Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see when you’re young, you’re a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years, a couple of years there … it doesn’t matter. You know. The older you get you say, “Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left.” Think about it. Thirty-five summers.
Benny the Barkeep, played by Tom Waits, in Rumblefish (1983), directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Italo Calvino’s wonderful novel If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (1979) famously begins by addressing the reader in the second person, with a description of said reader going to a bookshop to buy Calvino’s new novel, which he or she is now sitting down to read. The account of this journey and transaction is depicted in terms of a military expedition storming a citadel, where the potential reader must run the gauntlet of many other books, “past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read” and “the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them”. Between the classics you’ve either never read (and never even pretended to have read) but still want to read for the first time, or have read and want to reread, and the exciting new just published voices you’re keen to keep up with (and oh my! aren’t there so many of them now?), the never-ending task of ploughing through all those potentially rewarding, but as yet ungulped, and far from unpulped, pages, is indeed daunting.
Add to that the misgivings: “People say life is the thing, but I prefer reading” runs the oft-quoted line of Logan Pearsall Smith, which adorned Waterstones tote bags in the 1990s as part of a promotional campaign. While providing some solace and justification for bibliophiles, the inverse implication of this statement, to my mind at least, is: is reading – and, by extension, all solitary activity – really a cop-out? Shouldn’t we be out there, actively doing something, instead of passively and self-indulgently consuming stuff? The internalisation of the developed world’s glorification of the work ethic – whether through highly motivated personal ambition or stark economic necessity – the emphasis on productivity as identity-forming validation, means the societal message to the cork-lined study is that you should be doing something of material benefit, at least to yourself if not to others, even if you’ve chosen, for whatever reason or reasons, not to do so. Is there a way to make reading pay? Or is there any objective rationalisation for anything done as an end in itself? After all, if everyone downed tools to get to grips with Proust and Perec, or simply to pursue their own preferred leisure interests, the buses and trains wouldn’t run and the streets wouldn’t be swept. Under this rubric, reading is strictly recreational, and should be confined to one’s free time. So is reading just a hobby, to while away the idle hours, or is it a matter of life and death? Or something in between: an educational resource, a means of self-improvement, something that imparts some meaning, or even aesthetic pleasure? And if it is a mere cop-out, out of what is it a cop?
And that’s only the time-guzzlers that are books, or, to be more accurate, Literature. What if, as Susan Sontag wrote in Against Interpretation (1966), doubtless with herself in mind (she quotes Paul Valéry, from Monsieur Teste, as an epigraph to her essay “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes”: “I rarely lose sight of myself.”): “My idea of a writer: someone who is interested in everything.” It is an overwhelming and ultimately exhausting job, to be so promiscuous that you have a passion for too many things. Fortunately, a general interest in military history, to cite a random example, has so far eluded me, as have the niceties of medieval palaeography. However, music has always been and remains to me dearer than words; unlike Yeats, for me words alone are not certain good. Plus, on top of music and literature, I’m also fond of film. As well as attending umpteen concerts, and a fair number of literary events, I have spent a goodly proportion of my out-and-about time over the years sitting in the dark in cinemas, to say nothing of the time spent consuming the products of these pursuits in the discomfort of my own home, through my hi-fi system and my TV + surround sound setup. (Let’s not even get started on visual art, or football, in this consideration of my ways of filling in the time which, as Beckett has Estragon observe in Waiting for Godot, “would have passed in any case”, and which Vladimir, returning the ball, qualifies with, “Yes, but not so rapidly.”) I have often wished that I could have been at least three people: the fiction guy, the music guy and the film guy. Commissioning editors, and academia, certainly prefer you to be a dedicated expert in one sphere, rather than an unidentifiable, difficult to pigeonhole, jack-of-all-disciplines.
The world depends on, indeed functions on, and therefore encourages, specialisation. Your anaesthetist and your urologist may both have medical degrees, but you’d hardly want them swapping roles during your kidney transplant operation. Yet, while some individuals manage to combine elements of both, the scholar and the critic approach their work from radically different perspectives and bring to bear on any particular work vastly different skills and competencies. Scholars depend on formidable knowledge, while critics deploy acute insight. Which is not to say that critics don’t know what they are talking about, or that scholars are dry-as-dust pedants devoid of discernment. But a good critic’s forte lies in the application of an informed, refined and experienced sensibility, no matter what object is in his/her sights – they are, in Barthes’s phrase, “connoisseurs of their own consciousness” before they are specialists in any given field – while scholars spend so long concentrating exclusively on one thing they invariably have glaring deficiencies in many other areas. On the other hand, critics – especially those who do not limit themselves to being “our dance correspondent” or “our resident film buff” or “our classical music guide” or “our jazz aficionado” – invite the accusation of dilettantism from those who feel that their patch is being intruded upon. But even for the polymath, omniscience is a chimera. It is impossible to know everything. And, in the words of Gregory Corso, “It’s beautiful to feel.” Sense is welcome, but so is sensibility.
