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The Tactility of Time (Darmstadt Lecture 1988)

Author(s): Brian Ferneyhough


Source: Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Winter, 1993), pp. 20-30
Published by: Perspectives of New Music
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/833032
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THE TACTILITYOF TIME

(DARMSTADTLECTURE 1988)

BRIANFERNEYHOUGH

IN

SPITE OF the strange, portentious-seeming title, you should not


think of this talk as being some sort of hermetically self-enclosed
object. Some of you have, I suppose, attended Darmstadt in earlier years
and will thus be aware of the virulent spread of the peculiarly aggressive
assertion that one cannot really talk about music at all-or at least, not in
any meaningful way on matters of compositional intention and technique. However strange it may seem that many hours of lecture time
have been consumed with verbalizing this thesis, this is not something
that I want to overemphasize today: rather, I would like to talk, not so
much theoretically (although there will be a little of that, perhaps), but
speculatively, on the search for a possible language in which one central
aspect of my own compositional concerns may be provisionally formulated, that is, the concept of time and the concrete sensation of its presence as manifest in one particular piece, Mnemosyne for bass flute and

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prerecorded tape. In pursuing this goal it may be that I will come a personal step further in reestablishing such topics as possible areas of
practical/theoreticaldiscourse in such contexts as this.
Mnemosyne (the eponymous Greek goddess of memory) forms the
final part of the evening-filling Carceri d'Invenzionecycle after Piranesi,
which was given its first complete performance at the 1986
Donaueschingener Musiktage. The reason that I am presenting this piece
today is that, when starting work on it, I adopted a new approach to
processing the interaction between large-scale formal/variational structure and its temporal contiguity. The anamorphic, perforated
"motivicity" of the rhythmic patterning in the live bass flute part was
locked into the linear expansion of primary and secondary pitch domains
with a view to rendering immediate various degrees of temporal
"tactility"-that is to say, situations in which alterations in the flow of
time through and around objects or states becomes sensually (consciously) palpable. I employ the term "tactile" even though I am well
aware of the problems attached to the uncritical transference of vocabulary from one area of discourse to another. Still, we have sufficiently frequent recourse to physical, bodily analogies when referring to musical
events for such an extension to have some inherent intuitive plausibility.
If it would not be entirely inappropriate to classify musical events of, for
instance, high amplitude according to criteria such as "weight" then it
would also seem legitimate to seek communally acceptable terms for the
fluctuating balance between the identity of discrete event-objects and
their temporal frames of reference. What, in Webern and after, could be
said of silence as a "contextually defined empty class" can surely be
extended to the larger empty class of time itself.
Even though, when talking about "tactility" in musico-temporal
terms, one is speaking with connotational rather than denotational
intent, I still feel that the term serves to identify an experience most of us
have occasionally had. When we listen intensively to a piece of music
there are moments when our consciousness detaches itself from the
immediate flow of events and comes to stand apart, measuring, scanning, aware of itself operating in a "speculative time-space" of dimensions different from those appropriate to the musical discourse in and of
itself. We become aware of the passing of time as
something closely
approaching a physical, objectivized presence. There have been occasions
when I have had the experience of time "sliding" across the inner surface
of the brain with a certain impetus: it seems to be the
weight and
sequential ordering of resistances offered by whatever evaluational model
the mind is currently attuned to, combined
perhaps with some form of
inertial energy generated by this encounter (and by the separate awareness that this is happening) which creates an
irregular segmentation of
experiental continuity and, hence, of the awareness of time as a distinct

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affective entity. One specific compositional problem I have recently been


working on is: how can this "objectivized" sense of time be invested
with specific form-articulating qualities? One approach to this issue has
been adopted--on a plurality of interreferential levels- in Mnemosyne,
and revolves around questions of metre as defining feature of experienceunits.

