The Time of Music, by Jonathan D. Kramer

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The Time of Music, by Jonathan D. Kramer. New York: Schirmer Books, 1988. xviii + 493 pp. ISBN 0-02-872590-5.

"This book is as much composed as it is written," states Jonathan Kramer in his preface to The Time of Music. Indeed, a musical logic does seem to guide the exposition and development of ideas in this fascinating, thought-provoking work. It is as if Kramer believes that in order to understand musical time we must experience it as we read. This book by its very structure, then, evokes the variety of time in sound: one reads almost as if one is listening, with a temporal awareness heightened by Kramer's questions of both old music and new, of our perceptual processes and methods of analysis.

To Kramer, the meaning of music resides in its temporality. By this he means many different things, including how music exists in time, how music portrays time, and how music creates time. We "learn" time by listening to music of all types and periods. In these varied musics—for example, music from Bali, a Mozart symphony, a process piece of Steve Reich—there is a difference not only in style but also in time-sense, which itself expresses cultural values. The temporalities of today's music tell us about time in our society and suggest to us new ways of listening to music of the past.

Kramer suggests several categories of musical time, ranging from goal-directed linearity to moment and "vertical" time. These temporalities may be grouped more broadly into the linear and the nonlinear. Linear time in music is linked to process and the fulfillment of a listener's expectations in succession. Tonal progression is seen as a powerful way to project linear time, but not as the only way: linearity might also be projected through processes or evolutions of texture, gestural function, and hypermetric stability. This means that much twentieth-century music may be regarded as linear, though its harmonic goals are equivocal. Works such as Schoenberg's Opus 19 piano pieces (the first of which is analyzed) exemplify so-called nondirected linearity, as opposed to the predominantly goal-directed linearity of the common practice period.

Nonlinear time is by contrast non-processive. Examples of nonlinear aspects of a piece are textural consistency and durational proportions. Also, in the chapter "Beginnings, Endings, and Temporal Multiplicity," Kramer suggests that the conventional opening and closing gestures of tonal music create that particular time in a piece, no matter where they occur. A nonlinear sense of time is thus conveyed which is not bound to succession but rather to the meanings of those gestures. In other words, the gestural "play" we are most familiar with in works of Haydn and Mozart is play with temporal expectation, that is, with when the listener thinks a certain type of event will take place. What is novel in Kramer's treatment of this subject is the emphasis on time rather than on convention. (Similarly, the breakdown of tonality in this century is seen primarily as a response to new concepts of time and not only as a harmonic development.) The interaction between the processive and the gestural meanings of time is discussed at length in an analysis of the first movement of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Opus 135. Kramer demonstrates, in part by recomposing sections, that it is possible to hear not just one but several continuities in the piece. These alternative continuities arise as a consequence of beginning the work with its ending. Kramer sees here the seeds of more mobile time concepts characteristic of our century—specifically, a type of time he terms "multiply-directed," which has to do with the reordering of musical processes. It is wholly appropriate to hear the Beethoven in multiply-directed time, asserts Kramer, because such hearing is in accord with our contemporary knowledge of time's possibilities.1 Indeed, it is possible to view any piece in terms of succession and gesture, the changing and the static, the linear and the nonlinear. Because it is possible to experience the future earlier than the present, as in the fine example of Beethoven's Opus 135, music is shown to create its own time, which is free from ordinary time yet interacts with it.

Kramer adopts the concept of moment time from the writings of Stockhausen. A moment form is generated from the nonlinear principle of proportions and also by the consistencies of the individual "moments" (sections) which make up the composition. Repeatedly Kramer makes the point that in music which is primarily nonlinear in structure, proportions are important to the overall coherence of a piece. (Indeed, sectional balance is crucial to formal coherence if the music is static within sections.) We apprehend form cumulatively, retrospectively, through the balance of moments, submoments (smaller sections within a larger idea), and moment groups. The perceptual mechanism by which we do this is called cumulative listening. We need to rely far more on such listening—specifically, on our memory of durations—to comprehend a moment form than to comprehend a more traditionally structured work. Yet paradoxically, moment music almost by definition offers few cues for memory. By denying the rhetoric of linear time, it focuses attention on present perception. Kramer claims that remembered section lengths can convey a sense of balanced proportions in a moment piece because moment time divorces duration from content, especially when the sections are static. Though I can understand this in principle, I wonder to what extent this holds true in practice. I suspect that in the best moment compositions, memory really isn't defeated to the extent it is in theory—either because there is repetition of material, or the content of the moments themselves is so striking, or because the piece isn't very long.2 I'm not questioning the aesthetic validity of moment time. But I note the piece Kramer selects to analyze in conjunction with his discussion of moment time is a wonderful hybrid of time-types, Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments.

One reason Kramer acknowledges he chose to analyze Symphonies instead of seeds of a pure moment form is the lack of analytic tools for the study of nonlinear music. Traditional analytic methods assume linearity, and as Kramer so rightly notes, they prove what they set out to find—whether it be unity, continuity, or consistency. There simply isn't much to say about the nonlinear (unchanging) aspects of a piece once they have been described. The short analysis of Rzewski's Les Moutons de Panurge makes this quite clear: whatever minimal processes of change can still be perceived in this "vertical" piece receive the most attention. The Stravinsky analysis, on the other hand, can show "how moment time works and how it relates to the linearity that exists at points of transition and in the underlying structure [p. 223]." There is much to explain, and much that can be clarified using such familiar tools as voice leading graphs and cellular analysis. Neither Kramer nor I judge the value of a piece based upon our ability to discuss it at length in traditional terms. But it is clear that a certain type of contemporary music still needs to spawn its own type of analysis, perhaps one more psychologically oriented. In any case, such analysis needs to reflect this music's positive values in creating a new sense of time.

