thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: time

On The Tour De France And Time


“Time passed indifferently, barely leaving a trace.” – Haruki Murakami,
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

“For these riders, time is running out.” – Phil Leggett

Though the event ended a few days ago, the last few weeks had me watching a lot of Le Tour de France. (I also wrote about Le Tour two years ago here.) By turns enthralling and humdrum, the cycling race put me in a zone while giving me stuff to think about. While watching this year’s race I thought about why I enjoy it so much. Some of the obvious reasons: the spectacular scenery, my recognition as an endurance enthusiast that the cyclists are pumping out mile after mile of steady speed, wattage, and high heart rates, and of course, the magnificent play-by-play commentary, especially the careful words of veterans Phil Leggett and Paul Sherwen. Phil is particularly good; he could narrate the goings on of a bee hive and I’d watch, totally entranced. But a deeper reason for my affection for the TDF is that it slows down my sense of time.


Clocking in at twenty-one days, the TDF is the longest televised sporting event. For some two thousand miles, it just goes and goes and goes. For most of July you can tune in every morning and see cyclists snake their way through the French countryside and mountains. Progress–for both the cyclists and you the viewer—appears slow. On any given day at any given moment not a lot seems to be happening, in part because the distances the cyclists must traverse are so immense. Those aerial helicopter views of the peloton give you a sense of the vastness of the natural landscapes of forest, rock, and sky against which the cyclists appear as mere specks, pedaling away.


My sense of time shifts when I watch the TDF. I notice change in much more gradual increments than what I’m used to, gauging progress happening so slowly, so imperceptibly, sometimes with the threat of potential drama up ahead (incoming bad weather, a steep decline), but usually nothing once we actually get there. And then I reach a point during the day’s TV coverage where I don’t care so much that it’s even a race and that the athletes and their teams are fiercely competing to come out on top. The TDF has become pure process, a very slow rhythm (distance traveled) with very fast subdivisions (the cyclists’ pedaling cadence). In a welcome change from my everyday soundscape, the race is like a music without sound, a performance that begins in one place, takes you on a gradual journey, and then ends when it’s done.


On Salvador Dali’s “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory”


There is something unsettling about Salvador Dali’s The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1954).

On the face of it, it looks like an outdoor scene composed of water, sky, and mountains.

But what about those rectangular blocks and melting clocks?

The blocks convey one time sense moving forward in an orderly way. But the blocks encounter several melted clocks along their path, suggesting perhaps that time is not as “straightforward” as the blocks’ orderliness might suggest. (Melting clocks first appeared in Dali’s earlier 1931 painting, The Persistence of Memory.)

The image also depicts underwater and above water scenes. Yet a glance to the far left of the image reveals that what appeared to be a water line is in fact just a cloaked surface pinned up to some trees that are themselves without grounding.

So what is holding everything together?

Behind the rectangular blocks moving in an orderly way, behind the underwater and above water scenes, and behind the mountains, is a blank field of being. Sky and water now seem like apparitions.

There’s nothing holding this together.

Surreal? Certainly. And thought-provoking too.

On Timing And The Nature Of Blogging


Recently I’ve been experimenting with timers–using countdown apps on my phone to time whatever it is I’m working on. Lest you think I’m one of those people who are overly into the analytics of timing everything–I’m not (yet). No, I’m one of those people who generally loses track of time and looks up to marvel at how much of it has passed. So I thought it might be a good idea to try clocking things. In fact, I just started a timer on this blog post (17 minutes and quickly elapsing).

One effect of working with a timer is that it allowed me to understand how long I was actually attending to something. Usually, tedious tasks feel like they’re taking forever. But with the timer adding structure by way of a preset time frame (counting down) the tasks feel…lighter. Just a few sessions with a timer has had lasting effects too. I began thinking about everyday tasks that I was avoiding and how long they actually take. For instance, it turns out that organizing that shelf crammed with t-shirts took all of 3 minutes. Hmm.

Timer = a plan of action = clarity of purpose = surprising perception.


Blogging is another kind of self-timer. I write different kinds of posts, each of which has its own built-in temporality. Some posts are quite long–book reviews, for instance. These posts are built by gradually adding ideas together over days and weeks. I suppose they could be rushed but they want to take their time so I let them. I revisit them from time to time, re-read them, add a bit, and then leave them alone. Their length means that they have a slowness about them, and over time the posts grow until they’re finished. (Timer has 5 minutes left!) Other posts, like some of the Microthoughts (such as my previous post on the music of Harold Budd) are quicker and finished in minutes in a single sitting (literally: while sitting on a subway). The brevity of these posts and the quickness of their completion is influenced by context. (Timer has 1 minute left!) I use the timing of my situation (getting off the subway in 20 seconds!) to shape how fast I write. (17 minutes are up! Done!)

Three (Fictional) Grooves On (Real) Advice

It takes as long as it takes.

