A chapter from the book, Faust: Stretch Out Time 1970-75. What is it about the treatment of time in music that makes music great?

Faust: Stretch Out Time cover Andy Wilson: Faust: Stretch Out Time 1970-75
Paperback : 232 pages
ISBN-13 : 978-0955066450
Product dimensions : 13.97 x 1.35 x 21.59 cm
Publisher : Unkant Publishers; Illustrated edition (7 Sept. 2006)
Language: : English

Fruit Flies Like a Banana

In Faust-musik, time ticks like a bomb.
Faust Manifesto, 1973

Music does not last, it has nothing to do with time.
Sergiu Celibidache

Zappa thought time was ‘a spherical concept’ so that, in a manner of speaking, everything happens at once. Gnostics, Buddhists and WIlliam Blake agree, believing that you can enter the gates of eternity in an instant, and that time is one of the world’s illusions. William Burroughs and Sun Ra thought that to survive at all we need to evolve ‘out of time, into space’.

These ideas paint time as a mystery and a problem, very different to the common sense impressions we live by, according to which time is just an empty framework in which things happen. In fact the procession of the moments of official time, strung together like the beads of a necklace, help maintain the worlds of consumerism and exploitation. Luckily for the quality of existence you can sometimes snap the thread of linear time to let the beads roll – but how?

The question bears on everything to do with music, the way it is made and marketed, sold and consumed. Music seems so peculiarly involved with time as to be saturated with it. Much of what music achieves is a result only of its dialogue with time. Take a snapshot of the light around you and you have a photograph you might look at; try the same with sound and all you have is a reading of air pressure. At best you might get a map of pressure states at different points in space, an image of sound, but you don’t have sound and you certainly don’t have music. It is only by experiencing fluctuating air pressure over time that you have an experience of sound (and even that isn’t yet a musical experience). Notice too that once a photograph is taken the reality it depicts is gone forever, while a moment of music is always somehow smeared between times. Among other things, music does the diabolical work of holding past and future together.

Most music is rooted in empty time, the tick-tocking of wage slavery and boredom, the time of the eternal return of the present, of the market and its drizzle of ersatz gratifications. This is also the time of clock watching and of the ‘second nature’ of the economy, the time captured by the mathematicians’ point-structure tensor logic. It is the aspect of time Blake had in mind when he called Satan ‘the miller of eternity’.

Most music is made to be heard only from within this empty time, helping pin you down within it. To that extent music keeps you bored as you listen, abandoned to the empty reality it evokes, and feeling there is nothing to be done but endure it. Boring music is counter-revolutionary because it adjusts you to the broken reality it is a part of, and which it reflects.

Music becomes especially impoverished when the factory invades the citadel of life. Adorno spoke of the libidinisation of the production line, how its dry-humping rhythms take on a cathectic charge to become desirable. Thanks to advances in technology you can now have endless permutations of this rhythm installed on your iPod for injection during the work run, warming you up for a productive day. Popular music and factory production edge closer together. Music becomes a weapon of mood control, all the better to drive consumption and the wheels of industry.

Music becomes especially impoverished when the factory invades the citadel of life

Music becomes especially impoverished when the factory invades the citadel of life. Adorno spoke of the libidinisation of the production line, how its dry-humping rhythms take on a cathectic charge to become desirable. Thanks to advances in technology you can now have endless permutations of this rhythm installed on your iPod for injection during the work run, warming you up for a productive day. Popular music and factory production edge closer together. Music becomes a weapon of mood control, all the better to drive consumption and the wheels of industry.

Perhaps the sound of the factory is more important to many now that so many factories are closing, and this industrial music expresses nostalgia for the productive base as it flees from experience. How you feel about the erotics of the production line is likely to determine how you feel about, say, Kraftwerk, techno or the disco. Cinema was way ahead of music in reflecting economic reality this way: Dziga Vertov set the standards in the 1920’s with films such as The Man with the Movie Camera, precision-timed, micro-synchronised hymns to Stalinist productivism and the Five Year Plan – a film for which Kraftwerk could supply the perfect soundtrack.

Outside of the factory, on the consumer side of the equation, time increasingly becomes linked to the cycles governing advertising campaigns and the pulsed repetition of the supermarket, designed to create that hypnogogic state in which the consumer is most susceptible to persuasion. Whole schools of modern music are geared toward recreating this experience as a narcotic; the consumer’s befuddlement is generalised, abstracted and sold back to the victim as an ideal. In this state the listener is rendered quiescent, perfectly attuned to the rhythms of consumption and basking in some state of surrender. The music seems to have a calming effect, just as an inmate might cool his cheek against the padding of his cell.

