Semiotics of Musical Time, by Thomas Reiner

October 1, 2001

Semiotics of Musical Time, by Thomas Reiner. Berkeley Insights in Linguistics and Semiotics, Irmengard Rauch, general editor; Vol. 43. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. xi + 250 pp. ISBN: 0-8204-4525-8

What is time? Any dutiful attempt to consider the question with a degree of seriousness quickly leads to Augustinian frustration—we think we know what time is, until we are asked. Time's reluctance to lend itself to clear verbalization, and the problems thus posed for actually addressing the question, can be relieved, at least somewhat, by the general observation that time seems to be very loosely of two sorts: an absolute time, continual, unchanging, value-neutral; and an inner, lived time, formed around the experiences of events or processes.

Recognition of this duality is an invaluable starting point for any exploration of the infinitely complex relationships between music and time. Indeed, it is the framing question for one recent work on the subject, Jonathan Kramer's The Time of Music, probably the benchmark work on the topic since its publication in 1988 (though it is now, inexplicably, out of print). Kramer asks, "Does music exist in time or does time exist in music?" (p. 5), and while a reasonable answer must admit of aspects of both kinds of time in relation to music, it is the latter perspective, around time's special existence in music, that seems to hold the most promise. While the properties of some components of music are clearly describable in terms of absolute time (more specifically, clock time)—duration, for instance, or frequency as vibrations per second—most of these qualities are only peripherally related to any account of what music means. If music is, most simply, sound organized in time, then sound creates the events and processes that control the experience of time within them; thus much of music's meaning is to be found in the complex relationships, temporal and otherwise, that are shaped by the events that are the music itself. Musical time, then, is a subspecies of experiential time. As such, it is a bit like a complex organism contained within a membrane which is unidirectionally porous, in that absolute time flows through the membrane, but musical time stays within it. This configuration allows both for similarities between and logical interfaces with absolute time, for instance in the realm of duration, while still allowing that the medium within the membrane—cinema, or conversation, or, in this case, music—also has its own individually-created temporal processes. It is primarily the study of those internal processes that Kramer's work undertakes; in that he is joined by many others who, in work appearing both before and since Kramer's, attempt to account for some aspect of life within music's temporal membrane.

Thomas Reiner takes a very different approach to the problem of musical time in his Semiotics of Musical Time, the subject of this review. Semiotics, focused as it is on the location of meaning in the interface between a sign and its possible interpretations, is perfectly positioned to contribute much to questions of musical time. This is especially true as interpretation, or esthesis, is an essential component in understanding any particular musical utterance as having meaning in the temporal dimension. In Reiner's view, any understanding of temporality in music is actually due to the signs themselves: "this study examines the extent to which musical time is a product of signs, sign systems, and sign-oriented behaviour" (p. 2; italics added). His intent in this book is thus to establish the theoretical framework from within which connections between the world of signs in music and the musical time they potentially indicate can be mapped. In trying to determine how it is that musical time becomes the signified, or the object, of a sign or set of signs, Reiner attempts to tackle a specific form of the question asked by virtually every thinker on time, that is, how is it that we know time, when there is no substance that is time, and no human sense that functions directly as a sensor of time?

In seeking to answer that question from the specific vantage point offered by semiotics, Reiner sets out to modify an already-existing device, the semiological tripartition. The whole idea for this edifice seems to originate in its basic building-block, the sign, which itself is a synthetic agglomeration of a signified, a physical or even mental entity (an "item of consciousness," in Reiner's much-repeated phrase), combined with its signifier, a name or image associated with it. Signs give rise to interpretants, which are themselves signs that arise in response to other, prior signs (p. 18). While some interpretants are conventional, others are personal; an individual's collection of interpretants will be conditioned by his or her experience and cultural background. With this being the case, it is clear that even on the level of a single sign, any meaning derived therefrom cannot be "given and unambiguous" (p. 19). It is the all-important ingredient of interpretation, built in to every sign on an elemental level and projected then onto larger collections, that the semiological tripartition was apparently designed to represent and explain.

