International Academy of Electroacoustic Music / Bourges
1999 / 2000: “Time in Electroacoustic Music”

Notes on the subject: "Does duration* result from arbitrariness* in the limits*of time*?"


As time passes by, I mean my lifetime, that is as I grow older and older, I observe a tendency in me to compose shorter pieces. This is the first reflection that comes to mind as I deal with the subject of time in electro-acoustic music, or rather time in my own productions.

In Spanish there are two proverbs, i.e. two concentrations of popular wisdom that have been with me since I was a young boy. One of them, "Good things, if brief, are twice as good". The other, "Good perfume is sold in small bottles". Two defences of smallness, one in time and the other in volume.

But whilst in the first there is an idea of conciseness, in the second the idea is density.

Of course it would be very simple to turn around the antecedent without changing the consequent, for example: "Bad things (being that they are bad) are better if they are brief", or "If the perfume is bad, a little is better than a lot".

It is obvious that the sooner a misfortune is over the better, but this is not what is being contemplated in the original declaration. Why is there this over-appraisal of quality in small, rather than large, doses?

The key to both questions posed lies in the concept of density. If we convert the aphorisms in terms of density, the first formulation would be as follows: "If we can say the same thing in a short time (that is we ‘broadcast’ more densely), why take up the time of the receptor unnecessarily?"

In the second case, the conversion becomes a little more complicated, but the final consequences will be the same: "If the perfume is good (good as in concentrated?) it will be expensive (expensive as in good?), and if it is expensive: 1/ better not risk spilling it accidentally, excessive evaporation or eventually breaking the bottle, and 2/ most people would not be able to afford a large bottle."

The final consequences I mentioned, are in both cases (taking into account that “time is gold”) economical, and albeit that the protagonist is time, I would even dare to say ecological.

If what is ecologically good is based upon the optimisation of the adaptation of the individual to the medium, in this century in which there is a more and more pressing demand for time from the enormous offer emitted by the medium itself, a greater distribution of our vital time, which has not changed in dimensions, is seen as being of extreme necessity. At least what is irrefutable is that the average life expectancy has not increased in proportion to our occupational spectrum.

We have less and less time as we have to use it to do more things. If we wish to understand the world that surrounds us, not in its totality as this is impossible, but rather if we wish to have a global vision of this world, without restricting ourselves to one or a few pieces, extracting the largest amount of data in pursuit of a rich experience (even though it is rich only in quintessences), we have to give in to a subtle exercise of occupational economy concerning time. Time acquires here a volumetric aspect. "Knowledge does not take up space", but the mechanism which leads to it does.

One of the principal requirements for the correct functioning of the aforementioned economy is the speed of the scanning interface. Not all content of the one hundred television channels that our sets simultaneously receive is interesting, or at least not for us at that moment in time. In any case, even if it were we would find ourselves forcefully obliged to make a choice, even though only momentarily.

With such a large volume of information before us the fast interface of the remote control is indispensable (a chip installed in the brain has yet to be invented!), and the remote control inevitably leads us to zapping.

In many cases zapping is referred to in a pejorative tone. I defend zapping. I defend it as a system of acceleration in perception based on scanning, and against perception based on compression.

I prefer it as a fragmented perception of totality in opposition to the systematic suppression of the expendable. I prefer it because I find it difficult to accept that something that is not essential exists, an affirmation that is difficult to sustain under certain circumstances, but which is at least founded on a certain philosophical or, why not, ecological posture.

I don't care if the excuse for compression is facilitation/vulgarisation -as in the case of «Für Elise» without semiquavers or the editions of "Reader’s Digest"- or lightness favouring the transmission/handling/economy of the MP3 format.

Of course the remote control is not only useful for praiseworthy causes such as zapping but also for aberrant practices such as that of nerds y geeks, so well described by Douglas Coupland in his novel «Microserfs», that, in order to save time watching videos, viewed them whilst fast forwarding, thus managing to watch a one and a half hour video in five minutes (what cinematographic culture can be gained in an afternoon!).