The Man With a Movie Camera

Dziga Vertov
The Man With the Movie Camera (1929)

At what appears to be another extreme, ambient music reflects the high gloss vacuity of the service economy, which is spared the need to actually produce, has no need for the production line and, consequently, can defiantly, positively dispense with its rhythms. The free floating non-events of Eno’s ambient music are just another way of stalling the experience of real time, in this case actually caressing the empty moment rather than hammering it in with a beat. The amorphousness of ambient music creates not the feeling of space, but of confinement normalised and elevated to an ideal, the perfect soundtrack to a long wait in the reception room of a management consultancy.

We generally experience things as expressions of a mysterious grounding force, an essence which the object to hand embodies and through which it appears to live and have substance. Nothing is independently real in itself but instead becomes a commodity, the working of which is ineffable. As Marx put it, the commodity ‘abounds in metaphysical subtleties’.

Records, sounds and entire lifestyles become objects to be taken on board up as commodities. They are just as soon abandoned to make way for the next round of consumption, keeping the wheel turning indefinitely. The mystery is that dead products take on the signs of individuality and personality, while living individuals slowly become ciphers driven to pursue meaning only by consuming the products which now seem to embody it. The personality of the consumer migrates magically to become the substance of the commodity. The commodity object is fetishised as embodying sublimated human qualities, while the person in turn becomes an object, his qualities suppressed by a culture and economy that prefers all-purpose, blank slate, interchangeable consumers to any kind of properly individuated subjectivity. People and things swap roles.

Empty time is the medium through which this commodity reality is doled out. Having been rendered meaningless by being evacuated, empty time turns around in revenge to usurp life, subordinating it on the model of the clock controlling the production line. Put simply, as the motto of the American Clockmakers Society reminds us: ‘time rules all’.

Along with empty time, our age creates a surplus of death, inasmuch as we inherit a kind of living death as our birthright under capitalism. A commodity economy requires the walking dead to keep things ticking over. As this requirement is the first principle of the economy, huge numbers of specialists are kept busy clearing a route for the funeral march, erecting signposts and way stations and lining the pavement to cheer the rest on. Universities, advertising agencies, government departments, political parties and media corporations work to smooth its path and keep things running to order. At the entrance to the economy is a sign announcing: Welcome to the Death Factory.

More specifically, life and death are locked in conflict, and their struggle is embodied in two measures of time. For the living, to the extent that they slip outside the working world, moments are incommensurable and they live freely in them. But these freedoms turn out to be momentary this side of any real community. Before that they are quickly returned to a deformed social existence, offering only the image of freedom rather than its substance. Crucially, however, it is in these images that freedom hibernates, having been strangled elsewhere. The point is to end freedom’s quarantine and return it to the entirety of existence.


For the dead, moments become so flattened as to be almost indistinguishable. In this dead world everything is eternally new, though nothing ever changes. Its sufferers also learn to dread the moment when the clock stops ticking for them personally, definitively putting an end to a time already largely empty of meaning, sensing the threat that they will die before they even begin to live.

Dead time reinforces the conditions of its existence by keeping you inclined to play the role assigned you consuming alien things. Each new product claims to fill the hole in your existence while actually only affirming and reinforcing it. According to Sufis and Situationists, as you run after products and thrills, or just pursue your daily life, you hover tantalisingly close to the thing you unconsciously want and need: the beach beneath the pavement. The solution is ‘closer than your jugular vein, closer than your heartbeat’, but escapes you because it is orthogonal to the world you have learned to inhabit and perceive. In the words of the Sufis, you pace up and down the shore but never shove off for the other side.

The navigation between dead and living time doesn’t happen in a single miraculous event, the dead time of commodity music stacked up on one side so the only way to escape it is to take one final leap into eternity. In this context at least the Gnostic, mystic idea of time is only suggestive.

What happens instead of the lonely release into the ecstasy of nirvana is that dead time is challenged permanently in everyday experience. A field of force binds the world and its opposition together into a single, embattled totality shot through with contradictions created by the conflict at its heart. Just as physics maintains the picture of a stable macro-world despite the indeterminacy of the quantum world below, the big picture of corporate marketing, high society art ritual and mass marketed circus games is compatible with a more or less underground, more or less recognised and understood world in which art, politics and life capture the personal experience of expanded time. The big picture persists – Sony and Sting, trivia and boredom – while the underlying reality sees untold musicians and listeners, artists, rioters, rabble-rousers, strikers, demonstrators and other contrarians engage in a war aimed at breaking the back of its routine, succeeding momentarily. Each of these moments contains in cell form the utopian vision of a free society.