Reiner traces this construct from Jean Molino ("Musical Fact and the Semiology of Music," trans. J. A. Underwood, introd. Craig Ayrey, Music Analysis 9, no. 2 [1990]: 105-56) and his work to that of Jean-Jacques Nattiez (Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music, trans. Carolyn Abbate [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990]: 17, as well as in the original French-language version of the work, Musicologie générale et sémiologie [Paris: Bourgois, 1987]), where it "provides the single most important edifice of Nattiez's musical semiology" (p. 20) as well as the basis for Reiner's own theory. Nattiez's model is a multi-stage affair, in which the sender (here, a composer), via a process of creation called the poietic process, embodies musical ideas in a collection of actual physical signs, known as a trace. Aspects of Reiner's explanation of a trace are rather confusing; the trace is variously described as the "material reality that constitutes a work of art," which in the case of a painting is described as "canvas and paint." Elsewhere it seems clearer that a trace includes all aspects of a work's material existence, including, presumably, the note-heads and stems, tempo indications, articulations, and etc. of a composition (pp. 21-22).

In a sense the poietic process is one of encoding ideas that are, up until that point, metaphysical. The trace presents them in a so-called neutral form, which is then decoded by a receiver through the esthesic process, in which the trace is negotiated as a set of signs, subject only to the interpretants of the receiver. The actual neutrality of the trace is something of an issue for all work that uses this tripartite model. Here Reiner explains the trace's neutrality by proposing an avoidance of the intentional fallacy, so that whatever the author's intentions were, they are unknowable to any receiver via the information contained in the trace alone (pp. 22-23).

With this basic model in place, Reiner begins to propose a set of modifications designed to transform it into a semiotic account of musical time. In particular, Reiner takes great pains to distinguish between things that use or take time as a physical fact of their existence ("inherent temporality," in his terms), and the different sense in which musical time comes to be understood as a semiological product which occurs only after a musical element has been processed through esthesis in such a way as to actualize its potential, as a sign, to indicate musical time. He offers a parallel discussion on the distinction between perception and conception on the part of a listener in chapter six, "The Esthesis of Musical Time." Another important refinement to the tripartition is that of the "compound poietic process" (p. 79). This addition recognizes that a performance is an esthesic response to the notational trace of a score, and that the performance then constitutes its own potential sonic trace, itself available to esthesis. What Reiner does not discuss here is the notion that a performer, in making a performance, interprets the sonic trace already produced in the course of deciding how to perform what comes next. This is simply to say that good performers listen to themselves and respond, in part through temporal means—rubato, or balancing the time taken at cadences of different qualities, etc.—to what they hear. Some part of what constitutes an experiential musical time is built of that kind of self-referential exchange, and is not served well, if at all, by accounting for it only in the absolute temporal terms of tempo, duration, and the like.

The remainder of Reiner's modifications come in the extended discussion of how the various physical components of music—their written and sonic traces—can serve as traces of musical time, both at the stage of poiesis and at the stage of esthesis. Here Reiner establishes two conditions that have great bearing on the outcome of his theoretical work. The first is the definition of musical time as an unsynthesized compound: a sign must be able to evoke, at one and the same time, an esthesic response of "music" that is coupled with an esthesic response suggestive of time. Resulting interpretants might be such musical attributes as motion, beat, pulse, continuity, succession, duration, proportion, tempo, and rhythm (p. 66). In the second condition, a listener or respondent must be conscious of musical time as such for the esthesis to have taken place; for on Reiner's view, without the intervention of overt consciousness, the potential of a given trace to suggest musical time remains only potential (p. 66). I shall have more to say presently regarding these two conditions.