There appears to me to be a major difficulty at the present juncture in


assigning important areas of formal organization to abstract metric or
rhythmic frames. Similarly, it seems doubtful if received conventions of
"speech resemblance" are still widely applicable as tools for suggesting
"natural"or "anti-natural"rates of flow for particular categories of musical event, even though it is clear that all involuntary and most voluntary
bodily functions (heartbeat, rate of breathing, adrenalin flow, and so on)
ultimately contribute significantly to the temporal perspective adopted
by the listener. It's a dual relationship: if we postulate a metric structure
and we project against it musical objects we have one specific frame of
reference; it must also be born in mind, however, that there is a parallel,
more subtle frame at work, i.e. the relationship established between the
body's somatic condition and the mediating metric lattice. We perceive
this latter as being itself "fast" or "slow" according to our bodily condition. Since there is a constant feedback between the two poles the position (perspective) of the listener is constantly in motion-for instance, in
respect of the perceived density or rapidity of the surface of the music
itself, the understanding of what is to count as an object at that point in
the relationship.
This issue has sometimes been practically harnessed to musical
expression-as, for example, in Holliger's Cardiophonie for oboe, in
which the rapidity of execution progressively acceleratesin proportion to
the excitation of the physis as a direct result of the performative act.
Something similar is found in the same composer's Holderlin cycle, in
one of the vocal movements of which each singer takes an independent
tempo from her own pulse rate, taken by holding a finger to the wrist.
Here, the tempo diverges considerably from performer to performer as a
function of personal temperament and the nature of the material to be
sung. My own immediate interest in Mnemosyne and the Third String
Quartet was the creation of fore-, middle-, and background transformations which would evince different somatic densities. There seems to me
to be only a rather small number of strategies according to which we can
allow a musical discourse to manifest the feeling of time as something
concretely present, as having, as it were, a specific gravity all its ownperhaps different from but certainly equal to that encountered in the
materials employed. One of these strategies pertains specifically to the
nature of the musical objects themselves: we perceive discrete events as

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being of a certain density, translucency, as moving with a greater or lesser


degree of dynamicism relative to the amount of information contained. If
the perceived potential for informational substance is rather high, the
time frame required for the efficient reception and absorption of that
information is usually more expansive, so that if the time frame is deliberately compressed a sense of pressure, of "too little time" emerges as a
major factor conditioning reception-something which leads the listener
to categorize the musical flow as "fast." Thus, when listeners to my
music say that it is "too fast" they tend to mean, not that the momentary
density of events is excessive, but rather that there is a sort of "time lag"
zone located in the wake of the event itself which is the real arena of
temporal sensation. Sometimes, to be sure, there is a certain resentment
caused by the feeling of being pushed somehow beyond the "normal"
threshold of temporal tolerance, into an area in which provisionally erected frameworks are continually being violated by current events which
invade them. The challenge, of course, is to specify objects which suggest such a high degree of internal coherence that the listening ear is necessarily twisted at an angle towards a structured awareness of the
insufficiency built into the dimensions of the time-space within which
the object is located. As a result, the time frame itself becomes rather
"gluey"; it stands apart and offers relentless resistance to linear energies.
I suppose that all of us have occasionally had dreams of attempted escape
from some unnameable fear in which our feet are caught in some substance such as glue or molasses, so that it's a tremendous, step-by-step
effort to keep moving. That is but one basic example of the sort of experience I'm talking about.
The more the internal integrity of a musical event suggests its autonomy, the less the capacity of the "time arrow" to traverse it with
impunity; it is "bent" by the contact. By the same token, however, the
impact of the time vector "damages" the event-object, thus forcing it to
reveal its own generative history, the texturation of its successivity: its
perceptual potential has been redefined by the collision. As the piece
progresses we are continually stumbling across further stages in this catastrophic obstacle race. The energy accumulation and expenditure across
and between these confrontational moments is perceived as a form of
internalized metronome, and in fact it is a version of this procedure
which most clearly fuels the expressive world of Mnemosyne:the retardational and catastrophic timeline modifiers are employed equally to focus
temporal awareness through the lens of material. The means employed
derive, for the most part, from the varied "filtering" (erasure or conflation of rhythmic impulses) of a highly rationalized set of precomposed
metric/rhythmic models. The choice of medium (solo instrument and
prerecorded tape) is a direct reflection of my basic concept: how can

