"Time is a sandpile we run our fingers in"
ONE OF THE central facts of modern consciousness is our changed perception of time, as compared with earlier centuries.
It is a condition of mortality, of course, that in any age time appears unrelenting in its march. Be it a contemporary illusion or not, however, most of us seem to feel that for the past 60 years or so time has been playing dirty tricks on us. It's getting faster and faster, accelerating at an ever increasing rate, leaving us ever more breathless in a frantic rush to "keep up."
As always, in their role as a seismograph of the human spirit, the arts of our own era have recorded this altered sense of time. They have done so in a great variety of ways, but the broad tendencies might be summed up as a penchant for extremes - extreme brevity, on the one hand, surpassing length on the other.
We have seen poems consisting of a single word: we've heard musical compositions, like those of Webern, lasting a matter of seconds, and others, like John Cage's "4'33"," consisting only of silence; we've had dramatic texts, like some of Beckett's, only a few pages long, and dances, like Paul Taylor's early "Duet," in which the dancer stood stock still.
But we've also experienced theater events, like Robert Wilson's "Ka Mountain," which lasted seven continuous days and nights; movies, like those of Michael Snow and Andy Warhol, which extend for the better part of a day; and dance works, like those of Douglas Dunn and Kei Takei, which are created over a period of years and require days or weeks of observation.
What has happened, it seems to me, is that some artists have fallen in step with the tempo of the times, by squeezing their thoughts and visions into smaller and smaller frames. Others, particularly over the past decade, have tried to fight back, so to speak, by holding up, slowing down or stopping time's ineluctable flight.
In the music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, the theater pieces of Robert Wilson or Meredith Monk, the choreography of Kei Takei, Laura Dean and Andy de Groat, and in kindred works in other media, the artist is attempting to fabricate for us an ersatz eternity, a state of mind in which time seems suspended, drifting, motionless. In this revolt against the frenetic, phyeractive temper of modern life, one can see the beginnings of a new esthetic movement, a new "new wave" of slowly pulsating, repetitive, trance-like art that aims to drive a wedge between ourselves and our fleeting days.
In a sense, art has always waged war on time. It has been part of the mission of the arts to help stretch human life beyond its mortal confines, to enable men and women to extend themselves and their societies unto posterity, not only through procreation, but also creation - the making of artifacts which transcend the death of individuals, and bear witness to human experience from one generation to another.
In our own era, however, the need to hasten the process has been exaggerated by the course of world events. Time is measured by change, and never before has terrestrial "progress" taken place at the rate we've known in the 20th century. Within the memories of living persons has come everything from the automobile, the radio and the flying machine to moon landings, atom smashers, computers and quasars, not to mention the political and social turmoil which itself has been speeded along by technological innovation.
Our marketplaces are flooded with "time-saving" devices. Our lives have become uninterrupted sequences of deadlines and countdowns. In the race against time, we moderns seem to be continually falling further and further behind, despite the promised succor of automated, labor-saving contraptions.
Perhaps the single biggest factor in revising our conceptions of time has been telecommunications in general, and TV in particular. Television has geared our reactions to instant, on-the-spot immediacy - that is its great claim over the communications media of the past. With "instant replay," even memory has become part of an all-consuming present.
TV, moreover, has accustomed us to an incredible temporal compression. Not only do we have numbers of alternative images transpiring simultaneously across different channels, all available at the flick of a wrist; not infrequently, the screen will show us two or more overlapping "realities" at the same time - we'll see the end of one program while the audio track previews another, and a strip of titles at the bottom alerts us to some news break or emergency bulletin.
Furthermore, commercial television has foisted upon us a time scale inflexibly carved up into slots and spots, into which all the content of the broadcasts must be fitted willy-nilly.
In view of the pell-mell laceration of the self to which all this chronological pressure condemns us, is it any wonder that a band of artists should arise to do battle with it - to inoculate us against "future shock"? Is it any surprise that the music of Mahler, for instance, with its cosmic spaciousness and longings for the infinite, should be experiencing an enormous vogue in our concert halls and record libraries? The groundwork for the recent trancelike, time-stretching art works (John Rockwell in The New York Times referred to the phenomenon as "blank art," a term perhaps more misleading than suggestive) has been long under way, particularly in music, the time art part excellence.
Erik Satie set the stage in the '20s, with his languidly unfolding, purposefully monotonous Dadaistic creations.Composers like Henry Cowell and Alan Hovhaness, who tuned in to Eastern mysticism much earlier than others in the West, were harbingers without knowing it. Unqiestionably, the recent influence of Indian music, with its time-distending drones and ragas, has loomed large, and the immersion of rock groups like the Beatles in this idiom has smoothed the path to popular acceptance.
In any case, though they are very different in many ways, there is a thread that binds together such engrossing works as Robert Wilson's "Einstein on the Beach," Meredith Monk's "Venice," Steve Reich's "Drumming," Keith Jarrett's piano rhapsodies, Laura Dean's spinning dances, Kei Takei's 12-part "Light," Twyla Tharp's "Cacklin Hen" and other things one could name.
It is a common desire to stave off those collapsing parapets of time which threaten to obliterate duration and crush our awareness of life's passage. By letting us dwell, however briefly, in a timeless universe of seemingly limitless extent, such art may also help repair our bruised psyches. In the meantime, it is investing the world of performance with an intriguing new stream of sound and imagery.