I suspect scholars need critics more than critics need scholars. After all, a critic can always bone up on something in his own time, if necessary (maybe even piggybacking on some scholarly work that took years to produce), but no amount of raw knowledge is going to automatically confer the gift of original commentary. The acquisition of critical faculties as applied in any object of study in the humanities should be, allowing for technicalities, transferrable to any other object of study in the humanities. Critics irritate those who know more than they do about a particular discipline; but they can illuminate a topic for those who don’t, in a way that scholarship – with its dependence on familiarity with esoteric terms of reference – doesn’t always do, and arguably only rarely does, at least for the uninitiated.
A further complication is that my tastes in literature, music and film are not narrowly defined by genre, era or subject matter. If anything, I tend to latch on to writers, musicians and filmmakers whom I consider to be possessed of singular vision, regardless of whether they are dirty realists or baroque stylists, blues masters or drone metal combos, purveyors of plot-driven thrillers or directors of dark surrealist fantasies. Auteur theory was invented for me. So I am even more difficult to classify in terms of my fields of interest. Thankfully, genre distinctions are melting anyway: creative non-fiction, or jazz-rock fusion, or docudrama, anyone? Although these terms sometimes invite opprobrium, quite masterful individual recent examples of the phenomena include: in books, Michael O’Loughlin’s Liberty Hall (2021), with its mix of poetry, prose, photography and film stills; in music, the Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders/London Symphony Orchestra collaboration Promises (2021), which blends electronica, minimalism, classical, jazz and ambient; and in film, Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), which pivots from social comedy to satirical thriller to suspenseful horror (his follow-up, US (2019), was equally unpigeonholeable).
But while postmodernism may have put paid to the hierarchy of gradation between high and low conceptions of culture, and popular song has slowly worked its way into contemporary literature rather than being condescended to as ephemeral, as it was by previous generations of writers and thinkers (do not get me started on Adorno and jazz), there is still, unfortunately, little fluidity among the audiences for literature, music and film, especially when you dig down deep into genres and sub-genres. This is especially true on the social front. While many of the same people will read books and listen to music and watch films and TV series at home, and there is some overlap between the audience for live music and for cinema attendance, there is no great crossover between, on the one hand, my musician friends and the people I meet at gigs and, on the other, my writer friends and the people I encounter at book launches, poetry readings and literary festivals. (A qualification: the most memorable incidence of poetry appearing in an unlikely musical setting which I’ve experienced was witnessing ex-Sonic Youth member Thurston Moore reading a poem by Dennis O’Driscoll during a performance at Whelan’s on January 19th, 2013.) A widely respected poet with an enviable reputation recently admitted to me, perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that he had seen about three films in his entire life (and, by the by, while I imagine he may be partial to some Chopin preludes or nocturnes at the National Concert Hall, he will not be found bopping to Butthole Surfers doing Locust Abortion Technician in its entirety in Vicar Street any time soon); another popular wordsmith of my acquaintance once confided that he disdains going to concerts, citing boredom and the weight of expectation associated with eliciting a predetermined emotional response from the audience as what puts him off (which, incidentally, strikes me as odd, as you could say exactly the same thing about going to the theatre: if you want unscripted aleatory drama, go to a high-stakes football match instead). So where does all this leave the writers who are “interested in everything”?
Maybe I lack focus. Maybe I have a butterfly mind (and an elephant’s memory). Or perhaps it’s not lack of focus at all: perhaps I have a heightened quality of attention, to whatever I happen to be paying attention. For example, I can’t read and listen to music at the same time. Nor can I listen to music (except ambient, for obvious reasons inherent in the form and intention – and sometimes not even that) and do anything else (except dance – depending on the music, or walk – with headphones on) although I can hold a conversation while improvising abstractly (and abstractedly?) on the guitar, a practice and process I find oddly soothing, like holding a comfort blanket, although it can be distracting for my interlocutors. My gaze may roam freely, but when it alights, it is intense, once my interest is caught.
