Pitchfork Midwinter and “the sky of timelessness”

Upon arriving in Chicago earlier this month, I got a text from my good friend Debbie, breezily instructing me to “have an amazing time!!!!!!!” Just 36 hours later, my head was swimming with everything I had seen and heard, and I will always think of the words “amazing time” differently going forward.

It was my very good fortune to be able to attend a portion of Pitchfork Midwinter, a three-day event celebrating and deepening the intersection of art and music. This felt a lot more like a convention than a festival to me, in that the performances almost felt like symposiums. There was so much thought-provoking work to see and hear in every corner of the Art Institute of Chicago. Given the way that the event was structured, no two people will have had the exact same experience or felt the same things, but for me and for the events and soundscapes I attended, there was an overriding theme: time.

Artists of all stripes have been inspired by the concept of time for… well, for probably as long as there have been artists. Art is a chance to experience the vision behind the eyes of another human being – and you can often also see the toll that the passage of time has taken on really old artifacts. I’m not even going to try and list all the books and poetry and films and songs that pay homage to the passage of time, the ideas of time travel, and the notion of time’s inevitability. Humans, in creating works of art, are frequently striving to record a moment to be able to relive it and to share the moment with others.

In my work as a flutist, time is a major focus for me – both in the form of rhythm and tempo, as well as working to perform the music in a historical context (to play the music as it would have been heard in its own time, to the best of my ability). I watch conductors and witness time passing in the movements of their batons; I feel time passing with every page I turn, every measure of rest I count. When listening to digital recordings, I can see the time passing through the status bar as the seconds tick by. I used to, and still do, occasionally think about performing music as time travel; by utilizing the time and skills you have in the present, you can bridge the chasm of years – centuries – to bring voice to music that yearns to be heard, that was written to be heard. The one direction we can’t go is forward – we can’t travel ahead to a time that has not yet occurred.

The thing about Midwinter, as I was surrounded by art objects rooted in time (when have you not seen a painting or a statue or a piece of pottery not labeled with the year/era it was made?) and surrounded by music measurable in minutes, I repeatedly experienced an overwhelming sense of being lifted out of time. It jarred me physically anytime that I heard someone cough, or heard a door closing, or heard snatches of conversation from another hallway. It was a shock to be reminded that there were people who were experiencing a completely different reality than I was, that their world was continuing on another train track while my world floated skyward and hung suspended in the air.

When I was seventeen years old and a freshman at USC, I had a formative musical experience in my life, though I wouldn’t fully realize it until later. In October 1997, the late Polish composer Henryk Górecki had made a trip to southern California and, as part of a five-day residency and celebration of his work called Górecki Autumn, Górecki conducted the USC Symphony in his Symphony No. 3, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” It marked the first and only time Górecki conducted this piece outside of his native Poland. I had never heard or played anything like this piece in my life, and it was bewildering at first to realize how much concentration a piece like this takes. What if I lose my place? What if I lose track of the (many) repeats? What if I get kicked out of the program? What if I’m not good enough to be here? I was green, unsure of myself, and already suffering from impostor syndrome. My memory of Górecki is hazy (it’s been 22 years), but I do remember there was chatter about his ill health, about how it took a lot of convincing to get him to come all the way to Los Angeles in the first place, and about how he really didn’t want to conduct the piece. We had another conductor on standby right up until the last minute just in case. He spoke no English (he had a translator). He was tentative and apologetic when it came to his conducting, but when he talked about the music, it could not be clearer what he was after. I managed to find a transcript from that rehearsal. Just read what he says about time:

The most important problem for me at the end of the twentieth century is the continual lack of time. We are always in an awful hurry and still we waste an incredible amount of time, for instance in front of the TV or in a car. While I do like some aspects of our “fast” civilization—I love to fly in airplanes, I am fascinated with cosmic adventures, trips to the moon or Mars—and we do live in astounding times, still, here, in this music, we have to surrender ourselves to this other dimension of time. We have to slow down. Only then the sonority will be fantastic: the higher the music will go, the more distinctly it will sound. I dream of writing such tranquil music. I do not want to compose anything that echoes the modern “rush”—the cell phones, the telephones and faxes. It has to be calm. Life is too beautiful to be wasted in this way, by rushing things so much. How should I explain it to you? Perhaps you should think about an elevator: you leave behind the basement of everyday life, filled with noises, distractions and anxieties, and you take the elevator up to the tenth floor, or even into the sky of timelessness. When you are in this music, time slows down, it is as if you were in heaven, it is like eternity. Do you understand what I want to achieve there? Total calm.

Let us play it again.