That was her advice to me.
Take your time–meaning:
don’t go slow per se,
but move at just the right cadence and clip,
claim the time, make it yours,
grasp its contours, bring it with you,
take it somewhere, play with it
and examine its parts,
unravel and lay it flat
to plot its geographies,
stretch and fold it over itself,
wrapping experiences to keep them fresh.

“That’s a fine bit of advice”
so says my inner voice,
“but I think you’re running out of time.
Best get going now, get on track,
get with the flow,
as long as you feel the current,
nothing like right now
for that’s why they call it the present.
“That’s a fine bit of advice”–
my inner worrier speaks
a truth as seen from the outside, and yet
are not looming deadlines and such
about as real as those heat waves up ahead
that disappear
in the time it takes to reach them?

Student: “Teacher, how long
until I can produce a sound like yours?”
Teacher: “It takes as long as it takes.”
Student: “And why do you move
your hands like so
after you hit the drum,
for surely the sound
has already sounded?”
Teacher: “It takes the sound
on a journey off of the drum
and outwards to hearts and ears.”
Student: “And tell me,
do you keep time
with your body or your mind?”
Teacher: “I keep it with both.
And my counting is a way to notice
the many things passing
through the time of the music.”
Student: “But I need more moments to take this all in!”
Teacher: “You have all the time
that you need.”

It takes as long as it takes.

On Running, Time, And The Flow Of Non-Thinking Thinking: Running With The Kenyans

Among the joys of Adharanand Finn’s Running With The Kenyans, a succinct and engaging tale of the author’s experiences long distance running training at high altitude in the East African countryside, is the realization that there aren’t really any secrets to East African running prowess besides constant training, continuous pushing of body boundaries, as well as what I imagine is some kind of awesome capacity to endure the pains that comes with this kind of excruciating endurance exertion. As I read I found myself thinking of that phrase “there’s no there there.” For the runners–no special shoes, no special eating regimen, and even no special precision practice routines and post-run analyses. Just run, rest, eat, and run some more, over and over again. A repetitive monastic running groove, you could call it, powered by a desire for international athletic success.

Finn’s trajectory as the visiting runner is predictable but also insightful. Over the course of his several month stay in Kenya, he gets fitter and faster through his training with a running club and eventually runs an impressive sub 3-hour marathon. Along the way, he observes his Kenyan colleagues as they train and realizes that their method revolves around a minimal and simple approach to training that works to effectively bypass over-thinking it. In one of the most fascinating passages, Finn compares Western and African approaches to using a watch while running. It turns out that the watch, that enduring symbol of the Western conception of time, can be used in ways other than just quantifying experience. Finn observes:

“while in the West we time everything so that we can measure and analyze it afterward, or keep track of our running pace so we can calculate whether we need to slow down or speed up, Kenyans use their watches in a completely different way. By running their intervals according to the regimented beeps of their watches, Kenyans are actually taking the thinking out of their running. When the watch beeps, they speed up. When it beeps again, they slow down.[…] Each session is forgotten as soon as it is done. The timing is just a way of structuring the training, of telling them when to start and when to stop.”

What struck me about this passage was how it conjures a kind of empty mind mindset of those Kenyan runners with their beeping watches which they mostly ignore except as a sonic cue. Without regular recourse to the numbers of pace timings, the runners often use only a sensed bio-feedback from the feeling of what happens (to borrow a phrase from neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s book) to their moving bodies as guidance.  In this sense, the runners seem like really good listeners to the feeling of what they’re doing as they’re doing it.


I found this really interesting, both because I sometimes like to measure and time and document things (running included, of course) and because I just as often “zone out” and really have no idea of what I’m doing (while running, obviously, and in many other activities!). In other words, I like precision as a self-imposed game, but often just go by feel.

And as per usual with things I read, I found myself thinking analogically, trying to find links between running and musical practices. One memory that came to mind upon reading about the beeping watches was my once upon a time endless practicing with metronomes, letting the machine take care of the steady quarter note pulse–click, click, click, click–while I busied myself with playing different subdivisions of those clicks: 123-123-123-123 (a triplet), or 12345-12345-12345-12345 (a quintuplet), and so on. (If you’re wondering: yes, percussionists and drummers can find this kind of activity fun…) Thinking about it now, the metronome, like the watch, took the conscious thinking of out of the activity, turning it into a game for the hands to try to fit their subdivisions into the allotted space of those steady quarter note clicks. (Sidebar question: Does playing with a metronome ever really improve one’s sense of time? Isn’t time sense–like running pacing, maybe–a more internalized, body-generated mechanism?)