No, it’s not focus I lack, but a filter. Which may sound odd, given that my sometime occupation as an arts journalist means that I am one whose job it is supposed to be to act as both a mesh and a conduit between the material and whoever might choose to read my appraisals (and we all find critics whose taste we think is fairly congruent with our own, as well as those who may be guaranteed to challenge our assumptions). Although in comparison with some people I know, I’m not so open that anything could crawl right into my mind and take up residence. Someone who’ll attend a concert given by Sunn O))) one night and by Status Quo the next truly has no filter, and for them it really is all just wall-to-wall sound. I wonder do they also lack focus?
There is always more to read, or reread. There is always more to listen to, or listen to again. There is always more to watch, or rewatch. (Apropos: isn’t it interesting that many people question the validity of reading a book or seeing a film twice, while it is readily accepted that musical appreciation and enjoyment is dependent on repetition? We can close our eyes, but not our ears.) Supposing, to take another random – if topical – topic, I wanted to get up to speed on the current boom in prose being produced by young Irish women writers, by reading recent debut works of fiction I have not read, I would be obliged to get to grips with, even by a conservative estimate, at least thirty titles. How long does it take to read a book? That obviously depends on contingencies like word length, layout and typeface, density of prose, etc, as well as the fact that some people read more quickly than others. Personally, I have always been a slowish reader; maybe that is why I am also a close reader. But will we settle for somewhere between nine to twelve hours, as a rough average? So that’s anywhere from between 270 to 360 hours, or 11.25 to 15 in 24-hour days, to polish off the thirty. Of course, no one reads all day every day without breaks for eating and sleeping (and whatever else it is you do), so even if we were to allot a generous twelve hours a day for reading, it would still take me twenty-two and a half to thirty days to clear the backlog, which amounts to a book a day. When was the last time you read a substantial volume between waking and sleeping? Now, aside from my other overriding interests, which I’ve outlined above, and which all make similar demands on my time, I suspect that such marathon reading sprees might detract somewhat from the enjoyment which many would presume to be a key motivation for reading books in the first place. I don’t know about your mind, but mine might begin to boggle.
But in addition to all the youngish Irish women writers I should be keeping up with, my current (abbreviated) To Be Read pile is stacked with just as many, if not many more, tomes from writers of highly diverse periods, genders, ethnicities, nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds, writing on a wide assortment of subject matter.
To be clear: I think it’s great that so many young Irish women (and men) are writing and getting published, and that there is such a flowering of literary productivity. However, it’s going to take some time to separate the wheat from the chaff (if chaff there is), and I’m not sure it’s my job to do it. If lit crit is a proper job, then why doesn’t it pay more, instead of being mostly a labour of love? Let’s be honest: I’m never going to read all these books; furthermore, I doubt that anyone – even an avid reader – is, unless they are doing a doctorate in a related area. I should read all these books. I want to read all these books. But lumping them all together casts the endeavour as an arduous task rather than an unalloyed pleasure, something done for research purposes rather than enlightenment, or even entertainment. Is it possible for me to extract joy from such hard graft? Would so much work still manage to be fun? And if there is a good time to be had, where do I find the time to have it – given that there are so many other things I could be doing with my time, in pursuit of aesthetic bliss? Clearly, I need to prioritise, and not just my reading, but my music listening and playing, and my film and television watching; and it might help further if I decided which of those activities was the most important to me, or to which one I wished to devote the majority of my time, and concentrate more exclusively on it. But I won’t, because I like them all too much. Plus, I like the variety. Time management, it seems, is not my forte. Nor is having one all-consuming passion, to the detriment of others.
Yes, no one likes doing homework, which is what such a massive reading project as outlined above runs the risk of becoming. The danger is that you might forget why you fell in love with reading in the first place, if you are only doing it in order to keep up with what’s going on, instead of for the totally immersive and transformative experience of getting lost in a work of art. Occasionally these objectives may coincide, but more often than not they don’t. And you are taking more of a chance with new stuff than with tomes which have, even if it proves not to be true for you personally, in some measure stood the test of time.
