Time and Music


Sometimes I get tired of writing about current events and politics, and want to let my mind wander in different meadows. There are many of those other wanderfields kicking around in the back of my mind, such as how "quiet quitting" relates to a spiritual dumbing-down, or how oft-overlooked hope is the dearest virtue of all. But today I stumbled across a series of articles by Maria Popova, The Marginalian, which stirred me today.

My youngest son and I share an affliction, which I am wont to call "time sickness." We seem to have some brokenness of the interior time meter we mortals all share. Sometimes time disappears for us, and it all is there present before us in the moment, which can lead to a type of time nausea. At other times, we choose to deny time its power over us, and sorrow to find it has changed our material present when we know the truth is that time is a lie. This leads to a type of time grief or even time outrage. I am sure that all the children of God have this to one extent or another, but it seems particularly keen for us compared to the rest of the family.

My son, now a missionary, has often asked me to explain why there has to be time. I usually answer with some version of "since we are here to learn for ourselves the difference between good and evil, we must be able to see clearly that good choices lead to happiness and evil choices produce misery. And that means we must have the ability to discern causality. No time, no ability to perceive causality. So we must have time in our mortal estate, though we know there is no time where God dwells, for "time is measured only to man.""

Still, for some reason, while surely part of the answer, my son and I seems to sense that it is not all the answer, and that we currently do not have the capability to understand the full answer. At one point, I threatened to buy him this T-shirt, though I know he could not wear it because of mission rules:






















While simple, there is definitely something here . . . you can feeling it moving, large and powerful, underneath the simplicity of the words.

Today, though, I came across a few of Popova's musings on time, specifically time and music. I think what she (and the individuals she cites) has to say adds something to what the fuller answer must be.

Popova starts with this:

"In a lifetime of living in this body, I have known no more powerful a homecoming than music — nothing roots us more firmly into the house of being, nothing levitates us more buoyantly to that transcendent place beyond marrow and mind. Stripped of its nihilistic drama, there is an elemental cry of truth, for me at least, in Nietzsche’s pronouncement: “Without music life would be a mistake.” Even Edna St. Vincent Millay, for all her lyrical love of life, echoed the sentiment: “Without music I should wish to die.

"If you consider music “the language of time,” music takes on a richer meaning — or, rather, it is stripped down to its elemental raw material — for without the arrow of time, without being able to tell one moment from the next, there could be no melody and no rhythm. This is what makes music our supreme laboratory for feeling and time."

Without the arrow of time, there could be no music. Music is, then, the language of time. Popova quotes Natalie Hodges, who says, "Music sculpts time. Indeed, it is a structuring of time." Time can speak to us through music in a way nothing else can. Popova has more to say:

"What, then, is being created when music is made? An image of time, argues Langer two decades before the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky defined cinema as “sculpting in time.” [Philosopher Susanne] Langer writes:

"'The elements of music are moving forms of sound; but in their motion nothing is removed. The realm in which tonal entities move is a realm of pure duration. Like its elements, however, this duration is not an actual phenomenon. It is not a period — ten minutes or a half hour, some fraction of a day — but is something radically different form the time in which our public and practical life proceeds. It is completely incommensurable with the progress of common affairs. Musical duration is an image of what might be termed “lived” or “experienced” time — the passage of life that we feel as expectations become “now,” and “now” turns into inalterable fact. Such passage is measurable only in terms of sensibilities, tensions, and emotions; and it has not merely a different measure, but an altogether different structure from practical or scientific time.

""The semblance of this vital, experiential time is the primary illusion of music. All music creates an order of virtual time, in which its sonorous forms move in relation to each other — always and only to each other, for nothing else exists there."