Music fights dead time by playing against it. Sun Ra understood, and built his music on this insight. Here is what he told the Arkestra in a rehearsal pep talk;

That last phrase was off because you played it correctly. You should play it wrong – a little ahead of the beat. It’s very effective. That’s the way the older jazz musicians played it. They played a little bit ahead, then, later, Chicago musicians decided to play a little bit behind the beat and that’s not easy to do. It’s a little ahead or behind. Then there’s music that’s on the beat. Well, white people can do that.

You don’t have to buy into the afro-centrism that wraps up the argument – ultimately, even Sun Ra didn’t. He means only that musicians should spar with time to defeat it rather than just counting out the changes. Under Sun Ra’s guidance the Arkestra learned to play ahead of the beat, behind and around it at once. What Sun Ra means is about much more than finicky jazz syncopation or even a more general, abstractly technical skill. It isn’t even ultimately about time as such, but touches on everything worth saying about music and its struggle with death and boredom. Ra even goes on to tie this way of making music to political aggravation and the struggle against what sociologists call alienation;

Now, Lex Humphries [Arkestra drummer] is passive. He’s thinking ‘Everything is beautiful, ‘cause I’m going to heaven when I die’ So he’s happy. But don’t you believe that, you are restless. You look out at the world and you say ‘Something’s wrong with this stuff.’ Then you get so mad you can play it on your instrument. Play some fire on it. If you’re not mad at the world, you don’t have what it takes. The world lacks for warriors. Prepare yourself accordingly.

None of this should be taken to mean that music succeeds in overcoming empty time simply by dodging the metronome. When it works at all, the effect is the result of the organisation of the music as a whole, the relationship between the themes and elements that make up the music to the musical totality they produce by being brought together in a particular situation, which is why Adorno could say of the symphony, of symphonic form, that it produces a “contraction of time which annihilates… the contingencies of the listener’s private existence”.

Music fights dead time by playing against it

 I talked about two measures of time rather than two ways of experiencing it because this isn’t simply a matter of how you look at things, two ways of experiencing the same underlying time. But the situation isn’t necessarily as symmetrical as I have implied since lived time seems untimely – outside of time because not limited by it. In lived moments time slips away, and this negation of time is felt as an experience of space. Bound up in time, music, when it plays with time, releases you into space. That is why there is music called ‘space rock’; it is one of the reasons Sun Ra believed that ‘space is the place’, and why, for example, Coltrane played in ‘Interstellar Space’, ‘Stellar Regions’, the ‘Cosmos’ and ‘Out of this World’. Varèse shared this intuition, describing his own music as ‘spatial’ and arguing that the block and beams of sound organised by his scores produce the experience of “prolongation, a journey into space”. Space, outer space, comes to represent the everyday world’s other, a world broader than our own limited perspective and embodying the sum of utopian possibilities, and music seems to offer a means of getting in touch with it.

In commodity music it is the idea, the theme or the unwinding of a tune that counts. The resolution of chords in a key obviously confirms some predetermined idea about music, and the progress of this happy resolution is measured out in empty time. Predictability (and hence some sort of explicit or implicit repetition) is necessary for music to become a commodity. For the commodity to work it has to be embedded in a network (of marketing, advertising and so on) that makes sense of what it seems to offer, and this means that a commodity must repeat what has already been said about it in order to be identified. On the other hand, freely improvised music (to give one example) has less interest in such repetition, in the sense of planned and predictable movement; it invests more in the yawp of the moment as the fulcrum of change and development regardless of any plan.

The same arguments regarding the musical treatment of time could be made as easily with regard to tonality. Despite all propaganda to the contrary, tonal systems are unnatural; they are ultimately only more or less convenient sedimentations of dead sounds, feelings and practices. Music which insists on the primacy of the old tonal system (or any particular tonal system) is as awkward as music that treats time metronomically, setting in stone feelings and relations belonging to the past without refiguring them for today. Consonance, like time, has to be perpetually rethought if it isn’t to remain stuck in a cul de sac. This is not to argue for novelty and dissonance for the sake of it, but recognises that the world needs to move on. Music cannot avoid the responsibility of having to address the new circumstances and account for the changing situation of music, musicians, and listeners within it.