I am reminded here of the frighteningly amusing speaker of Philip Larkin’s poem “A Study Of Reading Habits” (1964), who in three short stanzas delineates his evolving boyhood, adolescent, and adult relationship with books. “Don’t read much now” begins the third verse, as the “I” persona relates more to the minor characters in novels rather than to the heroes, as he did previously, and so he prefers to “get stewed”, concluding that “Books are a load of cra”’. When the mechanisms of novels become all too familiar, they fail to feed our fantasies or to reflect our realities, and so they struggle to convince.
Music still holds more mystery for me. It is less concerned with contentious issues. It is not trying to tell me anything, leastways not how to think, at any rate not in any ideologically direct, or even circuitous, fashion. It acts upon me in ways that are much more emotional, indeed visceral, than works of fiction do. And at this stage of my life, it is to music that I prefer to dedicate my precious and diminishing time. Perhaps I always have. Or only just. For, regretfully, ideas keep drawing me back. If only I could get shut of ideas, once and for all. Even ideas about music.
Having arrived at this position myself, I discovered subsequently that Schopenhauer, in The World as Will and Representation (1818, 1844) agreed with me, long before I was even born. In what some have seen as a Neoplatonic worldview, the philosopher made a distinction between the abstract – what he referred to as the “thing-in-itself” (analogous to Plato’s World of Forms), and its real-world appearance, or representation, or copy. It is through this hierarchy of values that Schopenhauer proceeds to argue why music is the superior artform. Looking at the other artforms, he found that most if not all of them were merely representations of the thing-in-itself rather than extensions of it.
It (music) stands alone, quite cut off from all the other arts. In it we do not recognise the copy or repetition of any idea of existence in the world. This is why the effect of music is so much more powerful and penetrating than that of any of the other arts, for they only speak of shadows, but music speaks of the thing itself.
Walter Pater, legendarily, went one better, in his “School of Giorgione” chapter of The Renaissance (1873), with the declaration:
All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.
It is the art of music which most completely realises this artistic ideal, this perfect identification of matter and form. In its consummate moments, the end is not distinct from the means, the form from the matter, the subject from the expression; they inhere in and completely saturate each other; and to it, therefore, to the condition of its perfect moments, all the arts may be supposed constantly to tend and aspire.
For Pater, this carries the implication that “one of the chief functions of aesthetic criticism, dealing with the products of art, new or old, is to estimate the degree in which each of those products approaches, in this sense, to musical law”.
One can, of course, point to the gradual shift in the visual arts over the last two hundred years towards the elevation of colour, line and structure over purely pictorial elements, culminating in full abstraction. But this movement actually only serves to demonstrate the aspiration of art towards the condition of music. Add to these exhortations towards the innate superiority of music the fact that, of the other two modes of artist expression which chiefly interest me, films don’t take as long as novels and are usually not as much work, and one could arrive at the stark conclusion: literature: who needs it?
As a book reviewer and critic, and sometime music and film critic too (outside of the long haul of acquiring a PhD and the difficulty of landing a lectureship, one of the few ways to earn even a modest living from semi-voluntary arts appreciation), I have spent a fair amount of my adult life reading books, listening to music, watching films, and writing about them. I still feel as though I have barely scratched the surface. Maybe serious scholars feel the same way about their specialisms too. Or perhaps they know where to set practical limits to their boundless curiosity. It is odd knowing that I will feel the same at seventy or eighty years of age as I do now, which is that all my knowledge is scattered, because that is how I have felt all my life, and I would be surprised by any great change in that estimation at this stage. Some of the accretion of specialist knowledge is, obviously enough, an outgrowth of accumulative experience over the course of a working life: if you are lucky enough to find a job as a film reviewer, or even as a lecturer on film, you will perforce see a lot more films then the average person, as part of your job. As a book reviewer, have I read more novels than the average person? What about all those readers who are devouring novels purely for pleasure, all the time – and who don’t have as wide a range of other interests and/or personal responsibilities and obligations to dilute their pursuit? Still, it is good to know about not only what we know about, but to be aware also of the vast expanses of our own ignorance. I am like Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, fighting a constant losing battle between the accumulation of events versus available clock time to record them, except that my struggle is made manifest in trying to keep up with new art works and revisiting old ones, rather than in recounting the story of my life. (It occurs to me, in passing, that these may be one and the same thing.) I am oppressed, not so much by lived experience, as by discourse. There is too much of it, and not enough of me. Or rather, not enough time, never enough time.
