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Musica Extremis: Time Experiments

Sunday, 6th July, 2003

There are times at which a piece of music makes my jaw drop.

It doesn't happen often but it happens, usually because the piece is so beautiful or so brutal that the artist has managed to reach an entirely new level. When I first heard Rubber Shirt by Frank Zappa my jaw dropped for an totally different reason.

Rubber Shirt is an instrumental, a jazzy conversation between bass and drums that lasts for under three minutes. Better educated critics than I would be able to analyse the structure of the interplay between the two instruments and the progression throughout the piece. To me it just sounds good, but the important thing is that all this complex interplay is entirely imaginary as none of it ever happened.

Zappa extracted the bass part from the master tapes of a 1974 Swedish live performance and had them overdubbed onto a guitar solo track a few years later. A year and a half later again, he transferred the bass track onto one track of a new song with an entirely different tempo, resulting in the composition that ended up on the Sheik Yerbouti album. At no point was there ever a bassist and a drummer in the same place recording a piece of music and that realisation is what made my jaw drop.

In the liner notes to Sheik Yerbouti, Zappa called this process experimental re-synchronization. On a previous song, Friendly Little Finger, on another album, Zoot Allures, he called it xenochronicity. This time it was a guitar solo that was stripped from a concert recording and overdubbed onto a different song.

Whatever the technique is called, it's a means by which Zappa could combine musical events separated in time, space and purpose into an entirely new musical event. It was revolutionary, so much so that according to one essay, he had to fight his own engineers to allow him to do it.

The influence for xenochronicity was in the 'multiple colliding themes' of Charles Ives, an American composer who pioneered many experimental musical techniques in his work far before they became either popular or widespread, many of which concerned the manipulation of time. One such innovation is what has became known as aleatory procedure which introduces elements of unpredictability into a composition, to the degree of varying pitch, duration or intensity by throwing dice or following mathematical laws of chance.

Primarily Ives was interested in the clash between urban and rural life and he wrote a number of pieces that merged the two. He imagined a circus parading down Main Street while a hymn tune haunts a church. The dissonant and complex results were something that Zappa aped on an early album, when he featured The Star Spangled Banner, God Bless America and America the Beautiful simultaneously at the end of the track Call Any Vegetable.

I experimented with this concept many years ago when I listened to two different radio stations at the same time, one through an earpiece in my left ear and the other through a second earpiece in my right. For much of the time the result was an unintelligible collision, but there were many instances where the two separate pieces of music merged together to produce something entirely new.

I didn't know it at the time, but Charles Ives had beaten me to the concept by most of a century and actually composed music based on it, whereas of course I was merely dabbling in ways to listen. Far from being a mere dabbler, Frank Zappa is the one who finally took Ives's concept further to combine constituent parts of different pieces into something new. As Chris Federico points out in his Zappology, Zappa may have also been subconsciously influenced by his belief that time is a spherical constant where everything is happening all the time.

Where Ives and Zappa compressed time by combining pieces or elements of pieces into new works, there are other artists speeding up or slowing down existing music to create something new. Joey de Maio, for instance, has a fondness for taking classical music and accelerating it to fit his chosen genre, heavy metal.

The best example of his reinvention can be found on Battle Hymns, the first album by Manowar. De Maio reinvents the overture to William Tell by Gioachino Rossini so as to play it at at least double speed on the piccolo bass guitar. The result is a frantic and strangely familiar piece that nonetheless serves as an exercise in virtuoso performance, especially when you watch his fingers in a live setting. De Maio applied the same treatment to Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumble Bee on a later album, Kings of Metal.

In a similar vein, Katherine Thomas, a Juilliard-trained virtuoso violinist known to the world at large as The Great Kat, has combined her love for speed metal with her classical background on a number of albums such as Beethoven on Speed, Bloody Vivaldi and Rossini's Rape. She specialises in transcribing intricate classical violin solos to guitar or violin accompanied by a proficient and powerful backing band. As all true speed metal should be, and in keeping with her self-description as a 'Shred Guitarist', many of these recordings are faster than the originals were ever intended to be.

I wonder what the Red Priest, Antonio Vivaldi, would have made of Kat's reinvention of his Four Seasons. In all fairness, classical composers frequently pushed the limits in their own eras. While heavy metal has always owed a debt to the classical masters, artists like De Maio or The Great Kat are returning the favour by bringing their works kicking and screaming into the electric age.

While their work could easily be discounted as egotistical exercises in virtuoso musicianship, there is no doubt that speeding up the music has created something new. On a notably non-virtuoso note, a similar effect can be easily experimented with in the home by recording music in the mp3 format and then playing it on a standalone DVD player at double speed. It's interesting to hear the music of Alice Cooper or Guns n' Roses, for instance, transform into something more akin to The Chipmunks. What's more, the results can be surprisingly listenable.

If artists are speeding up existing pieces of music to create something entirely new, it would make sense for others to do the polar opposite. The 9 Beet Stretch project, for instance, has done exactly that. In fact, it has gone further than De Maio or Kat and produced something unrecognisably new.

The mastermind of this project is Leif Inge, a Norwegian working with NOTAM, the Norwegian Network for Technology, Acoustics and Music, which describes itself as 'a production centre for work with sound'. Inge's concept was to take the ninth symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, commonly known as The Choral, and stretch it from its original hour and a half so that it would take up an entire twenty four hour day.

The original is a justly famed classical milestone and it includes the popular and world-famous setting of Schiller's poem 'Ode to Joy', which has made that rare leap from mere music to cultural fixture as the adopted 'national anthem' of the European Union. Yet with only one alteration, that of time, the world-famous is rendered instantly unrecognisable and Beethoven's Ninth ceases to be Beethoven's Ninth, instead becoming an entirely new piece of music.

How this accomplishment should be enjoyed is open to question. Should it be listened to in episodes like a television series? Should it be equated to new age ambience? Should it cease to be seen as music at all and instead a piece of performance art? Maybe all of the above. While I'm not sure that it ever happened, certainly Inge had intentions to install it into a bedroom in an Oslo art gallery to be experienced as 'bedchambermusic' for people to relax to. It's also available for download in chunks of movements from the 9 Beet Stretch site.

While some may see a twenty-four hour piece of music as excess, it is a mere amateur compared to the performance at the former Buchardi monastery in Halberstadt, Germany, that began at midnight on 5th September, 2001.

Technically that was the beginning of the performance but the composition has been slowed down so much that the first notes weren't played until 5th February, 2003. Up until that point all that could be heard during the intermediate seventeen months was the inflating of the organ's bellows. Indeed, the first three notes will last for a further year and a half.

The piece is John Cage's As Slow as Possible, originally only twenty minutes long. Now, in the hands of a group of theologians, musicologists, philosophers, composers and organists, it has been stretched to last 639 years, so decided because that was the age of the Halberstadt organ in the year 2000.

The Swedish composer and organist Hans-Ola Ericsson said that John Cage, who died in 1992, would have liked what they had done with the piece. Given that Cage has probably done more than any other single person to reevaluate just what sound and music really are, I'm not going to argue against the suggestion. Certainly, if the project does finish on schedule in 639 years time, Cage's work will have automatically outlasted almost everything that you or I listen to today. After all, how many pieces of music can you name that were written before 1361?

It is, of course, a pretty extreme way to make a point. Cage's most famous piece, 4'33", lasted, well, four minutes and thirty-three seconds, yet has become possibly the most important piece of music performed in the twentieth century. I don't think that anyone is expecting the Halberstadt performance of As Slowly as Possible to be as important, but then again, will they still be talking about 4'33" in the year 2640?

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