The choral piece Miserere by the Italian composer Gregorio Allegri (1582, Rome–1652, Rome) is assumed to have been written in the 1630s and was regularly performed in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It is a work for nine voices, divided between two choirs. The piece consists of six sections, which are basically repetitions, in each of which a different line of Psalm 51 is sung. Today, when I listen to this piece outside any religious context, I feel as if the piece could go on and on. Listening to it, there is no difference for me, for instance, between minute three and minute eight. I am in a state of supreme concentration during these 12 minutes or so, with no sense of now or later or before. The piece creates its own time, and in these repetitions, one loses the sense of time. It has the effect of a piercing Now.
The Italian composer Luigi Nono (1924, Venice–1990, Venice) composed several of his late works with fragments, which, in their structure and placement, finely and thoughtfully shape the form and temporal course of the piece. In 1984 he composed the orchestral piece A Carlo Scarpa, architetto, ai suoi infiniti possibili, which consists of 21 fragments and lasts about 10 minutes. Again, when I listen to the piece, I find myself in a flow of sound, very reduced, made up of certain pitches which, with the utmost concentration on the musical materials in their total length, creates a unity—a sound architecture, a vertical moment that is extended horizontally. His orchestral piece No hay caminos – hay que caminar (1987) is approximately 30 minutes long. Here too one is transported into a state in which the beginning and the end play no particular role. What is important is to be in this sound, where, on the one hand, time is running, and, on the other hand, stops.
For me, a work of art breaks the linearity of the time measured by clocks and creates its own time for itself.
Letting go of time
Carving a pose into the air
and lasting over time.
For me, this is the relationship between a sculpture and time.
In the sculpture Turtle (1980), the Iranian artist Bahman Mohassess (1931, Rasht–2010, Rome) shows the existential moment when the stability of life tips over, when suddenly an end is near, when fear makes breathing difficult. Mohassess captures this fleeting moment in the sculpture, making it last. At this Now, time stands still—a blink of an eye that loses its transience, a nunc stans.
In Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf writes about those moments which shaped her childhood, those moments of being:
Many bright colours; many distinct sounds; some human beings, caricatures; comic; several violent moments of being, always including a circle of the scene which they cut out: and all surrounded by a vast space—that is a rough visual description of childhood. This is how I shape it; and how I see myself as a child, roaming about, in that space of time which lasted from 1882 to 1895. A great hall I could liken it to; with windows letting in strange lights; and murmurs and spaces of deep silence. But somehow into that picture must be brought, too, the sense of movement and change.1
What does one experience in these moments that distinguishes them from the others and constitutes these special “moments of being” that are not forgotten and last in remembrance?
What is the time of a sound, and how long can it last?
In 2018, I composed a trilogy focused on sound and its own time. In the first piece of this trilogy, at the same moment, harp and double bass form the core instrumentation. If a low harp string is plucked once, the string vibrates for a very long time—even up to a minute—before it dies away.
The piece begins without any tempo indication. In the first measure, the strings of the harp and double bass are supposed to decay and end in silence. In this silence, the musicians are to “dream themselves into the first sound and play into its reverberation” a precise, fragile harmonic pizzicato, “flicker of a dream.” “A waiting moment” follows this blink of an eye, in which, whilst still hearing the last sound, one prepares for the next.
Inspired by Peter Handke’s Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire (1980), these fragments written over each measure indicate how long each sound can be and how much time we want to give to each sound. The durations of the sounds here are not tied to a fixed tempo, but are determined by listening.
Is it not so, that the Now acquires its duration through the attention we give it?
- Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being. A Sketch of the Past, Harvest Books, 1985, p.79.