Or perhaps none of this has anything to do with time, or with not having enough of it. Perhaps I feel this way only because I do not make enough art myself, no matter however much time I might have at my disposal. (Add to this the equal and opposite corollary, perhaps filtered through my skewed perception, that everyone is writing a novel or has written novels, everyone is doing a PhD, or has done one; everyone is making music, everyone is making films.) But maybe that is in turn because I use that time to read more, listen more and watch more, rather than to write more, to play more or (in the unlikely event that I was given the opportunity) to direct. Am I destined to be, have I become, just a passive consumer rather than an active producer? Or is my consumption really passive, given the engagement with which I practise it? Perhaps I have to consume in order to produce.
Ah, “literary critic”: even the term sounds quaintly antiquated, a relic of the Edwardian era, redolent of a time when privileged gentlemen of independent means had nothing better to do than recline on chaises longues reading the classics and honing bons mots, long before all literary criticism was subsumed into academia (or your favourite niche blog). Besides, can you even call yourself a literary critic if you spend more of your time listening to music or watching films than reading books? Maybe I don’t so much need to improve my time management skills; maybe what I really need is some career guidance. “Being an all-round aesthete is fine, Des, but you’ll never make a living at it.” Still, I’m probably more well-read than most people – or at least as much as any other hack.
And yet … the more there is to read and watch and listen to and play (never mind the dull quotidian business of everyday living, like doing the groceries, or looking after aged and infirm parents or helpless, swaddling children, or going to the bathroom and washing yourself, or watching television, or – horror of horrors! – WORKING FOR A LIVING, all that vivid, messy Life stuff, that happens beyond your desk or your armchair, over there, out the window), the more long days stretch out before me, besieged by boredom, filled with the irrelevances of Google rabbit holes (you know how one thing leads to another, click, click, click), limited or endless free time ironically crushed into wasted nothingness by the very weight of all there is to do, or could be done. If you don’t know where to start, or what to focus on, maybe better not to do anything at all, or as little as possible. If you do not play, you cannot lose. Being spoilt for choice induces a startled, or alternately sluggish, inertia. In an interconnected, smart phone, internet world, where we are, or are expected to be, always on, overloaded with mind-frazzling information from all angles, there is always the temptation to just turn off. I can spend hours gazing vacantly out a window, thinking of all that I have to do or could be doing, while doing nothing. As Joseph Brodsky wrote: “Boredom, after all, is the most frequent feature of existence, and one wonders why it fared so poorly in the nineteenth century prose that strived so much for realism.” “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so,” wrote John Berryman. You can call this reaction ennui, or depression, or taedium vitae, even laziness; but these are poor names for a slow enveloping paralysis which is far from mere petulant apathy. I think of it as akin to lying frozen, with the imperative that you must continue trying to crawl your way through the slush and snow you’re buried in, in an effort to maintain body temperature and keep your circulation going, otherwise succumbing to a cold, harsh death.
From Zeno’s paradoxical still arrow in flight, via Berkeley and Hume, Husserl and Heidegger, to Proust and Arendt, the perception and experience of Time has always been problematic to the philosophically minded. As Borges has it in “A New Refutation Of Time”: “Time, if we can intuitively grasp such an identity, is a delusion: the difference and inseparability of one moment belonging to its apparent past from another belonging to its apparent present is sufficient to disintegrate it.” The crux of the difficulty is the notion of Time as subjective experience (My time is not your time) versus that of Time as a shared community resource (“Let’s meet on Sunday at 11 for brunch”). But Time has no need of clocks or watches, or the codes we have manufactured to measure it by. Time and its attendant conundrums have perplexed not only metaphysicians, but scientists too. The theory of special relativity, with its concept of time dilation, is essentially a time and motion study, although I am dubious of anyone who isn’t a theoretical physicist who claims to understand it fully. I prefer Borges’s take on it, even if his narrator is only indulging in an elaborate jeu d’esprit leg-pull:
Berkeley denied that there was an object behind our sense impressions; David Hume that there was a subject behind the perception of changes. The former had denied the existence of matter, the latter denied the existence of spirit; the former had not wanted us to add to the succession of impressions the metaphysical notion of matter, the latter did not want us to add to the succession of mental states the metaphysical notion of self … However, once matter and spirit – which are continuities – are negated, once space too is negated, I do not know with what right we retain that continuity which is time. Outside that perception (real or conjectural) matter does not exist; outside each mental state spirit does not exist; neither does time exist outside each present moment.