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"transparency"and "resistance"of musical materials with respect to temporal perspective be foregrounded as expressive energy?
The problem was addressed on three fronts simultaneously: (1) the
manifestation of background metric spatio/temporal coordinates on the
eight-track tape (where only the downbeat of each and every measure of
the piece is attacked); (2) the "interferencepatterns" created by the partial erasure of the subsurface rhythmic models (their degree of explicit
representation); and (3) the prevailing level of explicit interruptive
activity in the solo part, whereby each of the three lines of independently
calculated rhythmic patterns is able to cut off already present actions on
one or both other levels. (In a monophonic instrument, it is clear that the
entry of material on a second level necessarily causes that on the first
level to be broken off, regardless of its written duration.) These three
aspects thus have the interruptive strategy in common, since even the
metric structures of the tape material are based on continual crosscutting
between measures employing eighth-note beats and those characterized
by particular fractions (usually quintuplet or triplet values) of those
beats, whereby the "feel" of the relationship between surface gesture and
(for the audience inaudible) click track is constantly changing. In addition, what is true between measure and measure is also valid for the
tempi relationships between adjacent sections. It is important that the
performer come to creative terms with this pyramid structure of conventions: a note begun as if it were going to continue for its full written
length, for instance, is going to have a considerably different effect when
interrupted than a note written as having an identical real duration (even
supposing that, in context, to be possible). Performative shaping energy
will be distributed according to quite other criteria, other mental
trajectories.
It's clear that, if we have several musical objects following on from one
another, we will perceive the flow of time differently according to
whether (e.g.) these objects are obviously crossrelated, whether they are
connected by gradualistic transformations in one or more parameters,
whether there exist codifiable consistencies in intervening "buffer materials," and so on. If, for instance, we move through a piece entirely on
the basis of quasi-instantaneous modulations ("film cuts") then the
irregular weighting of the temporal dimension is magnified by the parallel disposition of material identity and exclusivity of temporal container.
Concomitantly, the tempo flow within any one of those same units
becomes somewhat less constitutive. If, on the other hand, we postulate
a music whose structural extremes, whilst equally powerful, are less
obvious, relegated to a set of subsurface ordering mechanisms (like
predicting the length of a measure in the density of impulses in the
immediately preceding measure), then our ears naturally adopt other assumptions of priority, of grouping in time, even where general density

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and stylistic ductus are directly comparable. I actually used rhythmic


substructures identical to those in Mnemosynein Intermediofor solo violin, but the end effect was very different precisely because I deliberately
chose other conventions of immediate and mediated "causality,"different
assemblages of density units within distended metric frames. At least for
the performer, the overlaying of fluctuating metric frames on essentially
homogeneous materials provides important clues as to the latter's structural segmentation characteristics. At the same time, one can imagine
manipulating actual sonic density within this model in ways supportive
of or subverting the information gleaned from the metric patterning.
The aperiodic cycling with respect to one another of these two levels
permits the projection of further macroperiodicities of great utility as
regards large-scale formal articulation. In each instance we encounter
"threshold"values (of duration and/or density) beyond which the experiential function of that value trajectory-its status as active formal
marker-undergoes radical transformation (e.g. from field to eventobject or from primary process to secondary intervention).
In this particular composition there is the added aspect of the click
track. It was suggested to me by a number of performers that, ultimately,
they would be sufficiently familiar with the temporal proportioning (its
"contextual naturalness") to be able to dispense with the click altogether;
I am not in favor of this, though, since the mental interference patterns
set up by (say) attempting to weave x number of regular impulses into a
measure broken up in the performer'sear into y clicks contributes a lot, I
think, to the moment-to-moment flow of expressive tension. The clicks,
in such cases, provide "micromeasures"serving to divide up the material
in an analogous way to the role of measures in a given section. If the
flautist were to abandon the click track, it seems likely that he would
expend significantly more energy in "phrasing" the material more traditionally, weakening the interaction of the specifics of rhythmic detailing
and larger aspects of temporal organization.
So this is the first aspect of what I shall term metric contextualization.
The second might be called that of interruptive polyphony (both ultimately subsumable to the larger category of interference form). You will
notice that the bass flute part is written out on between one and three
staves (Example 1).
The number of staves employed is, in fact, one of the factors delineating the overall formal progression. What is happening is this: each stave
employed represents the results of an independent rhythmic process.
Since these run concurrently and are, in part, not mutually (grammatically) compatible in terms of reduction to one particular common
denominator it is clear that no monophonic instrument is going to be
able to perform all materials on all three lines. With a piano this doesn't
matter: there's the possibility of distributing three voices among two

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hands. It is interesting that what comes naturally to a keyboard player