With these additions, modifications, and refinements, then, Reiner's semiotic model of musical time is largely complete: a creative impulse, which is "[e]verything associated with the creation of physical objects or occurrences that function as traces of musical time, including intuition, conception, intention, composition, performance, and whatever else may be involved in the creative process" (p. 57), leads to poiesis, the act of composition itself, the result of which is a trace or set of traces. But we shall see that the conditions and constraints that Reiner builds around the theory itself have a great deal to do with whether or not it is able to tell us anything meaningful about musical time.

The first of these, the definitional constraint, establishes the parameters of musical time early on; and though the definition is given as provisional, it changes almost not at all in the course of the book: "[i]n order to avoid an arbitrary exclusion of existing views and concepts, the term musical time must be recognized as having the potential to denote any aspect of time associated with music, any aspect of music associated with time, and any particular concept of musical time" (p. 11). The inclusiveness of this definition is breathtaking, but ultimately proves to be a net cast too wide. It is easy to see that it could yield what might be thought to be random results; under Reiner's definition, the song playing when my radio alarm goes off in the morning is an instance of musical time, as is the hymn played at noon by the carillon near my home, simply by virtue of bringing music and time (here, clock time) together in the same event. While these examples might seem initially to be accidents of an unrefined definition-in-progress, in a later explanation Reiner again invites exactly such connections: "any time-related interpretant that a listener associates with the music he or she is listening to can be said to actualize a sonic trace of musical time" (p. 68; italics added). Later still, Reiner adds the remark that "[e]sthesic responses are not arbitrary" (p. 85). Yet his definition does not guarantee that the conventional interpretants he has in mind—such things as "pulse, beat, accent, meter, rhythm, duration, tempo, proportion, continuity, succession, change, motion, and timing" (p. 85) will necessarily result.

The loose conjoinings of music-plus-time noted above use music to mark events in the flow of absolute time, outside the membrane of music's own temporal world; they have little to do with music itself. While the interpretants such as pulse and beat that Reiner purports to be after certainly refer to temporal features of music, it seems unlikely that the definition itself can lead us directly to the properties that might shape the experience of time from within a piece of music; for although the definition's broad language allows for making more musically enlightened connections, it is in fact considerably more difficult to come up with conjoinings that seem to infer musical time in an experiential sense. I may think of a cadence, in the standard sense of harmonic goal, along with the notion of expectation, for instance. But neither of these ideas resides at the surface of the concepts "music" and "time," and so are less available to the process of non-synthetic association that Reiner's definition and theory best support. It is one thing to work backward from a within-the-membrane perspective, using already-developed knowledge of experiential musical time as an interpretant that might have as ingredients the signs "cadence" and "expectation." But it seems fair to wonder if, under the circumstances Reiner poses, the thought or event of cadence would necessarily trigger time-related associations as a response.

The apparent orientation of Reiner's theory away from an experiential notion of musical time is made more evident when we encounter what I have called the consciousness constraint. This constraint requires musical time to be literally experienced as such in order for the esthesis of musical time to have occurred; and it limits the notion of experience to things we are specifically conscious of: "an experience entails a person's consciousness of what is being experienced" (p. 82). This would seem to mean that in order to process signs in such a way as to infer musical time, one has to be aware, at the time, of doing so. Reiner goes so far as to say that "a performer may read a score and perform a musical work without being conscious of musical time, and consequently the notational trace is not actualized as a trace of musical time" (p. 80), a perplexing situation that holds true for composers as well.

