Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Bells! I can hear bells!

A few posts ago, I mentioned J. T. Fraser's philosophical investigation of time, Of Time, Passion, and Knowledge. Early on, Fraser identifies a hierarchy of layers where time behaves differently. At the lowest layer, which Fraser calls atemporal, events take place in periods less than two milliseconds; their temporal separation is simply not possible for human perception. The next layer up, prototemporality, is for events that take place in the 20-50 millisecond range. These events can be counted, but not placed in a temporal order. In the eotemporal range (around 130 milliseconds) events can be counted and placed in succession, but there is not enough of a present to establish a preferred temporal direction. The nootemporal layer defines our present, with memory and expectation, personal identity, and the whole symbolic apparatus that defines us as human. The biotemporal layer incorporates aging and death. Each layer has its own laws that apply consistently for the events that occur during the respective timeframes, and each layer has its own set of indeterminacies, which must be resolved at a higher layer.

Fraser's different time scales are an apt metaphor for the piano piece that's been taking a lot of my practice time recently, Maurice Ravel's La Vallée des cloches (Valley of the Bells) from the Miroirs piano suite of 1905. The piece moves at different time scales, slowly enough to be easily audible, which makes it unlike any other work to my knowledge (lots of music moves at different time scales, but it's generally much quicker, and therefore not as easily comprehensible). Ravel supposedly was inspired by sounds of all the different bell towers in Paris ringing at midday, and he successfully captures the feelings of distance and proximity, as well as differences in size, of the different bells.

The opening measures set in motion five different bell sonorities, from the tinkling of a tiny carillon, to a pair of descending fourths that go ding-dong, a single low tone, and a set of three repeated tones that strike the hour (and which are repeated thematically throughout the piece).

Ravel was quite specific in his directions to pianists that each of the timbres must be different, and all within a mysterious pianissimo. (Ravel's own performance on a reproducing piano is available both at emusic.) Bell sounds continue through the piece, and what gives me the sense that the time scales are different is that each bell is independent of the other. They don't meet up on the downbeat, which, since Ravel changes meter fairly often, is a bit of a moving target anyway.

Although all music is an art that takes place in time, individual musical works generally adopt a single approach for their duration. Minimal music, for example, maintains a constant, motoric rhythm that carries the listener through the piece, and the tension comes from heaing melodic and harmonic fragments shift in and out of phase. Drone music slows time down, striving for an ever-present now that is stretched indefinitely into the future and past. But even at its most linear, music embraces all of Fraser's layers, appealing "to processes conscious and unconscious, both biological and noetic, and draws on elements predictable as well as unpredictable."

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