Sun Ra

Sun Ra

Music isn’t up to much if it doesn’t incorporate new sounds and textures, and seek to address new experiences, new limitations and new possibilities. Certainly it has to be alert to keep ahead of the market’s drive to turn everything into a commodity. Without this exploration and development music is in danger of being swamped and turned into something used merely to help paste over and obscure the cracks in the working day. The history of the blues, jazz and modern art and academic music is the history of musicians struggling to bring new sounds to the music in order to keep the music relevant in this way, whether through serialism, microtonality, spectralism, free improvisation or anything else that leads out of familiarity and comfort.

Just as the Surrealists sought to develop a repertory of techniques for producing a derangement of the senses, there is an arsenal of musical manoeuvres aimed at subverting time and tonality, building new forms and textures. Improvising musicians try to base their music spontaneously on these private and collective techniques. Modern composers have their own ideas for treating time, harmony, dissonance and colour to this end. Radical production and recording methods allowed Faust to do something similar in the studio, while in live performance they depended on electronics and their approach to group improvisation.
Charlie Patton

Charlie Patton

A little over a century ago, country blues posited the body as the centre of musical meaning, harnessing itself to the body’s rhythms and urges in defiance of official agendas. Musicians played slower or faster in accordance with their sense of the song’s dramatic meaning, allowing the song to ebb and flow like a force of nature, ignoring any concept of fixed bar lengths or strict time. Idiosyncratic timing at the very least was valued as a part of the singer’s personal interpretation of the song. In the case of the greatest bluesmen this personal inflection was more than a marketable style or ‘unique selling point’, and they could create coherent worlds of their own in their performances. It was when the music took the train out of the countryside and plantation and moved north to the city that it began to adopt something like a regular, standardised pulse, echoing the rhythm of the production lines that black workers at the time were being introduced to.

The history of jazz from the time of its emergence from the blues through at least until the sixties is a history of expanding freedom

 The city held greater opportunities for collaboration, and plenty of work was to be had for musicians in the bars, clubs and brothels catering to the newly transplanted workforce. The music began to be played by groups of musicians rather than solo, as had been often been the case at home. It therefore became useful to standardise blues timing so the individual musician’s knowledge could more easily be transplanted between groups. Musicians needed to be able to play with a new group without first having to learn an entire universe of idiosyncratic phrasing from scratch, and this meant developing standard songs, tunings and timings. Co-operation at first required the development of standardised time in order for the work of individual musicians to be synchronised in the group context, just as it was required for the co-ordination and control of workers in the context of the factory. The history of the blues in this period is a history of creeping standardisation.

The history of jazz from the time of its emergence from the blues (and elsewhere) through at least until the sixties is, on the contrary, a history of expanding freedom, as the music progressively distances itself from standardised musical forms in a series of shocks and ruptures. For example, the modalism that Coltrane took from his time with Miles Davis uses a mode (scale) as a framework to be filled with spiralling improvised content, inflected by an individual and collective (group) sense of time that can be gained only by months and years of group practice. Coltrane’s improvisations compress the world’s music so tightly that particular forms melt and merge under the pressure: all that had been standardised in the blues and jazz starts to evaporate.

With his impenetrable theory of ‘harmolodics’ and, more convincingly, with his playing, Ornette Coleman edged even further toward the boundary of formalism and freedom, to the point where, in theory at least, form is allowed to fall away entirely: “There’s a law in what I’m playing, but that law is a law that, where you get tired of it, you can change it.” Coleman aims at levelling musical hierarchies and “removing the caste system from sound.” Ayler found his own response to Coltrane by overloading marching tunes, the blues, field hollers and, above all, church music with raw power until they snapped apart – a sound, according to Ted Joans, “like shouting ‘Fuck’ in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”

Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor set out their stalls on the frontier ahead of everyone else in jazz. Almost from the start it seemed that Taylor aimed to finally overcome the division of labour, returning music to an organic unity of mind and body: “Music does not exist within notation, which proceeds from heretical cultural aggrandisement, association, abstraction. ‘They’ have divided the body, treating the mind as a divided agent.” He makes an anti-idealist’s dance music for the embodied person – head and heart, mind and body without distinction, breaking the back of intellectual, abstract time, tonality and harmony, releasing us, at best, into something approaching an ecstasy of pure sound and physics.

