still relevant.

Before the theatre I was able to grab an hour in the basement of Chappell's music store where I hungrily gobbled up some new music studies, enough to keep me going for the rest of my life. I used to visit Chappell's regularly many years ago when I worked in London - I could then just make it there and back during my lunch hour for a quick browse. The basement sheet music department is now as it was then, full of music from different eras. I felt surrounded by time in there.

It is only when music can be written down that identifiable composers appear and music is no longer dependent for survival on memory. Modern notation began in the middle of the ninth century with graphic symbols called "neumes" which stood for single notes or short groups of notes, inscribed over the words of chant melodies. There was then no means though to express the measure of a note, that is, its relative length. Progress towards note and rhythmic measure in notation can be linked to the subsequent appearance and then perfecting of hour-chiming clock mechanisms in the thirteenth century.

Music is made with time and in time. It travels through it. It achieves expression through the timing of tempo and rhythm. Each piece seems to have a tempo that is right for it. Usually, without even looking at the tempo marking at the beginning of a piece, it is a simple matter to determine how quickly or slowly it should proceed in order to be expressive. Then, within the music, the notation tells the performer how long each note and rest should be. That is by no means the end of the story, for that notation is to be interpreted.  Played as written the music will sound mechanical - clock-like.  When musical time is bent it comes to life.

Time is not as fixed as it is assumed to be. The objective history of our understanding of time tells us that at first it was measured by the seasons, by the movement of the sun and moon, by the growth and harvesting of crops, by the tides. Then clocks measured time and now it is no longer absolute but relative and bound up with space in a space-time continuum, holding us captive in our bizarre material reality. The subjective experience of time is certainly not fixed. Time can stretch or it can whiz by, depending on our state of mind, boredom or excitement. This is a reason why music is so expressive for it is always fluid, never bound by ticking and tocking.  It is free to wander where it will and when it will.

It is possible that one of the characteristics of future years is that our understanding and experience of time will change again, maybe becoming much more fluid and malleable. With the ability for anyone with an online computer to access recorded history, to access written music from any era, we are now surrounded by time as if it were a circle and not a straight arrow-line stretching unbendingly from past to future. This is exemplified by 'old music is new music' when you hear something for the first time, particularly true of pre-Renaissance times when we are only just discovering the delights of such early compositions. It was in the latter half of the twentieth century that many early pieces came to light and were heard by us for the first time.

Old English music is particularly interesting in this context as it was then much more backward looking than its continental contemporaries who were simply forging a way into the future. The music of Purcell, for instance, is riveting because of this. It creates a sense of rootedness in something of the distant mists of time, with folk roots evident as well as the refinery of a sophisticated society. And just to round off this perambulation through time, I was pleased that several people spotted the "Who am I...?" from my last blog, as "I" was a medieval Englishman of great influence on music ever since his time - John Dunstable.

Footnote. Mrs Wilberforce to the Gangsters/String Quintet: What on earth are you all doing in that cupboard?
Gangsters/String Quintet: Madam, we are artists.

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