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Time and Timelessness in Art & Music

Time and Timelessness in Art & Music


Of Time and Timelessness in Art and Music


My husband Bruce has been fascinated by time all his life. Everything he did occurred in time—swimming races, sailboat regattas, and eventually the study of physics and music. 

Physics is about dynamics, the movement and change of matter and energy in the Universe, things that develop over time, things that have befores and afters, causes and effects.

At its deepest level, physics is about time itself. Time is often called the fourth dimension, but it is unlike the other three, even though it interacts with them. 


Time’s Existence


Time’s very existence remains a hotly debated topic in theoretical physics- Did time get created along with everything else (or at least the predecessors of everything else) in the Big Bang? Could there be self-consistent Universes where time is different, or there is more than one time dimension?

Even the language used to talk about time has implicit time in it. “Created” implies the existence of a “before,” it is in the past tense. There’s already an “encoded bias.” It’s like trying to paint red when the brush is already loaded with white. At best you get pink.

Trying to talk about the existence of time is like trying to dance about architecture. It is fraught at best. Where language fails, mathematics rushes in, but even then the path grows murky.


Art & Time


In the world of art, different modes of creative expression have different relationships to time. 

Painting and sculpture are generally seen as fixed and unchanging, de-emphasizing the role of time.


Sculpture of minotaur



Music is different, it is something that occurs in time, and not surprisingly it became Bruce’s chosen mode of artistic expression.



Music notation- Creativity blog- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Music notation


And, in particular, his inspiration and guiding force came from the most “time-like” of composers, Johann Sebastian Bach. Like Bach, Bruce’s favorite instrument is the pipe organ.

His favorite musical expression within that is the fugue, a musical form where a melodic figure is introduced at several different pitches in sequence. The fugue builds on the harmonies that can be created between different notes in the melody, playing off of each other. 



Statue of JS Bach- Thomaskirche, Leipzig, Germany



Bach may not be the best example of a teacher to imitate. Sometimes I don’t think he actually “composed,” but rather just took dictation from God. He used time to exalt the timeless.

Even the word “fugue” is derived from the Latin “fuga,” meaning “flight,” something that definitely occurs in time. It is also the root of “fugitive,” which is appropriate as Bruce’s embracing of classical music occurred in the 1970s, fleeing from disco and other aberrations.



Disco ball



Think of harmony as “vertical”—on the musical page, a chord (multiple notes sounded together) is written vertically, it exists at a point in time. A melody is “horizontal,” made of tones occurring in sequence, stretched out in time, and it is written horizontally.



Notation of musical harmonies (chords)



This thought came up in conversation last week as Bruce is taking an online course in music composition from a renowned composer, Eric Whitacre. Naturally he was already familiar with the idea of creative courses online via Nancy.

In our blog posts, we have often discussed the value of “zero to one” or “just start!” 

Full of optimism with a freshly minted PhD, Bruce recorded some improvisational compositions on the massive cathedral organ of St. Mark’s in Seattle. Perhaps it was the start of a compositional life, fueled by inspirations that ranged from JS Bach to medieval Gregorian chant to the German electronica group Kraftwerk. 



St. Mark’s Cathedral organ, Seattle. Builder: Flentrop Orgelbouw, Zaandam, Holland



All of the pieces were contrapuntal, melodies whirling and playing off of each other like swallows tumbling and arcing through the blooming air. Nothing stood still. Harmonies shimmered and morphed in the six-second echo of the vast space.

It was apparently a false start, dreaded not just in swimming but in music, too. It has been 35 years since then and he recently thought of his compositional aspirations, “If not now, when?”




In the online course that Bruce is taking, Eric discusses his creative process, and (at least so far) it often appears to be “vertical-forward.” This means that Eric imagines a chord, floating and static. By listening to the interplay of tones in the chord long enough and attentively enough, melodic figures emerge.

Since we are unable to ask Mr. Bach how he composed, we have to infer the process. There is a relentless pulse to his music, tonal relationships are evanescent and kinetic, like birds in the air or waves on a shore. It seems that it is “horizontal-forward.” 



Bach Cello Suite #1


Perhaps this comes from the strictures of the Baroque era, when the tonal vocabulary was smaller than that of the 21st century. Harmonies had functions in relation to other harmonies, and the compositional rules were clear and unforgiving.


Vertical & Horizontal


I submit that art has vertical and horizontal components as well. Time enters the picture, as it were, in that there are some moves where order matters and others where it doesn’t. Order implies time. 

When line is used in a painting, it has a beginning and end, it can be followed backwards or forwards. Time is implicit. Line is like the horizontal in music, a melody written in paint. 

But the process can go the other way, more like Eric Whitacre’s floating choral compositions, starting with the vertical and growing the horizontal.

Fields of color such as washes are more “vertical,” though they may be layered which implies order. Time is less explicit. Fields of color may be activated by line, just as harmony can be activated by melody. Pouring ink or throwing paint would be another example of a more “vertical” start.

Bruce is looking forward to exploring the “vertical” take on music after a musical life steeped in the “horizontal,” because it’s never too late to evolve. 

The time of your life is reflected in the time in your art.

With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce



If you enjoy this blog, you’ll love our latest book, The Adjacent Possible.

Get your copy HERE.  

Sample the book by listening to The Adjacent Possible Book Reading of Chapter 1 HERE. 

The Adjacent Possible

The Adjacent Possible


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