A further spin is put on this by Hannah Arendt, in The Life of the Mind: “The gap between past and future opens only in reflection, whose subject matter is what is absent ‑ either what has already disappeared or what has not yet appeared. Reflection draws these absent ‘regions’ into the mind’s presence; from that perspective the activity of thinking can be understood as a fight against time itself.” Just as our hobbies, interests and passions are ways of filling in time, and so become our habits, the repetitious nature of which make our memories. De Beauvoir wrote of Sartre: “Mostly he liked looking at the world, doing nothing.” But was nothing really what he was doing? Nothing doing, if you’re only doing nothing. Maybe he was thinking, and thus conducting his fight against time. Look what thought did, over time.
Time is made present in poetry and music, inscribed in prosody and in rhythm, which is the signature of Time. That’s why they call them time signatures. 1, 2, 3, 4. Just listen to those seconds, ticking away metronomically. Tick-tock, tick-tock. It is in the beating of our hearts, as it pumps our blood around our bodies, and in our footsteps when we walk, our footfalls when we run. It is in Beckett’s OCD Molloy methodically moving his sucking stones around his pockets (“ … whatever I said it was never enough and always too much”, Molloy tells us), and was already adumbrated in Beckett’s formative short study Proust, which told us more about Samuel than it did about Marcel: “Memory and Habit are attributes of the Time cancer. They control the most simple Proustian episode, and an understanding of their mechanism must precede any particular analysis of their application.” They control the most simple Beckettian episode too, as we cry with Pozzo in Waiting For Godot: “Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time!” Jacques Attali hears it, in his seminal Noise: The Political Economy of Music (1985), in the sound of the rural village church bell pealing out across the countryside. But Donne did it best, and it still rings true: “Therefore, send not to know / For whom the bell tolls ,/ It tolls for thee.” Ding-dong, ding-dong. Dumb.
And yet … music is not about Time. Music does not need or require Time. Music exists in its own Time. Music is another kind of time, and musical time is an alternative to clock time, maybe even to timeless eternity. Through music we can transcend Time.
The ambient music of William Basinski encapsulates the problem of the timeless moment and its attendant paradoxes (memory, habit, decay, non-existence) possibly more than any other work by any other contemporary artist. His Disintegration Loops (2002/2003) series, with their compelling back story, made his name, but almost all of his recorded output partakes of similar concerns and processes, as titles like A Shadow In Time (2017) and On Time Out of Time (2019) will attest.
In the 1980s, under the influence of Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians (1978), and of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s first two collaborative albums (No Pussyfooting) (1973) and Evening Star (1975), and Eno’s subsequent solo work Discreet Music (1975), Basinski constructed a series of tape loops consisting of snatches of music he had captured from an easy listening station, accumulating a large library of schmaltz, and then treated with delay and other effects. When going through his archives in 2001 (in reality a store room at the back of the Williamsburg loft he lived in, nicknamed “The Land That Time Forgot”), and knowing what time can do to analogue tape, he decided to digitise the decades-old loops in order to preserve them. He started a loop on his digital recorder and left it running, and when he returned a short while later, he noticed that the tape was gradually crumbling as it played. The fine coating of magnetised metal was slivering off, and the music was decaying slightly with each pass through the spindle. Astounded, Basinski repeated the process with other loops and obtained similar results, although each composition was made unique not only by the different content of each loop but also by the rate at which the magnetic tape would gradually crumble away, causing unexpectedly beautiful and affecting progressions in the music. The attempt to preserve sounds for ever by transferring the original analogue recordings to digital files resulted instead in a slow effacement, a record of the recording disappearing, culminating in the imperceptible crossover into the silence of death. Thus, by chance and accident (and in contradistinction to his exemplars, where decay was intentionally pre-programmed rather than organic – or inorganically organic, in that it arose through glitches in the technological medium), the metaphor for life was bodied forth: repetition that is impossible to sustain, slipping ceaselessly away.