Obviously they looked for versions with subtitles in English so as to be able to understand the dialogues (the human ear has yet to be trained in the rabbit language of the human voice transposed and accelerated by speed compression). For a computer programmer used to reading with ease hundreds of lines on a screen, this would not be a problem. Perhaps from time to time it would be necessary to slow down a little momentarily before returning to fast forward mode, or maybe even not that, as subtitles are already submitted to strict regulations of compression.

Nevertheless, apart from this necessary pre-compression, it cannot be said that the text suffers the same compression as the image, even though both continue to be on the border of, but within, the bounds of intelligibility.

When dealing with musical language, it's another story. Even though music and image in movement participate in the same temporal parameter, there is a notable difference with respect to the perspective on temporality.

In short, we are dealing with the subject of depth of field. When a high-speed train penetrates a tunnel at 300 km per hour, the graffiti painted on the inside of the tunnel, even if it were illuminated, would become blurred coloured lines. At the same speed on the outside, the countryside passes by without losing comprehensibility. The depth of field nullifies, or rather softens, the tyranny of time.

In music there is no depth of field. No escape here. In music the “cinephile” behaviour of the geeks is not possible. In music we cannot squeeze the container without losing content. And even less so in electro-acoustic music. I have seen that fast-forwarding tapes, all electro-acoustic music sounds the same. I will be told that I am not playing fairly, as it is not just a question of time but also a question of the pitch which has been affected. In any case, the result would be similar if we squeezed the music accordion-style, without catapulting it to the tenth floor, i.e. compressing time and respecting pitch.

The same phenomenon is produced when instead of compression we talk about expansion (in both cases I am referring to high doses). Some years ago I performed a literal version of the first movement of Beethoven’s sonata «Moonlight» for a video installation. The peculiarity consisted in that the ‘tempo’ was crotchet equals four, that is ten times slower than the original speed. The pitch ‘was’ that of the sonata but the music ‘was not’, it had stopped being thanks to the solely temporal manipulation.

Speaking of container and content leads unavoidably to the concept of density, which I referred to at the beginning.

In the field of physics it is very easy to understand the relation between the weight of a substance and its volume. A cubic centimetre of lead weighs much more than a cubic centimetre of cork; a kilo of cork takes up much more space than a kilo of lead. Either of the comparisons clearly demonstrates that lead is much denser than cork.

In physics density is the relation between container and content, the first being the volume and the second the weight. In music, if the container is time, what are weight and density?

There are longer pieces of music and shorter pieces of music, this is easy to appreciate. We also understand more or less dense music. The really difficult thing to define is the concept of "heaviness".


Sometimes I wonder what it is that makes us decide the duration of a composition when we are planning it. Certainly this has to be considered abstractly, that is abstracting all conditioning factors, such as limitations imposed by a commission, the duration of a concert, record production, etc.

I am referring to determining 'a priori', despite the fact that there are always variations during the process, that the piece will have a duration of eight or twenty minutes for example.

From a mechanical point of view, it would be logical if we chose a longer duration according to "the weight we want to rid ourselves of" - and I am deliberately continuing to use the term weight without knowing for sure what it is. Nevertheless, as density comes into play here, there does not have to be a directly proportional relationship between the quantity of things we have to say and the amount of time we employ in saying them.

However quantity immediately evokes, by terminological similarity, quality, and it is here that the key to approximation probably lies. Quantity relates to absolute weight, whereas quality to specific weight.

In any case, although the concept of "ridding yourself of weight" may be metaphorically correct when applied to the act of creation in general, the concept of developing an idea is more "artistically correct".

Development (temporality) is in accordance to the quality (specific weight) of the idea.

This explains the phenomenon that the use of a small amount of elements leads to the occupation of large temporal extensions, albeit through various mechanisms and often antithetical.

The two archetypal examples that spring to mind are, one, the extremely concise motif that has a germ of highly proliferative content, as in the "classic" theme of classical music or, two, the bare simplicity of a cell of highly repetitive capacity as is found in certain minimalist music.


As we are delegating responsibility of temporal extension in the quality of the idea, we are presented with a question of limits.