encounters tremendous resistance in the minds of (say) woodwind soloists, who are not accustomed to freeing up the "natural" relationship
between hands, or hand and embouchure. In this instance, however, I
am not (always) notating partial aspects of single sounds, but distinct
musical processes. What happens is that each of the three lines has its
own typical materials in any given section; hence, there is always a particular priority pattern characteristicof the lines among themselves-one
is always dominant, the others accompanimental, interjectional, or otherwise subordinate. Similarly,particular tone colors, registral distributions,
or degree of relative density contribute to the sense of separation of
essences between simultaneous layers of linear unfolding. Since the
monophonic capability of the instrument comes into continual conflict
with the highly polyphonic nature of the superincumbent materials,
events or event chains are always being interrupted by the beginning of
new events on other levels. For the most part, events are not held for
their full durations before being broken into by reminders of the claims
of other, "suppressed" tendencies. The degree of "tactility" emerging
from this subversion is dictated in large measure, firstly by the amount
of perceptible regularity or consistency set up in the predominant layer,
and secondly by the degree of explicitness with which the interruptive
functions themselves assume a certain measure of predictability.How the
layers interact in detail is left to the performer to determine, since it is he
who assigns relative hierarchical values to the intersecting or colliding
linear tendencies. When notating the piece I had to determine a method
of precisely locating the commencement of each sound, together with the
point at which it is interrupted by an event elsewhere: for this I selected
the convention of a continuous horizontal line drawn from the notehead
on the first level to just above or below the interrupting event, connecting the two with a vertical line (Example 2).
So far we have covered four major facets of time-flow control in
Mnemosyne: (1) the relative duration of measures as "constellation
spaces"; (2) the density of material presented within each space; (3) the
interaction of click track with the distribution of materials; and (4) the
intensity and explicitness of interruptive function with which the effective simultaneity of vectorial tendencies is exposed. There are obvious
parallels and intersections of these classes: I am always concerned with
providing as many structural bridges as possible between categorically
distinct levels of listening. Analogous but not identical principles of
ordering and listening are the goal.
A further essential perspective is given by the tape-something
I
mentioned
earlier.
I
described
how
the
"micro
metroThere,
briefly
nome" of the click track is "resonated" by, and counterpoised to, the

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"macro metronome" marked by the succession of downbeat impulses


provided by the taped bass flutes. Several further essential functions are
served by the tape, among which are: the provision of an essentially
cumulative formal drive (against the solo instrument's more nonlinear
tendencies); the sonic definition of "constellation spaces" as given by the
bar proportions; the signaling of new sections by heavy eight-note
chords and, not least, the increasingly emphatic imprisoning of the bass
flute in a complex web of reference pitches-something which provides
more clear orientation but also undermines his gesturally directional
autonomy. Since the soloist is permitted to play only (a) pitches already
sounding in the tape or (b) secondary pitches articulating a specific (and
ever-reducing) repertoire of intervals around those primary pitches, the
reliance of the bass flute's pitch material on that simultaneously sounding
on tape becomes more and more constricting. By allowing the accretive
tendencies in chordal density of the tape (starting with a single pitch,
moving gradually up to eight pitches) to intersect with these reductive
tendencies in the solo line, large-scale patterns of tendential flow are
established against which specific conjunctions may momentarily give
rise to nonlinearly perceived events. It is the pendulum-like motion
between various degrees of background flow criteria and the sudden
emergence of such relatively unpredictable events which serves as the
vehicle of "temporal tactility." At the beginning and end of the piece the
functional dichotomy is very clear, the hierarchies distinct; the specifically transgressional aspect of the two levels is at a minimum. At the
beginning you will hear only a single note in the tape counterpoised
against a great variety of intervals and movement in the bass flute. At the
end, precisely the opposite is the case, that is, a high density of pitches in
the tape has reduced the solo line to a mere demonstrative horizontalization of that verticality, exhausting thereby its linear energic potential, its
ability to penetrate the opaque time screen of tape chords. Clearly, all
sorts of games can be played with directional and intervallic consistency
when relating secondary intervals to primary pitch identities: various
consistencies of explicitness in processual attachment can aid or hinder
the general prevailing degree of linear consistency. It is only in the interstices of these "grey zones" of destabilization that the instantaneous shift
in perspectival assessment underlying the entire "tactile" dimension of
temporal flow becomes dominant; oblique temporal scanning is
predominant-the mental distance to be traversed having been increased,
the "speed" at which perceptual assessment mechanisms must move in
relation to the density of material unfolding is constantly
changing, is
being compressed or attenuated.
In all this I have said nothing specific about the function of tempo and
metre proportioning. Suffice it to say here that, just as all tempi relate

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directly back in a limited number of ratios either to the base tempo or to


immediately preceding tempi, so metric structure within the groups so
formed utilizes "irrational beats" relating to the prevailing beat speed in
similarly derived proportions. From section to section there are also
gradual modifications (of a linear additive or subtractive sort) in bar
length, but I would need a much lengthier presentation to lay out the
precise paths taken by these various vectors in their dance of approach
and avoidance. It is my view in general that the awareness of temporal
flow as a sensually palpable and thus relatively independent given is in
large part dependent on both the communal resonantial capabilities of
these several levels of organization and the disruptive astonishment generated in the wake of their occasional intersection, collision, and mutual
subversion. This seems to me a major compositional resource.

First published, in German translation, in MusikTexte35 (July 1990):14-17.