Yet this seems to fly in the face of common sense in at least two ways. First, an esthesic response can consist of many things: "reception, perception, decoding, reconstruction, cognition, interpretation, analytical reflection, and intellectual construction," to render Reiner's own list (p. 85); and not all of these—perception, for example—require engaging a level of consciousness at which one is truly aware (p. 84). When an experienced driver encounters a stop sign, provided the sign is perceived, decoded, and interpreted in conventional ways, an esthesic response results in the driver stopping the vehicle. But little or none of the activity leading to this result is done—or, at least, must be done—in the mind's forefront. If such foregrounding were to be a prerequisite for experience, the daily lives of most of us would consist in some sort of unarticulated non-experience-mush, in short. Indeed, must one be consciously thinking "take exactly this much time here" in order to make an effective rubato? Out of this comes the second common-sense observation, which is that, in many cases, the very act of becoming aware of an experience while within it is an effective way of ending the experience itself. Where the driving example given here is not such a case, listening deeply to music certainly is. Performing is another such; there is no better way of insuring a technical lapse while on stage than to become intent upon the actions of one's fingers! Perhaps this is because awareness of the type Reiner seems to require has the effect of putting one in a different mental present, a place from which one can observe activity inside an experiential membrane without participating in it. Experience, then, and the consciousness of that experience, do not seem to be the same thing in the way that Reiner holds to be true.

I am not trying here to deny altogether the need for some kind of consciousness in enabling the semiotic process. But I share Suzanne Langer's concern for what she calls "the unsuitable and consequently barren structure of the literal symbol," (Feeling and Form [London: Routledge and Kegan, 1953]: 114; quoted by Reiner, p. 75) and its potential for distorting experience itself. We seem to be confronted with something of a language barrier here; the "language," loosely put, of experience translates only poorly, even falsely, into language as spoken, especially the exaggeratedly non-metaphoric, highly literal language Reiner prefers. But his insistence upon literal symbolic equations forces us to step outside music's membrane, and thus expressly makes unavailable to the theory an inner experience of music that, he admits, many people share: "the conviction that inner time has a distinctive existence, that it has the status of a self-sufficient reality,and that this reality is readily accessible to human perception and consciousness without intellectual deliberation" (p. 43). Indeed, Reiner seems to go out of his way to deflate several notable, if largely metaphorical, attempts to get inside this existence, among them those of Henri Bergson, Thomas Clifton, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Langer herself.

In the interest of time (!)—or, better, space—I will not rehearse in every detail Reiner's critiques here; suffice it to say that they amplify the nagging concern that he wishes to deny the existence of an experiential musical time altogether. A final constraint on the theory, one I will call the input constraint, is further indication of that conclusion. Unlike the others, the input constraint is never announced directly. But the text gradually makes apparent that Reiner is considering only minute sonic "inputs" as he builds his argument. An early indication of the scope of musical idea Reiner is prepared to consider is his statement that "each sound event of a musical work can be understood as a signifier associated with a particular signified" (p. 16). This makes of each individual musical sound an independent icon, as semiotics terms it. While on its face Reiner's statement seems to be true, it is hard to see what real meaning might be inferred from such icons in a medium whose meaning obtains in the relationships between its component parts, rather than residing in the parts themselves. Rose Rosengard Subotnik, in a discussion of Nattiez's early work in musical semiotics, notes that Nattiez's taxonomies or inventories of elements "grant a priority to the identification of discrete units over the characterization of relationships," a comment applicable to Reiner's work as well. Reiner's bent for literalism sometimes takes him even to the sub-iconic level, well below the point at which we would identify "discrete units." In one of several extended discussions of inherent temporality, Reiner examines in painstaking detail the micro-temporal components of sound, from the level of the single vibration to the speed at which the sound it creates travels through air. But the macro-temporal level, the level at which sound is available to be organized by a listener's mind, is dismissed in a couple of brief sentences. It is, for Reiner, simply an additive operation performed upon the micro-temporal features of a single sound: "vibrations, successions of vibrations, and simultaneous successions of vibrations can be grouped together to form an inherent macro-temporal level" (p. 101). We can set aside for the moment the likelihood that grouping itself is a matter of interpretation, rather than an inherent feature. What is more problematic here is that in the analogies between micro- and macro-temporal levels, the potential for relationships between discrete entities on the macro-temporal level is not even considered. Succession, for instance, is described this way: "there is a correspondence between the inherent succession of the sonic trace (the succession of vibrations, or the succession of motions of air particles that constitute the vibrations), which are not perceived as such, and the succession of pitches and larger musical entities such as motives and phrases" (p. 108). Reiner is aware that there is a qualitative difference in these two levels of succession: "vibrations are different from pitches and a succession of thousands of vibrations may result in a succession of only [a] few pitches" (p. 108). Nevertheless, on Reiner's view the importance of succession for musical time lies only in the potential for a listener to be conscious of the fact; in the simple awareness of entity following entity lies musical time as an esthesic product. In the narrow focus of such discussions, Reiner seems to exclude any remaining possibility that his theory is positioned to examine musical time as a factor of the relationships that create music itself. This is not to deny that the temporal features with which Reiner is rightly concerned—duration, proportion, and tempo, in particular—are potentially powerful ingredients in anything we might call musical time. But they hardly exhaust the concept; and despite their own undeniable temporality, might in many cases have little to do with how we experience the events of a piece as shaping time from within.

