Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Eternity in Each Moment: Temporal Strategies in Ravel's "Le Gibet"

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Eternity in Each Moment: Temporal Strategies in Ravel's "Le Gibet"

Article excerpt

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this, or the like of this.

~ Henry David Thoreau

[1.1] In 1958, Pierre Boulez suggested that the experience of listening to music was "no longer directional, but time bubbles," as music unfolds for the listener without purposeful motion from beginning to end (1986, 178). Composers and scholars have identified a handful of musical works from the early twentieth century that both invite this approach to musical listening and function as prescient examples of structural trends to come. In particular, Debussy's Jeux (1913) and Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920) have been singled out for special attention. Symphonies has inspired formal and temporal analyses from Edward Cone, Jonathan Kramer, and Christopher Hasty, among others, and it was described by Alexander Rehding as a "paradigm of discontinuity."(1) The Darmstadt composers, including Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, championed Jeux decades after the ballet had been overshadowed by the premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Boulez paid particular attention to Jeux's shifting juxtaposed gestures, which were underpinned by structural homogeneity. Each of these techniques encouraged a "time bubble" approach to music listening that recognized both pulsed time and a temporal order freed from succession-or, as Gilles Deleuze put it, space-times that are either "striated" (pulsed) or "smooth" (indeterminate)(2). The panegyrics devoted to Jeux, The Rite of Spring, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and a handful of other early twentieth-century works celebrate the way these works attend to both types of temporality and invite alternative modes of listening.

[1.2] Rarely has similar praise been directed toward Maurice Ravel's music, which remains peripheral in musicological discourse despite recent developments in scholarship.(3) Ravel is typically viewed as a classicist in disguise: he may have worked in the twentieth century, but he was disinclined to experiment with the same freewheeling abandon that Debussy did.(4) Ravel's musical forms are often interpreted in light of their eighteenth-century antecedents; those that deviate from classical norms, like Boléro, are easily dismissed with help from the composer himself, who described this work as "an experiment in a very special and limited direction" that resulted in "orchestral tissue without music" (Calvocoressi 2003, 477). But twenty years before the ballet premiere of Boléro, Ravel wrote another piece that may be considered a formal experiment: "Le Gibet," the middle work of the piano triptych Gaspard de la nuit. The structural dimensions of the piece, while evoking classical prototypes, also anticipate the attention paid by Stravinsky, Debussy, and several mid-twentieth century composers to heterogeneous temporal relationships, especially the mediation of circularity, linearity, and discontinuity.

[1.3] Jann Pasler's study of form in Debussy's Jeux provides a useful analytical companion to "Le Gibet." For Pasler, abrupt changes in meter and tempo in Jeux suggest discontinuity, while motivic similarity and constancy of pulse help to bind discontinuous gestures (Pasler 2008, 91-95). Her analysis relies in part on philosophical scaffolding supplied by Henri Bergson, whose theory of duration has much to recommend to music studies. In "The Perception of Change" (2002; La Perception du changement, 1911), Bergson explains the concept of temporal indivisibility with a spatial analogy: Zeno's paradox of Achilles racing a tortoise who was given a head start. Though most would wager that Achilles would win the race despite his initial disadvantage, Zeno offers a mathematical (or metaphysical) paradox that makes the tortoise the winner. …

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