Conference Presentation on Musical Time
Cours du 23/02/1978
Timothy S. Murphy,

I would like to make an initial remark on the method employed. Pierre Boulez has chosen five works: the relations among these works are not relations of influence, dependence or *****, nor of progression or evolution from one work to the other either. There would be virtual relations among these works, rather, which are only released [se dégagent] in their confrontation. And when these works confront one another in this way, in a sort of cycle, one specific contour [profil] of musical time X rises up. So it's not at all a method of abstraction which would go towards a general concept of time in music. Boulez obviously could have chosen another cycle: for example a work by Bartok, one by Stravinsky, one by Varèse, one by Berio... This would then release another specific contour of time, or the specific contour of a variable other than time. Then we could superimpose all these contours, make a veritable map [carte] of variations, which would follow the musical singularities each time, instead of extracting a generality on the basis of what are called examples.

But in the precise case of the cycle chosen by Boulez, what one sees or hears is a non-pulsed time [which] is released from pulsed time. Work I shows this release by a very precise play of physical displacements. Works II, III and IV each show a different aspect of this non-pulsed time, without claiming to exhaust all possible aspects. Finally V (Carter) shows how non-pulsed time can restore [redonner] a variable pulsation of a new type.

Well, the question would be to know what this non-pulsed time consists of, this floating [flottant] time which is almost what Proust called ?a little time in the pure state.? The first, most obvious case of this time is that it's [?] a duration [durée], that is to say a time freed from regular or irregular measure [mesure]. A non-pulsed time thus puts us in the presence of a multiplicity of durations, heterochronous, qualitative, non-coincident, non-communicating: one doesn't march in time [en mesure] any more than one swims or flies in time. The problem then is how are these durations going to be able to be articulated, seeing that we are deprived in advance of the very general classical solution which consists in entrusting to the Mind [Esprit] the task of imposing a common measure or a metrical cadence on these vital durations. Since we can no longer resort to this homogeneous solution, it's necessary to produce an internal articulation among these rhythms or durations. We find for example that biologists, when they study the vital rhythms of 24-hour periods, abandon all thought of articulating them on the basis of a common measure, however complex, or on a sequence of processes, but rather invoke what they call a population of molecular oscillators [population d'oscillateurs moléculaires], oscillating molecules coupled together, which ensure the communication of rhythms or transrhythmicity [transrythmicité]. But this is not at all a metaphor, to speak of sonorous molecules in music, the coupling together of races or groups, okay, which ensures this internal communication of heterogeneous durations. A whole becoming-molecular of music, which is not solely linked to electronic music, will be made possible, although the same type of elements runs through the heterogeneous systems. This discovery of sonorous molecules in place of pure notes and tones is very important in music and is made in a very distinct way according to such and such behavior [comportement]. For example Messiaen's non-retrogradable rhythms. In short, a non-pulsed time is a time made of heterogeneous durations, whose relations rest on a molecular population, and no longer on a unifying metrical form.

And then there would be a second aspect of this non-pulsed time, this time concerning the relation of time and individuation. Generally an individuation is made according to two coordinates, that of a form and that of a subject (?). Classical individuation is this sort, of someone or something insofar as it is endowed with a form. But we all know and we all live in other types of individuation in which there is no longer either form or subject: it's the individuation of a landscape, or a day or time of day, or an event. Noon-midnight, midnight the hour of crime, what a terrible five o'clock in the evening, the wind, the sea, energies are individuations of this type. So it's obvious that musical individuation, for example the individuation of a phrase, has much more to do with this second type than with the first. Individuation in music raises problems as complex as those of time and in relation to time. But in fact these paradoxical individuations which are made neither by the specification of the form nor by the assignment of a subject are themselves ambiguous because they are capable of being heard or understood at two levels. There is a certain kind of listening [écoute] characteristic of someone who is moved by a piece of music, which consists in making associations: for example, one acts like Swann, one associates Vinteuil's little phrase with the Bois de Boulogne; or one associates groups of sounds and groups of colors, even if that makes phenomena of synaesthesia occur; or one even associates a motif with a character, as in a first hearing of Wagner. And it would be a mistake to say that this level of listening is grotesque, we all need it, including Swann, including Vinteuil the composer. But at a more contracted [tendu] level, it's no longer the sound which refers to a landscape, but the music develops a sonorous landscape which is inside it: Liszt is the one who set out this idea of a sonorous landscape, with an ambiguity such that we no longer know if the sound refers to an associated landscape or if, on the contrary, a landscape is so interiorized within the sound that it exists only in the sound.

