File under fun and useless: I can make a tongue-clover; I can whistle and sing simultaneously; I see light patterns when I hear noise; I remember virtually every dinner I’ve eaten; and most peculiarly, I always know what time it is. Some days I am creepily precise. I can even wake in the middle of the night, and know exactly what time it is. My wife is dependably unimpressed when I wake her at 3:17 to tell her it is 3:17.
Perhaps it is surprising then, having an internal atomic clock, that I still love and need my smartphone. Sure it helps keep me on time but it also helps me stay organized, in touch, scheduled, and informed. It helps parcel out my day in neat packs of productiveness or deliberate unproductiveness.
I love music too. I grew up in a musical house my mom was a violinist, her twin, a cellist, and grandma a violist— and I was a serious pianist from a young age (ending up at Juilliard—first as a pianist, later as a conductor). But music does not keep me on schedule, or informed. On the contrary. Music we play scrambles and clouds those tidy smartphone packets of seconds and information. Music, it seems, is at odds with my sense of time.
My internal clock is entirely intuitive. I am not aware of seconds and minutes, but instead of organic lumps of progress, which I then somehow project onto the rigid grid of clocks. Therefore, my time sense is unmoved by the wobbliness of music which distorts our sense of clock time by stretching seconds into minutes; collapsing hours into moments. Music is a funhouse mirror to clock time making it curve, dilate, suspend, and contract.
Once I had a clock on my music stand during a performance (not my idea). It was spectacularly nerve-wracking. Music’s free-wheeling nature collided with the clock’s neat, even packages. Moments took minutes, minutes passed in seconds, and I watched and heard the clash of the two times for 45 (clock) minutes. I was confused, disturbed, and delighted.
Making and listening to music untethers us from our everyday expectations of the passage of time. One reason I find conducting so gratifying and engaging is the thrill of guiding that wave of time, reveling in moments that stretch or strain; enjoying a phrase’s plasticity or rigidity. Freed from seconds and minutes, music opens big sonic vistas often without words, stories, or people, yet brimming with emotional narrative.
During a performance, we are all ideally swept up in this squishy, uneven unfolding of an emotional narrative. But the transition back to clock time can be starting and clumsy —like stepping off of a moving sidewalk. Sometimes though, it can be a magical moment, like on those special and rare occasions at the end of a piece, when the sound stops but the music continues to resonate within us. Music creates a lag in our perception; a crease in our judgment of clock time. We bask in the wake of the sound, not yet jarred back into neat, smartphone packages of time. These are moments when we collectively see and hear into a rare world that shatters with impending applause and is remembered only as a sonic afterimage. Transitional moments like these, from music to clock, highlight the congregational nature of live performance. As we transition from one way of feeling time to another, through our collective emotional state, we somehow feel bonded—in silence and out of time. Hearing live music is transformative.
Next time you are an audience member, put your phone and your watch away. I know you will find that strange wave of uneven, flexible time on which to surf. I promise I’ll see you there.