Who puts limits on the proliferative or repetitive capacity of the generative element? Obviously the author, unless the primary element does not already contain the germ of its own limitation, which on the one hand would have a certain coherence - or it would be "structurally correct"- but would spoil the idea of the creator as definer of limits.
A composer friend confessed to me one day that once he finished a piece "there" because he ran out of paper. I don't remember if the continuation depended on going out and buying more paper, or he simply didn't want to start using a new sheet, perhaps for no more than three compasses.

It was not an imposed limit but a suggested one, nevertheless accepted. And accepted under what criteria? For example: after one thousand compasses, three compasses more were not going to make the piece more complete or perfect. Nevertheless, having to relinquish those three compasses makes us feel that they were necessary, although at the same time superfluous.

And, while we're on the subject, why weren't they the thirty (or three hundred) previous ones?

The problem of limits is truly complex, as it forces us to juggle with what is possible and what is reasonable.

I was always attracted to the idea of music-fiction, and in this sense I have asked myself on more than one occasion if a theme "resists" a limited number of variations, or could be varied indefinitely.

Or a fugue. Imagine that the countersubject becomes the subject which generates another countersubject, which at the same time sets itself up as subject, and so on.

It is obvious that (as in the famous tale of Borges where the map of the country took up the whole country) there is at least a vital limit. No piece may be so long that we take longer to compose it than our life lasts.

There are other types of non-temporal limitations. Ravel's 'Bolero' finishes simply because the repertory of instruments in the composer's orchestra ran out.. But what if we gradually added all the orchestras in the country one by one? And then the whole planet?The limit is now territorial. The planetary 'tutti' would inevitably mark the end of the piece.

Leaving 'music-fiction' and moving onto reality, it is common that for creation to be understandable, it must be subject to limits, even though they may be unusual, but in any case reasonable.

Satie limited with a number his 'Vexations' (albeit on the limits of reasonable).

Even within purely conceptual territory it is necessary to establish limits. I remember a piece for piano, one of the 'dangerous musical pieces' of one of the members of the group 'Fluxus', whose score said: "Push a piano against the wall until it goes through it or until you drop down exhausted.»

The limits may be debatable, but they are within the limits of reasonable. Moreover, the limits lend musical entity. Simply «push a piano against the wall», is not a musical piece (even though what is 'interpreted' is a musical instrument). This is because the "temporality" imposed by limits is missing.

One day by chance I heard a perfect piece on the radio with reference to establishing intrinsic limits.

The content: a chromatic scale from the lowest note to the highest of a piano. Each key was pressed until the note died out completely, at which point the next note was played.

The limits (the physical nature of the sound and the topography of the instrument) are an example of absolute coherence between content and container that is difficult to surpass.

Of course, an excess of coherence can be dangerous (but not as in 'Fluxus' music!). Dangerous, because it leads to closed dwellings, with no way out, when it has seemed to us since Guillaume de Machault that it is opening doors and windows that has ruled.

I have always thought that the perfect dodecaphonic piece would consist of the mere exhibition of the series of pitches (coupled if desired to the series of durations, timbres and intensities).

The problem is that after having carried out this piece of twelve notes it would not be necessary to do another.

This is like the case of Cage. After ‘4.33’ it is no longer possible to do 2.24, 8.17 or 14.56.

I don't know if anyone asked Cage why 4.33 and not any other combination of minutes and seconds. I have the impression that the limit was established arbitrarily.


It may be that in arbitrariness -that is, the condition of doing something voluntarily, for pleasure or whim, without subjection to rules, laws or reason- we find the justification of limits.

The creator uses arbitration, whim, as both -as creation- are synonyms of freedom. The thing is that freedom does not always lead to balance.

As musicians we are sensitive to the fine tuning of notes. Balance, the fine tuning, between matter and time leads us to rightness.

Does a piece have the 'right' duration when the 'substance' is equally distributed between matter and time?

To question rightness means questioning whim, and as this is unquestionable I'm afraid that we would find ourselves in a vicious circle.

I haven't come to this point to enter a room with no way out, but rather to open doors and windows, that is questions. And between questions I want to introduce debate:

Why do some pieces seem to have the right duration?

Why do some long pieces seem short, and vice versa?

Why in some pieces do we have the feeling that the composer has not taken advantage of, one after the other, the optimal opportunities to finish?