Kramer's examination of proportions in Stravinsky, which issues from the study of Symphonies, is based on the premise that Stravinsky's music allows for quantitative analysis. Its "articulated uniform temporal flow [p. 287]" does not distort our sense of durations as much as does the more complex pacing of events in traditionally tonal music. Kramer examines durational proportions in Stravinsky's works from Petrouchka to Agon, and shows that beginning with Symphonies, the composer often used a single multiplicative ratio to determine the moment durations in a piece. What is musically significant about these ratios is that they allow discontinuous structures to project a sense of temporal balance. Thus, nonlinear music is made convincing to the ear. Of course, a temporally proportional scheme alone will not guarantee coherence or formal balance—the musical content and context of sections is just as important. It is well known, however, that many composers in this century have worked with some type of proportional scheme. Do we listeners perceive these ratios? Can we in fact accurately recall and compare durations? Asked more broadly, do we really listen cumulatively?

The chapter, "The Perception of Musical Time," summarizes much of the relevant literature with an answer to these questions in mind. Kramer discusses various theories of time perception, including the influence of information processing (where information equals time), meter, and tempo on perceived duration. There is much here that is complex, yet the answer to the question of how we listen turns out to be quite simple, at least on one level: we listen in many different ways to the multiple temporalities of music. We listen linearly and non-linearly. Kramer suggests that proportions may be heard subconsciously, just as sets and Urlinien are. A piece of music is the way it is, partly because of its proportions. This means that one of the differences between the music of Stravinsky, Debussy, and Bartók, for example, is the different sense of time these composers projected through the various durational schemes they chose to employ.

The most extreme form of nonlinearity is vertical music. Vertical music is essentially static, sonically or conceptually, and thus depends wholly on the listener to create its hierarchies and contrasts. Or does it perhaps suffice simply to let the music be? In any case, vertical pieces such as those of Morton Feldman evoke a state of timelessness, wherein each sound exists only for itself. Such works, like dreams, offer an alternative to the temporal continuum. Perhaps they also offer relief from the "excessively linear values of our technological society [p. 387]," though I'm not sure. Such quasi-prescriptive notions are speculative at best. But I am very glad Kramer dares to reflect upon the temporalities of music in this manner, for he offers much that is worth considering. Indeed, for me the best part of the book is its most speculative one—the very end, where the temporalities of music are placed alongside the broader, evolutionary temporalities posited by J.T. Fraser in his hierarchical theory of time. According to this theory, time has evolved through the history of the universe in both the physical and biological worlds. In musical terms, this process has described a course from vertical to linear, from a primary sense of being to one of becoming. Yet one type of time has not displaced another—rather, all varieties of time we have known exist today. In our era, nonlinearity has been rediscovered without forsaking linearity. The broad stylistic range of today's music is in part a reflection of the many different temporalities we have come to experience through art and in our world.

Kramer states in his preface that his chief aim is to offer suggestions for listening to many kinds of music. Our listening strategies surely stand to be affected, if only by our increased awareness of time and its possibilities. But The Time of Music offers us more than an invitation to such awareness. It lays the groundwork for a more rigorous theory of musical time, one which promises to draw heavily from research in musical perception. It reveals time as a subject with very personal and philosophical implications, by linking the temporalities of art with those of society. It suggests new areas for the study of time in music, which extend beyond the standard discussions of meter and rhythm.3 And perhaps best of all, it leaves the reader asking other questions: for instance, what is the relationship of time to genre, or instrumental to operatic time? Kramer has offered us some rich thought which can now be extended in many directions. For this, he is to be commended.


1In addition, such a hearing may provide us "a meaningful alternative to our traditionally well-ordered and, in a sense, nostalgic time experiences [p. 151]." There is a bit of a program here. Kramer really wants us listeners to partake fully of the aesthetic possibilities of time in our era. Similarly, he wants composers and performers to realize that as a result of technology, listeners are no longer bound by temporalities and concert rituals that perpetuate closure: "Composers who continue to ignore this fact are as far behind the times as are the aptly named conservatories of music that train performers without educating them about the recording techniques with which they will inevitably have to deal [p. 69]."

2Agon is a case in point. Admittedly, it may not be as pure a moment form as one by Stockhausen. But it is certainly a most discontinuous work, one which lends itself well to Kramer's subsequent analysis in terms of moments. I wouldn't deny that a sense of recollected proportions is important to the coherence and to the very aura of this work. But the memorable content of its sections does not hinder our ability to recall their relative durations—rather, I would venture, enhances it.

3Of course, meter and rhythm are two fundamental aspects of musical time, and Kramer does devote an early chapter to this subject. I have not discussed the chapter because much of it reviews the work of others (such as Cone, Cooper and Meyer, and Lerdahl and Jackendoff). However, two of Kramer's ideas about meter deserve mention here. The first is that meter need not be regular for meter to exist. The second is that meter "can be understood on all levels as fundamentally regular, but with frequent irregularities. And meter can be understood as deeply hierarchic, because the introduction of irregularities on one level does not necessarily destroy the fundamental regularity of deeper levels [p. 102]." Viewed in this way, meter is not only a flexible but an expressive element of musical time. Indeed, the temporality of music has meaning in part through the various patternings of meter on different hierarchic levels. Kramer's subsequent analysis of Beethoven's Opus 135 shows how meter and rhythm support the principles of linear and nonlinear time in this work.

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