For me it is a very difficult movement because I do not usually engage in conducting and I do not know how to enchant you with my hand movements, but music carries me away and I may at some spots—and please forgive me if I do—make a wrong movement at a certain time, but you know the score and could play on. So then do not look at me, at what I am doing, but listen to each other, listen to what happens around you.

I am sorry for these mistakes. But I think that we will be able to communicate soon.

Source: https://bluenred.com/2010/11/13/i-think-that-we-will-be-able-to-communicate-soon/

He was so earnest and committed to his vision and it was a completely new way of thinking for me. As a performer on this concert, I don’t think I was able to ever quite surrender my sense of time completely – I had to remain tethered in order to keep my head, to keep my awareness that I had a specific job to do and to execute my part in the music – but my perception of time changed that week. I don’t remember if it was Górecki himself or someone else (perhaps another conductor who helped rehearse us before Górecki arrived?) who advised us to not look at time passing linearly, like we were traveling left to right from point A to point B, from beginning to end. Rather, we needed to imagine time as a hollow tube, to hold the tube up to our eye and look through it, and to perceive ourselves traveling forward in the tube but with no real sense of beginning or end. That image has stayed with me ever since that moment.

I was reminded of this on the Friday of Midwinter, watching and listening to the Chicago Philharmonic perform a live version of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops (a work of art whose creation was possible only because of the passage and destructive power of time! So different from the typical battle most works of art have to try and withstand and outlast time). My attention was initially focused on the people on stage. I watched the musicians play their repetitive motives and noted when they’d switch off to give each other a break. I noticed when the conductor would hold up one finger to mark the last repeat before a new section/change in the music, and I watched him give the slightest of time signature changes (2+2+2+3 to 2+2+3+3 for instance). I was fascinated by the woman in the percussion section “playing” what looked like a crinkly ball of plastic wrap; she would roll and manipulate the material in her hands to approximate a hissing noise that spoke of things decaying and falling apart, and she would stop and start her motions as the music dictated (made me wonder how this was notated!). Gradually, however, I stopped looking at the players and I shifted my attention to the music itself, how it almost imperceptibly changed hue and texture as it continued its journey in Rubloff Auditorium. I can’t tell you the exact moment when I stopped being aware of the minutes passing, but I definitely felt myself click back into reality when the crowd applauded between the first and second movements. I was almost angry to be returned to the shackles of time, the tyranny of the timepiece!

Regarding shoegaze music (specifically Ride’s album Nowhere) Steve Lamacq of BBC 6 Music has called it “an escapist album,” and rock critic Greg Kot (Sound Opinions podcast episode 371) has talked about how shoegaze was “transcendence through oblivion” and “the noise will set you free.” Free from what, exactly? Kot has suggested it was youth escaping from Thatcherism and the conditions in Britain in the late 80s/early 90s, and the attempt to “make their own world.” Midwinter marked my sixth time seeing Slowdive live, but even though I knew pretty well by now what to expect, being in the presence of their sound is always a thrill and gives a feeling of sinking into a warm bath. In its own way, it’s music hell-bent on transcending time. It doesn’t look backward, it doesn’t necessarily look forward. It’s not time travel. At least for me, listening to this music takes me to a place outside of time. Sure, Slowdive uses a steady beat, and they use song structure, so it’s not like they’re completely devoid of a sense of time, but the sonic landscapes they paint, they definitely evoke the “sky of timelessness” that I heard Górecki speak so passionately about over two decades ago.

I value some music for the way that it roots me – the predictable and reassuring regularity of the beat. The pride I feel at listening back to a recording and knowing that I was part of its premiere, or part of its creation in that singular moment in history. The satisfaction I feel at listening to a fugue or a piece in sonata form and knowing where the composer is taking me on her or his musical journey. But on this weekend in February, I valued the music I heard not for hearing what I expected, but for hearing the unexpected – being carried by the arms of the creators into a state of being where time felt irrelevant – it was freeing and ecstatic. It was almost too perfect to bookend my Basinski experience with the premiere of his new work On Time Out of Time.

The main takeaway from my two days at Pitchfork Midwinter was to look at my days differently. Did I have an amazing time? In the hours where I was completely focused and surrounded by the music of these artists, I felt downright timeless. Ageless. Weightless. Was it amazing? You bet. It was a welcome break from the cruel reality of the ticking clock… and it was a welcome glimpse that the ticking clock is an illusion and there is another plane of existence waiting for us. Thanks to the organizers, and to all the artists, for not only giving me the chance to have an amazing time, but to remind us all that the concept of time itself, and the opportunity to escape it for a while, is an amazing thing.

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