Clockworks, Duration and Temporality: The Signs of the Time

[Ryu Hankil performs at dotolim (Seoul, Korea) / 2009]

Musical works are temporal and sonic objects that achieve their meaning through duration, just as objects in the visual arts achieve theirs through space. Without significant duration, musical works are but sound with limited aural attendance or aesthetic experience. Sound artists have drawn our attention to the sonic artifacts of daily existence through the composing and arranging of such sounds within pieces of greater duration than mere momentary sonic intrusions. Such works are typically “timed,” then reduced to numerical measures, subsequently recorded on compact disc packages, CD labels, concert promotional material, etc. Sophisticated playback mechanisms allow listeners to see digital numerals counting backward or forward through individual tracks or entire lengths of CDs based on personal preferences. Changes, refrains, and movements occur at their appointed places in the recordings, easily marked by listeners who note the faceplates of their equipment. These temporal markers always mediate aesthetic experiences of sound, but measurement is also the profanation of such experience. Measurement, a listener convenience to be certain within the realm of finite and official time, aligns the ineffable experience of temporality and duration to the everyday social order and capital process, to the dominance of ephemerality.

It is against this official order of the temporal, for which the digital, numerical faceplate is our perfect contemporary synecdoche, where sound artists Ryu Hankil and Takahiro Kawaguchi are carrying out a powerful assault against all emblems of the profane measure. In the case of Ryu, the gesture is the appropriation of the guts of an analogue clock as a musical instrument; for Kawaguchi, the tools include a metronome, portable windup alarm clocks, and remodeled counters. The tools, instruments for measuring duration in the analogue era, are first and foremost, through the mechanics of their task, sonic objects and important elements of our pre-digital sonic history. Only after we recognize them as sound do they function as measures of time, and when the micro sonic “tick” and “tock” are heard, the image of the clock face, the circle with numbers and hands, is the immediate visual metonymy. Through the rough intervention of image and sound from the prior history of measuring time is our current experience of digital temporality subverted. The listener’s previous experiences accompanying such aural experiences of measured time are evoked. At that precise moment the experience of the temporal is no longer linear but recursively circular. Analogue time as measure reemerges temporarily as a palimpsest beneath the digital inscription effacing it. But just as the sound-induced reverie of this past sense of recording time begins to envelop the listener, the artists stop the processes of the clocks; a stainless steel chopstick is inserted into a clock and drawn out, creating the tone of a tuning fork, which is then modified on a mixer. The metronome is stopped and the artist begins the arduous process of winding counters and placing them on the floor, the windings themselves evoking a different string of sonic memories and associations, another experience of the temporal as recursive rather than linear.

The stopping of the clocks, the ceasing of repetitions of one particular form, is the proviso, the mandate of contemporary non-idiomatic free improvisation though clockworks are versatile enough to produce sounds other than those to which we are accustomed, availing the musician to other kinds of repeated sounds. Nonetheless, this proviso automatically limits the duration of any repetition, any that last too long risk reclassification of genre as well as the boredom of collaborators—current as well as potential. The stoppage of the clocks and the shifting of sonic parameters also constitute another attack on linear time. As lived experience, time is never continuous but is always interrupted. Events are never so much remembered with respect to precision in measurement but rather as discontinuous moments, as prominent nodes and apexes that become conspicuous within the illusion of linearity. In that sense, the improvised musical work itself, though measurable, reflects this experience of time. It is often an extended argument of both monumental occasions and somber exchanges, intensities and subdued stillness. Memory attends to these moments; the work as a whole though can only be recalled as an abstraction containing them.

[Takahiro Kawaguchi / 100 timers at London / 2006]

While the clock associates a particular sort of sonic experience with time as measurement, the metronome has a much more proximate relationship with the musical work historically. The metronome insures that sounds are produced at their appointed instances within the literal measure of the score. It does this by the imposition of rhythm within the practice space. Though the pace of the metronome is adjustable, the sound of the tool resembles that of the clock itself. Its use as a sonic source inverts not only its original purpose but also the entire notion of music as measurable score. Musical time in improvised music can never be predetermined. There can be no temporal destiny in advance of actual performance, save for flexible, targeted durations. The metronome as sonic tool reminds all listeners not only of a prior associated sonic history but a musical one as well, a history of composed sound that in some sense no longer pertains. Its presence and then disappearance in a musical work signals a historical moment where it loses efficacy as a timing device in being appropriated as a musical one.

Clockworks and metronomes have always been “musical,” but listeners may have forgotten that they were after the onset of the digital age, which replaced grinding gears with the drone of transistors. The work of Ryu Hankil and Takahiro Kawaguchi not only marks a return to analogue time in search of an analogue sound to expand the parameters and possibilities of contemporary electronic music, it also marks a subversion of time as linearity and music as prescribed durations. In so doing, it underscores the flexibility, fragility, and precariousness of improvisation itself.