Incredibly, despite this tradition of innovation, contemporary jazz is now more or less comatose anywhere outside of Taylor and the different free jazz communities on either side of the Atlantic. In the name of continuity and respect for tradition, the Marsalis brothers and their friends turned jazz into an standardised, easily identifiable commodity, trading openly on its most conservative traditions and recycling the music of the glory years – according to Stanley Crouch “the jazz tradition is not innovation”. Talking the language of black pride, Marsalis & Co. in fact promote the fearful, conservative ideology of the black bourgeoisie. For them jazz is just another asset in the racial trophy cabinet, proof of the inherited cultural capital that gives them too the right to sit at the top table. At best it is reduced to being the sigh of an oppressed and pitiable minority rather than an attempt at superseding the culture of the society which creates that oppression, offering a hint of what might lie beyond it. With the rise of these tendencies, much that was worthwhile in jazz passed over into the free improvisation community, which kept faith with jazz’s quest for musical freedom only by breaking with its characteristic styles: a true dialectical negation which has seen it largely detach itself from the rest of the jazz community.

Through much of the century art music and its avant garde developed in ways analogous to jazz, though typically approaching similar ends through very different technical means. In his book Free Jazz, Ekkehard Jost offers as an example the way that Taylor’s shaking loose of confining tempo can have much the same effect as is sometimes achieved paradoxically through the precise timings of serialism, releasing the music into a less constricted, more subjective space.

This partial convergence of jazz and classical traditions encouraged the conscious development of a ‘third stream’ music which sought to properly fuse those traditions – the term was coined by Gunther Schuller in 1957 on the basis of an analogy with the way Bartók married the classical and folk traditions. Apart from this development, with the exception of the ‘new complexity’ composers (partially and sporadically), some of those working in electro-acoustic and spectral music, and, definitely, the group around the Romanians Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana Maria Avram, contemporary art and academic music has largely thrown in the towel over the last thirty years, seeking instead to address its economic marginalisation by attaching to itself the easily digested but inert textures of minimalism and the ‘new tonality’.

Mainstream classical music, or what is marketed as classical music, has, like much of jazz, been racing to commodify itself completely. There has been a huge effort to build new markets by building up the classical equivalent of pop stars such as The Three Tenors and Nigel Kennedy, and through Classic FM programming. Between them these tendencies turn the tradition into a combination of grand spectacle and hummable mood music. Unable to move forward, they skirt the issue by throwing up glossy diversions as if to buy time.



Rock music derived its sense of time from blues and jazz, but tended at first to smooth over their more querulous syncopations in favour of a brute, regular beat. Zappa was the first major figure to make sustained, explicit use of time bending techniques through his use of xenochrony, laying pieces of music with different time signatures together to create new poly-rhythms and sonic tensions. As a devotee of Varèse, Zappa was open to such innovations. In the years since then others have taken up jazz and classical techniques in the drive away from tonality and strict tempo toward some sort of freer expression. Some even created techniques of their own. Much rock and related music is simply part of the entertainment spectacle, but there is a long history of innovation there too.

Although based in very different musical styles, Faust’s music often stakes out its space on similar terrain of musical freedom to that cleared by free jazz and free improvisation, allowing musical forces to follow their innate logic by freeing them from what is ultimately an arbitrary order, allowing them to move tentatively toward the realm of unprocessed physical reality. This is the logic of nature but also (shockingly, from a hippy or new age point of view) the logic of machines, properly understood: Faust tuned into the stochastic poetry of the cement mixer in a way that could not have occurred even to Russolo and the Futurists, though John Cage had an inkling of it and Iannis Xenakis would make this understanding one of the foundations of his music.

This natural-machine-logic is also the logic of dreams, dreams being expressions of the ‘nature of mind’. It is an all-inclusive logic because, looked at from the widest angle, everything is nature. So, as Dumitrescu puts it, the musician needs “to agree with physics, to listen to its laws”. This talk of physical nature is no atavistic bunking off into an inhuman, uncivilised existence, scuttling across the floors of silent seas. It simply recognises that the totality of man – machines, civilisation and all – is part of expanded nature, or what used to be called the Cosmos.

Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed. Faust’s music, at its best, is not only a Dadaist eruption beyond the confines of the rock music of the time: it is also, like all great music, a product of an organised submission to sonic material that sets it free by mastering it, and masters it only by fighting to set it free. It strikes a balance between control of matter and concordance with it, by way of recognising that so much about matter remains unknown. The music reflects the reality of nature beyond instrumental reason. Musical forces combine and take leave in unforced, artless combination, much as the polymorphous perversity of the childlike unconscious may find the world endlessly gratifying. When this happens, dead time is suspended and life comes forward under its own colours: time implodes into space and sense.

Until the social revolution, these lived moments outside of time remain fleeting and private. Death threatens to erase them altogether, ‘like tears in the rain’. To rescue them, and every experience like them, we just need to upset the world and put it on its feet.