This non-conscious thinking while doing also reminded me of a conversation I had with a composer schoolmate years ago. He had just listened to my performance of a piece I had written for vibraphone and said: “It sounds like you really like the Dorian mode.” I was puzzled because in his question was an assumption that I had consciously known what I was doing when I put the music together, thinking about scales and Dorian modes and whatnot. From my perspective though, I didn’t know what I was doing, but my hands did manage to find things that sounded right, working with the constraints posed by the layout of the vibraphone to narrow down possibilities and then structure the piece around these constraints. Thinking about it now, the layout of the instrument, like the beeping watch for the runners, took the conscious thinking of out the composing process, turning it into a game for the hands.

But back to the lessons of running. In sum, I took away from Finn’s book a sense that we might do well to structure some of our activities so that we can take out conscious thinking to better get on with the flow.

Representing Time: On Christian Marclay’s “The Clock”

While I was in Ottawa last week, timing would have it that Christian Marclay’s epic video installation piece The Clock was showing at the National Gallery. I of course made a point of going to see it.

The Clock is a 24-hour video collage composed of thousands of film clips (culled from the entire history of global cinema, not just Hollywood), each of which makes visual reference to time via glimpses of all manner of clocks and watches. At any given minute in the 1,440 minutes that make up its twenty-four hour length, The Clock shows one or several visual representations of that precise moment in time. And here’s the best part: the work is synced to the real world time zone you happen to be in as you’re watching. So as I wandered in the National Gallery with a friend at 2:45pm on a Friday afternoon, Marclay’s movie was showing clips of time pieces showing 2:45pm. Very cool.

Marclay creates in a variety of media, but is particularly well-known for his pioneering sound work as a turntable artist, manipulating records and record players in live performances since the late 1970s. One of the pleasures of The Clock is that Marclay brings a DJ’s sensibility to the film’s soundtrack. You can hear it as one clip segueways to another, the incidental sounds from one scene dovetailing seamlessly with the next in endlessly inventive ways. The soundtrack never cuts, only flows, which lends the visuals an enhanced coherence. And while The Clock as a whole may not mean anything specific–aside, I suppose, from chronicling the passing of time itself and documenting its representation in film–as you watch you can’t help but search for meaning and connections through its endless stream of clips. It’s quite the immersive experience too: sitting on the couches in the pitch dark room watching the large screen, you sense the real minutes effortlessly ticking away. Watching The Clock feels like watching a clock, only it’s a clock that is constantly metamorphosing and superimposed with multiple visual and sonic narratives.

By the way, I watched The Clock with a somewhat impatient friend for about 15 minutes. Ironically enough, he kept looking distractedly at his phone to check . . . the time!

Here is a short BBC news report on the work:

And a fascinating profile of Marclay in The New Yorker is here.

Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation With Taal

On Embracing The (Repetitious) Mundane: Two Works By Jean-Philippe Toussaint

I recently discovered some short novels by French novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint. In his books Monsieur (1986) and Television (1997), Toussaint explores with whimsical yet clinical detail the dynamics of repetition–along with the virtues of doing very little to get by in life so that its textures and contours are revealed to us.

In Monsieur, our otherwise unnamed protagonist is a case study in what Toussaint calls “bone idleness.”  We follow Monsieur as he goes through the motions of everyday life–going to his “executive” office job (where it’s not at all clear what it is exactly that he does), socializing, playing ping-pong with his nephew–all while going to great lengths to exert himself as little as possible.  He hides, he escapes, he tries to blend in, he strives to be invisible.  As a result of these strategies, time slows down or at least seems purified, and living becomes light as Monsieur glides through his days, savoring whatever he happens to be doing right here, right now.  Monsieur, both the book and its protagonist, is a quiet celebration of the neutral and the mundane: taking it easy while maintaining acute awareness.

Television treads on similar territory, only this time the protagonist is a French academic who has given up his TV habit and moved to Berlin for the summer to do research for a monograph.  But the micro-rhythms of everyday life soon consume him and he gives in to procrastination, making his many leisure pursuits–from sunbathing to sitting in cafes to swimming–the main event.  He also keeps finding television’s ghostly, flickering presence wherever he goes.

In both of these books there’s an almost ethnographic attention paid to the textured minutiae of humdrum lived experience: how things and activities look and sound, smell and feel.  Unlike most novels, the “action” in these stories  is really not the point.  Instead, Toussaint engages readers in sufficient detail that we forget all about the need for the narrative to “go” somewhere.  The message?  If managed and attended to just right, humdrum experience can blossom with insight and small, easily overlooked revelation.

On Being Perpetually Mindful

There is an iPhone app called Countdown Pro which is a backwards moving digital clock that counts down from any duration in days, hours, minutes and seconds, allowing you to input multiple events on far off dates and then keep tabs on their impending arrival.  I suppose the app is one way to grasp time’s ongoing flow and the metamessage here is that you don’t have all the time in the world.

On a related note, a regular forward moving clock can take on new meanings when there’s text instructions directly underneath it.  Chef Thomas Keller has harnessed the power of this juxtaposition on the kitchen walls of his restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se where one sees this:

No matter how it’s counted, time is fleeting.


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