Music happens in time. Like the bird in the above painting, classical music often moves toward a clear destination. Melodies weave a horizontal path that leads to a musical goal. Rhythms carry us forward as they increase or decrease in tempo or complexity. Harmonies progress, unfolding quickly or slowly, but are usually in motion, heading toward the end of a phrase or a double bar line.
In many classical pieces we listen for cadences, where we can take a breath either literally or figuratively. We feel the increasing tension when a piece is moving toward the climax. We let out a collective sigh when the destination has been reached. We gradually learn how to listen to music within the context of time. If we are composers, we learn to write with a sense of direction and shape. If we are performers we pay special attention to phrasing and dynamics and articulation, so that the music can breathe and move and come to life.
In our fast-paced world, we want our music, like our conversations, to “get to the point”. We are goal oriented, constantly in motion, and we want a clear sense of arrival. Much of the time we want the musical ideas to happen quickly, and we might even sneak a glance at our watches during a concert that seems to go on too long.
In the midst of a myriad of quickly moving musical journeys, a few pieces come along that ask us to take a different approach to listening, one in which time does not push ahead, and in fact barely seems to exist. Listening to timelessness is a totally different skill than listening for form or structure, shape or texture. Listening to timelessness can be quite challenging, and requires a different frame of mind.
In the above painting, unlike the “Destination” painting, there is no beginning or end, no arrival point, and no clear motion. The contemplative atmosphere suggests slow motion, or stillness. The painter, Scott Cilmi, remarks, “My new paintings continue to expand upon abstraction as an evolving language in which painter and audience correspond and share ideas with each other regarding consciousness and the inner-self… I am concerned with the expression of time or timelessness …”
Many composers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have become fascinated with creating a sense of timelessness. This list includes Messiaen, Feldman, Górecki, Pärt, and many others. Let’s look more closely at some examples of pieces that are not concerned with metronomes and measures, tempos and timelines.
Music that creates a sense of timelessness often moves very slowly, so slowly that it catches us by surprise. One example of this slow motion music is The Unanswered Question, written in 1908 by American composer Charles Ives, and then later revised in 1930 – 1935.
The first chord of The Unanswered Question lasts for 17 – 20 seconds, depending on the conductor. If this doesn’t seem like a very long time, realize that several of Chopin’s Preludes, Op. 28, are brilliant gems of arch and form, melody and motion, lasting between 25 and 40 seconds in their entirety. Ives gives us a single chord which is almost as long as an entire Prelude!
Chopin Preludes – Op. 28, no. 1 – played by Martha Argerich
Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question – 1908 and 1930-35
The New York Philharmonic is conducted by Leonard Bernstein
Throughout this piece, we hear three different layers of sound. Music scholars and music lovers have given several interpretations of the meaning of each of these three layers. Ives himself described the work as a “cosmic landscape” in which the strings portray “the silences of the Druids.” Above this quiet, slow-moving, inexorable background the solo trumpet repeatedly asks “the perennial question of existence.” The quartet of woodwinds Ives called the “fighting answers” attempt to respond to the question each time it is asked, but to no avail. In their futile attempts at answers the woodwinds become more agitated, dissonant, and chaotic until they finally stop from utter frustration. The trumpet states the question one final time, only to be answered by silence.
Silvia Santinelli summed up this piece beautifully in the program notes from the Chamber Orchestra of San Antonio: “Through The Unanswered Question, Ives makes a philosophical statement: in the immensity of creation, a question speaks louder than an answer.” He also reminds us that in the immensity of creation, time is replaced by timelessness.
Another piece which illustrates a sense of timelessness is the first movement of Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. The movement begins with an 8 part canon which moves gradually up through the string sections, leading to the soprano entrance. This entire canon, with one unchanging theme, unfolds through different modes for over 13 minutes, melts into the vocal section, then resumes again on its timeless path. The entire first movement is 27 minutes long, and seems both endless and much too short. The inevitability of the canon leaves the impression that the music continues forever on its course, even after the listener can no longer hear it.
Henryk Górecki – Symphony of Sorrowful Songs – 1st movement
In 2014 the Pulitzer Prize in Music was awarded to John Luther Adams for his stunning composition Become Ocean. This slow-paced masterpiece also won the 2015 Grammy Award for the Best Classical Contemporary Composition. The title of the piece comes from lines that John Cage wrote in tribute to the music of Lou Harrison: “Listening to it we become ocean.”
These words from Cage provide us with a clue of how to listen to timelessness. We must create a space of uninterrupted time, relax and get comfortable, let go of all expectations, turn off the mind and simply “become timelessness”.
Listen to music of timelessness as you would watch a beautiful sunset – the gorgeous colors sometimes remain stationary, sometimes change slowly and gradually, sometimes disappear, sometimes return. We are not trying to arrive anywhere, there is nothing to analyze. We are simply being still in a place out of time, and letting the music fill us.