Thinking about time in music

Much of my composing searches for answers in a never-ending quest: What is time in music?

The majority of my compositions have some sort of intense rhythmic element, the most recent being a 19/16 journey for a string quartet. The quartet is entitled Atmospheres tangentially inspired by Ligeti's orchestral piece of the same name.  Rather than create a sonic journey as he did, I use each movement as a glimpse at various cloud formations, using their shapes as impetus. The first movement is entitled Cumulonimbus and therefore has numerous different elements popping out all over the place and covers a broad range for the instruments.  The second movement is entitled Stratus, a low lying cloud formation with less shape than other forms.  By using different cloud formations as the genesis of the idea, each movement will have it's own character, expressing not only the shape of the clouds, but their movement through the sky, through time.

In the researching what to do and how to accomplish what I want to do with the rest of the movements, I began to imagine interesting potential paths for the music.  The underlying idea for the string quartet is based on Ligeti's two types of music: clocks and clouds. Music that has a clear pulse falls into the clock category; shifts of tonal color and sonic shapes are what Ligeti called cloud music. The first movement of my string quartet (in the challenging 19/16 meter) is definitely a clock type piece. I endeavor to capture the essence of the title, Cumulonimbus, through the irregular pulse of 19, divided up in a variety of uneven ways.

The second movement is titled Stratus, a type of cloud that lies low to the ground and hovers, quietly shifting in space. The influence of Ligeti, harking back to his String Quartet No. 1, is felt even more in this movement. It has a sense of shifting color and blended tones. Where Ligeti and I diverge is a sense of timelessness with the music. I'm writing the movement without a time signature and without bar lines. I think the only way to actually play the piece will be from the score as entrances and exits will have to be relational to what the other players are doing.  In some respects, the players will "create" the piece fresh each time it's played.

This sort of music isn't really possible with a large ensemble, because what I'm asking of the players is to be aware not only of self, but of how that self fits in the subtle shifts of the other players. Perhaps all quartet music is that to some degree, but in Stratus the "pulse" (if there is one) is going to shift as the players move through the music. I don't want a sense of measured time and yet, there should be a sense of journey.

Composing the second movement is taking me fairly far from my normal style. What I'm hoping to achieve is not just a "cloud" piece, but something that when played as part of the whole also fits. There should be connections drawn from this slow, timeless music, to the perpetual onslaught of Cumulonimbus, the movement prior. The entire quartet will be an exploration of time in music for me. What is time? How do we mark it? How does it influence us?

I don't know the future, but  it will be interesting to see where time takes me.


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