Shortly after Basinski digitised his loops came the September 11th attacks. From the roof of his space in Brooklyn, he put a video camera on a tripod and captured the final hour of daylight on that day, pointing the camera at a smouldering lower Manhattan. On September 12th, he cued the first of his newly created sound pieces and listened to it while watching the footage. The melancholy music, the faint fading (hovering tantalisingly between the boredom of endless repetition and the excitement at recognition of gradational change), coupled with the images of ruin, would become an elegy for that day. To listen to the entire piece (nine parts spread over four CDs on the 2013 remastered box set, plus two live versions of part 1 on disc 5) is to hear a segment many hundreds of times, but the progression from “music” to silence happens incrementally with each play: the loops don’t disappear linearly, since it often takes a few minutes for the obvious cracks to appear, and then the tumble towards the void speeds up at the end, presumably because the cumulative runs against the tape head had loosened even the bits of tape that were still clinging on. The process is so gradual, it focuses attention in a unique way: you may find yourself examining each new cycle to discover what is left and what has vanished. All of which means that it quietly defeats the purpose of “ambient” music: you may want to have it on in the background, while you do other things, but find that you are drawn to it because it rewards your undivided attention. This eternal moment is quintessential Basinski: his work has been uniquely fixated on time and loss, the music constantly toying with the idea that the dully habitual in life can be suddenly transfigured with emotion, and that all which seems stable to the point of monotony is in reality transitory, had we but the time and attention span to notice. Life is not endless recurrence – it is much worse than that: it is seemingly endless recurrence devolving inexorably to nothingness.
Also, in this regard, I think of both the music and the lyrics (so perfectly matched) to the song “Images”, from Lou Reed and John Cale’s tribute album to Andy Warhol, Songs For Drella (1990):
I think images are worth repeating
Images repeated from a painting
Images taken from a painting
From a photo worth re-seeing …
If you’re looking for a deeper meaning, I’m as deep as this high ceiling
If you think technique is meaning, you might find me very simple
You might think the images boring
Cars and cans and chairs and flowers
You might find me personally boring
Hammer, sickle, Mao Tse Tong, Mao Tse Tong
I think that it bears repeating the images upon the ceiling
I love images worth repeating and repeating and repeating
Cf by way of comparison and contrast, David Bowie’s tale of domestic abuse, “Repetition”, from Lodger (1979); and Iggy Pop’s reflection on a bad break-up, “Mass Production”, from The Idiot (1977).
Also, in this regard, I think of the final scene of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), directed by Peter R Hunt, and widely regarded as the most faithful film adaptation of one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Bond (played for one time only by Australian model George Lazenby, after the departure of Sean Connery) courts and marries Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo (played by my first small screen crush, ex-Avengers girl Diana Rigg). At the end of the film, departing for their honeymoon after the wedding ceremony, the couple are ambushed in a drive-by shooting, leaving Bond cradling Tracy, who has been killed by a headshot, in the front seat of his Aston Martin, while telling a traffic cop that everything is OK, because “We Have All The Time In The World”, to subdued orchestral strains of the tune of the same title, written by John Barry and Hal David for the original soundtrack, and sung by Louis Armstrong in an earlier montage. Call me a big, blubbery, soppy, sentimental fool, but this is among the most moving mises en scène in my personal cinematic pantheon. As Andrei Tarkovsky has it in his book Sculpting In Time (1985), (Russian ‘Запечатлённое время’, literally “Captured Time”): “The dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame.” Also, from his Time Within Time: The Diaries 1970–1986 (1991): “For many years I have been tormented by the certainty that the most extraordinary discoveries await us in the sphere of time. We know less about time than about anything else.”
To reverse and amend the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra, “One is too many, and ten thousand aren’t enough”: when it comes to Time, there is never enough, but there is always too much. Until, one day, there isn’t.
And in spending time writing this essay about having no time, or not having enough time, or feeling threatened by time, or having so much time that it creates an abhorrent vacuum, or needing seemingly idle time which is really precious dream time, have I merely wasted more time, while at most (or at least) filled it in? Time will tell.
Perhaps if I really started to produce – fiction, non-fiction, music, images still and moving, rambling discursive essays, etc. – I could cease ruminating about Time, and ruminating about the time spent ruminating about Time, and would be doing what for me represents an honest day’s work. I should get out from under the weight of all I know and love, shake it off, and see and hear the world (and myself) again with ignorant eyes and ears. We can leave high-flown notions about staving off death until another day. Or maybe the working is the staving, however inevitably doomed the palliative is to ultimate inefficacy. It really is about time I got started.
Desmond Traynor is an award-winning writer of fiction and a widely published essayist and reviewer. He is currently working towards the completion of a collection of essays.