We might say as much about another notion, that of color: we might consider the sound-color relation as a simple association, or a synaesthesia, but we can consider the durations or rhythms to be colors in themselves, specifically sonorous colors which are superimposed on visible colors, and do not have either the same criteria nor the same ***** as visible colors. We might say as much again about a third notion, that of character: we can consider certain motifs in opera in association with a character, but Boulez has shown clearly how motifs in Wagner are not associated solely with an external character but were transformed, had an autonomous life in a floating non-pulsed time in which they themselves became internal characters. These three very different notions of sonorous landscape, audible colors, and rhythmic characters are for us examples of individuation, of the process of individuation which belongs to a floating time, made of heterochronous durations and molecular oscillations.

Lastly there would be a third characteristic. Non-pulsed time is not only a time freed from measure, that is, a duration, nor only a new procedure of individuation freed from the theme and the subject, but rather it's the birth of a material free of the form. In a certain way, European classical music could be defined by the relation of a brute auditory material with a sonorous form that selected, was imposed on this material. This implied a certain hierarchy of matter-life-mind, which went from the simplest to the most complex and ensured the domination of a metrical cadence as the homogenization of durations into a certain equivalence of the parts of sonorous space. On the contrary, in current music we are present at the birth of a sonorous material which is no longer a simple or undifferentiated material at all, but a carefully elaborated, very complex material; and this material will no longer be subordinated to a sonorous form, since it has no need of one: for its part it will be given the task [chargé] of rendering sonorous or audible those forces which, by themselves, are not audible, and the differences among these forces. A completely different coupling, elaborated sonorous material/imperceptible forces that the material will render audible or perceptible, is substituted for the pair brute material/sonorous form. Perhaps one of the first and most striking cases would be Debussy's dialogue of the wind and sea. In the cycle proposed by Boulez, this would be piece II, ?Modes de valeurs et d'intensités,? and piece IV, ?Eclat.? A very complex sonorous material is given the task of rendering appreciable and perceptible those forces of another nature, duration, time, intensity, silence, which are not sonorous in themselves. Sound is only a means of capturing something else; music no longer finds its unity in sound. We cannot determine a break [coupure] in this respect between classical music and modern music, and above all not with atonal or serial music; a musician makes material out of everything, and already classical music, under the pair matter/complex sonorous form, made the play of another pair occur, elaborated sonorous material/non-sonorous force. There is no break but rather a bubbling or seething [bouillonement]; when, at the end of the 19th century, attempts were made at a generalized chromaticism or a chromaticism free of temperament (...) music rendered more and more audible what had worked within it at all times: non-sonorous forces like Time, the organization of Time, silent intensities, rhythms of every nature. And it's here that non-musicians, despite their lack of competence, can most easily have encounters with musicians. Music is not solely an affair of musicians, to the extent that it renders sonorous those forces which are not sonorous, forces that can be more or less revolutionary, more or less conformist, for example, the organization of time.

In every domain we are done believing in a hierarchy that would go from the simple to the complex, according to the matter-life-mind scale. It could be on the contrary that matter is more complex than life, and that life is a simplification of matter. It could be that vital rhythms and durations are not organized and measured by a spiritual [spirituelle] form (?) but take their articulation from the outside, from molecular processes that traverse them. In philosophy as well we have abandoned the traditional coupling of an undifferentiated thinkable matter with categorical forms of thought or grand concepts. We are trying to work with carefully elaborated thought materials to render thinkable those forces that are not thinkable by themselves. It's the same story for music when it elaborates a sonorous material to render audible those forces that are not audible in themselves. In music, it's no longer a matter of an absolute ear but rather an impossible ear that can alight on someone, arise briefly in someone. In philosophy it's no longer a matter of an absolute thought such as classical philosophy wanted to embody, but rather an impossible thought, that is to say the elaboration of a material that renders thinkable those forces that are not thinkable by themselves.