"Writing shortly before musician extraordinaire Nina Simone’s meditation on our experience of time, Langer adds:

""Virtual time is as separate from the sequence of actual happenings as virtual space from actual space. In the first place, it is entirely perceptible, through the agency of a single sense — hearing. There is no supplementing of one sort of experience by another. This alone makes it something quite different from our “common-sense” version of time, which is even more composite, heterogeneous, and fragmentary than our similar sense of space. Inward tensions and outward changes, heartbeats and clocks, daylight and routines and weariness furnish various incoherent temporal data, which we coordinate for practical purposes by letting the clock predominate. But music spreads out time for our direct and complete apprehension, by letting our hearing monopolize it — organize, fill, and shape it, all alone. It creates an image of time measured by the motion of forms that seem to give it substance, yet a substance that consists entirely of sound, so it is transitoriness itself. Music makes time audible, and its forms and continuity sensible.""

I suppose one might sum it up as Richard Powers expresses it: “The use of music is to remind us how short a time we have a body.” Time gives so much, and yet time is there in your life also as a timer. The ultimate timer. The beats are every beat of our heart, and when the timer stops, we are no longer in time.

In addition, there is no sound without matter. It is the perturbation of material molecules that produces sound. Popova cites Ronald Johnson who reminds us that "At the threshold of hearing the eardrum may be misplaced as little as a diameter of the smallest atom, hydrogen." Thus, Popova surmises, "Music — with all the mysterious power by which it “enters one’s ears and dives straight into one’s soul, one’s emotional center” — is made not of notes of sound but of atoms of time. And if music is made of time, and if time is the substance we ourselves are made of, then in some profound sense, we are made of music."

Not only are we made of music, but we ourselves are our own musical compositions in time. More from Popova:

"In a passage that affirms anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s wonderfully apt word-choice for how we become who we are — by “composing a life” — [Natalie] Hodges returns to the elemental matter of music:

"“Time renders most individual moments meaningless, or at least less important than they originally seemed, but it is only through the passage of time that life acquires its meaning. And that meaning itself is constantly in flux; we are always making it up and then revising as we go along, ordering and reordering our understanding of the past in real time . . .

"“Form, in music, is inherently temporal. It gives some shape to time, or at least designates the pace and manner at which we move through a particular piece. Where do we fare forward or cycle back; which moments expand, and which contract? Likewise, memory — that most universal and yet individual of temporal structures — lends form and shape to experience in biographical time. We inhabit simultaneous, concentric timescales: the time line of the past coiled within the immediacy of the present moment unfolding. Memory creates a metonymic congruence between them, melding past with present in such a way that our former selves move forward with us in time.”

"Echoing the touching defiance at the heart of Auden’s classic hymn of resistance to entropy, Hodges writes:

"“Implicit in time’s asymmetry, then, is the notion of becoming. The universe unspools itself toward a state of higher entropy; its edges fray, its dust is swept into corners, and this process of degradation and erosion is what separates the future from the past. We think of “becoming” as moving toward something final, evolving into a more perfect and more stable state over time. Yet, by proceeding forward in time, that very process must involve itself in the increasing disorder of the universe. When we seek to become something or someone else, to change our lives and leave the past behind, we necessarily abandon ourselves to entropy: We scatter old pieces of ourselves, willfully smudge our edges and make a mess of things, strive to break free of old symmetries that we feel can no longer contain us. Or, perhaps, that very instinct to change ourselves is a kind of preemptive embrace of the chaos we know is to come, a sign that we have already begun to spin out of control, that time is passing and taking us along with it and that soon nothing will be as it once was.”

"A century after Virginia Woolf was staggered in her garden into her timelessly stunning insight that “behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself” — Hodges considers the elemental truth pulsating beneath our experience of music and of our very lives:

"“It’s a strange feeling, beautiful but also eerie: not only that you can step into time’s flow, but that you are the flow itself. I suppose at the heart of that feeling, too, lies the real trouble with time: the terrifying prospect that if time is so subjective, then we are necessarily alone in our unique experience of it. But isn’t it because time lives in us that we can shape it, sculpt it into phrases and cadences and giros and ochos; still it if not stop it, bend it if not vanquish it. And share it.”"

Might it be that the songs God hears are our lives in material mortality? Might we be God's music in time? Are our Heavenly Parents moved to the core by our music?