Whether or not one is in sympathy with Reiner from philosophical and theoretical perspectives, a number of flaws in the book's presentation serve to weaken overall confidence in its arguments. The book is plagued by errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure, the kinds of things that should disappear with a close read-through. Reading itself is made ponderous by countless redundancies. At times, ideas are presented in contorted ways, for instance in the seemingly oxymoronic phraselet "simultaneous succession" (cf. p. 98 and further), by which Reiner seems to mean the overtones of a fundamental that occur simultaneously with it. Elsewhere, Reiner appears to confuse the meanings of conventional musical terms, as when tempo is described as "the rate of motionat which sound waves travels [sic] through air" (p. 98), or frequency as a proportional relationship between longer and shorter durational units (p. 111). Misunderstandings abound; Reiner indicates that a Schenkerian graph can be seen as a trace of musical time because background, middleground, and foreground "are associated with harmonic relationships on different durational levels" (p. 78); elsewhere, Kramer's notion of timelessness is taken to mean, literally, an "absence of time" (p. 72). Wrenching changes of focus take place within a single sentence. Perhaps most disturbing, given Reiner's acute awareness of the distinctiveness of individual interpretations in the processing of signs, the book features not one musical example, even in the course of its several extended analyses.

But it is the theory that should command our most focused attention; and the theory, as presented, has severe limitations. While Reiner is able to treat, in some detail, things pertaining to some of music's temporal features, these are primarily elements that one can easily address from the perspective, and using the tools, pertinent to discussions of absolute time; and it is almost entirely this approach that Reiner takes. On the other hand, the theory cannot address many of the kinds of questions that are central to the problems of musical time as seen from within. Among such questions might be several pertaining to gesture: how do we recognize gesture as an entity? In what sense is thinking about gesture commensurate with thinking about musical time, as experienced? Is it possible that ideas about gesture can inform our understanding of the "musical present," defining it as something other than as a musically marked instant along the continuum of absolute time? I mean this line of thinking to be consistent with that of J. T. Fraser, for whom the "musical present comprises simultaneities of aesthetic necessities." (See Fraser's essay, "The Art of the Audible 'Now'," Music Theory Spectrum 7 [1985]: 181-84.) Aside from syntax, what other events and circumstances in a piece of music might help to create real musical continuity (as opposed to Reiner's view of continuity as the duration of duration) or to interrupt it? And how might such things as perceived continuity and discontinuity affect overall temporal experience? Questions such as these are meant only to indicate relevant directions in pursuit of an understanding of how, but not necessarily what, a piece means in regard to its treatment of time (paraphrase of V. Kofi Agawu, in his introduction to Playing with Signs: A Semiotic Interpretation of Classic Music [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991]: 7). But they take as a necessary starting point the notion that a significant part of what is being called musical time is located, and must be accounted for, within the membrane of music as experienced.

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