Time and its Double: An Alchemical Inquiry


Contributed by Michael Gardiner

That the process of the universal or truth—they are one and the same thing—is transversal relative to all available instances of knowledge means that the universal is always an incalculable emergence, rather than a describable structure. (Alain Badiou, Thinking the Event, 28, emphasis mine)

Echoing this notion, Michel Foucault famously said “knowledge is not for knowing, knowledge is for cutting.” Thought and truth are transversal events—they cut through other systems, other lines, mark an intersection, which in turn leads to emergences that are ‘incalculable’, precisely because they are becoming(s) in a temporal and generative process of unfolding.  And this is markedly different from structural fixity.

Example of a transversal system:


 Thinking marks an intersection. As a subset of thought so too does listening.  Music is of course many things, but first and foremast it is a temporal art. As such, its ability to capture and sculpt multiple layers of time, resulting in a kind of hybrid, differential, or transversal time has always captivated me as a theorist and composer, and was one of the first things that drew me into the sound-world of noh.  An intersection of times. One can look at, listen to, and analyze the separate components of a transversal time, but this is very different from experiencing, first-hand, its ‘emergent effect’.  Poetically, I tend to hear these temporal formations as using time to destroy time, resulting in an experience of timelessness.

I don’t really want to do any analysis in this post, just create a gallery, put some pieces next to each other, and then simply listen to the emergent effects/affects.

In the western canon, layered musical time is certainly not unknown; the 14th century ars nova vocal tradition, for example, involved a complex layered time, as did many contrapuntal works in the centuries that followed, especially those of Bach—the keyboard cadenza in the 5th Brandenburg Concerto is worth the price of admission—but not nearly to the extent that irrupted in the 20th century. [And this is one of the reasons why, to my skewed ears, noh has always sounded exceedingly modern…]

The recent death of American composer Elliot Carter (1908-2012), famous for his experiments in multiple tempos notated and played at the same time, got me thinking once again about layered musical time. Here is a link to the first movement of Carter’s third string quartet in which two duos play against each other (first violin & viola versus second violin & cello).

After about 15 seconds you can really start to hear the two strains of music as the two time-feels differentiate (and I’ll understand completely if you don’t want to listen to the whole thing… its not for everyone.)

Or, French composer/conductor Pierre Boulez and his composition Rituel, in which two entire ensembles play against each other, but in a looser fashion. In the Carter quartet, all of the differential tempos are written into a single score, whereas with Boulez’s composition, the two ensembles’ music is all written down, but its exact overlap is not precisely determined, but left up to the performers.

This piece takes a little bit longer to get going, but from 1:34 – 2:04 you can hear the second ensemble enter, playing ‘against’ the first, to magical effect, I think. (Although an orchestral piece, Rituel’s use of the Indian tabla drum and Javanese influenced gongs furthermore reveal Boulez’s interest in non-western musical timbres and sense of musical time.)

Of course, the musical surfaces of noh are noticeably different, but the abstract musical quality of multiple times coalescing into a hybrid form are indeed present, especially in sections with ‘unmatched’ rhythm, where either the voice and/or flute do not explicitly line up with the drums temporal demarcations.

If we listen to an excerpt from the sashi section of the play Matsukaze, it begins with the slow, elastic pulse of the drums and drummers’ sliding vocal calls (or kakegoe). After about 40 seconds the waki enters with his recitation, which also has a sliding vocal contour, but at a much slower rate that the drummers calls, and not lined up rhythmically. I’ve included the spectrographs just so you can see the different ‘angles’ and rates of the vocal slides.  The first spectrograph shows the opening drum hits and the otsuzumi player’s first two vocal slides. The second graph continues, showing the kotsuzumi player’s vocal slides with more of a rounded contour, moving into the waki’s entrance (where you can see the arrows overlapping).



After the sashi comes an instrumental section, which is then followed by the issei, another vocal piece, this time sung by the shite and shite tsure at a noticeably slower rate (thereby revealing their superior stature, an interesting temporal semiotic…).

In addition to hearing the drummers’ time and vocal slides against those of the shite, I also hear the global temporal deceleration as we move from the sashi section into the issei.  The multiple, overlapped times between the drums and the actors not only intersect with each other, but the whole hybrid itself is in motion, thereby adding another layer.  To me this is why the musical result is more of an ‘emergence’ than a ‘structure’, to refer back to the Badiou quotation—the thing itself (the time containing the times) is always in motion.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
-TS Eliot, from Burnt Norton


About Theatre Nohgaku

Noh, one of the oldest continuing stage arts, combines highly stylized dance, chant, music, mask and costume with intense inner concentration and physical discipline, creating a uniquely powerful theatrical experience. Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.
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