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Music out of time

Rejecting a western obsession with progression, a school of radical music-makers have since the 1960s experimented with new forms of composition that sit outside of time itself.

TWA Terminal at JFK Airport

Brian Eno's Music for Airports has been performed at the space-age TWA terminal in New York.

EAlevrontas on Wikimedia Commons.

Whether in the form of the three-movement concerto or the three-minute pop song, we tend to think of music in terms of linear time. A song or a symphony starts in one place and finishes in another. Verse-chorus-bridge, verse-chorus-bridge, outro.

But there is another current of music that exists outside of the constraints of time altogether. This is a music that, rather than taking you on a journey, is more like opening a door to a room. In that room, beautiful things occur untroubled by the need to change or progress over time. As listeners we stay there as long as we like and then leave, or open a door to a different room.

The exact nature of these rooms is impossible to describe: it is a music beyond language. But they share common features – they usually occupy whole sides of records, they often invoke places (real or imagined), and most are peaceful, even meditative spaces.

This may be what Brian Eno was beginning to categorise and define in the liner notes for 1978's Music for Airports, when he described ambient music as "an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint." But before Eno coined the term there were already examples of music-making that rejected the ideas of linear time so dominant in the western canon.

On the title track of Alice Coltrane's Journey in Satchidananda from 1971 (note, the name of a place), a rising and falling bassline anchors a patient exploration of mood and atmosphere through Coltrane's sensual harp. It doesn't 'go' anywhere: it just is. Like many of her spiritual jazz contemporaries, Coltrane drew inspiration from Indian classical music. This tradition has a radically different feel to western classical music – a space to be immersed in, rather than a narrative arc to follow from start to finish. Qawwali music, a form of Sufi devotional singing with roots in northern India, is specifically designed to induce a trance-like state in both performers and listeners.

In the west, this way of thinking about music was taken up in the 1960s by American minimalists like Terry Riley (who preferred his audiences to sit on the floor instead of concert hall seats). His most influential piece, 1964's In C, radically undermines both the composer as an all-powerful auteur and the idea that composed music should be fixed in form and duration.

In a performance of In C, an indefinite number of performers play short looping 'cells' of music on any instrument they like, with each individual player choosing when they want to move on to the next cell in the sequence. This creates an ever-changing combination of cells from moment to moment (no two performances are ever the same), and the autonomy given to each musician means that In C can be completed in a few minutes or several hours (or longer, in theory).

John Cage's As Slow As Possible takes the metaphor of a room filled with endless music literally. True to its title, the piece has been performed at a church in the German town of Halberstadt since 2001, and is scheduled to take 639 years to complete (it started with a six month rest, and the next note is due on 5 February 2024). This version of the piece (which was first performed in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it 20 minute iteration in 1987) dissolves boundaries between permanence and change, and reduces western ideas of progression to absurdity.

Once a collaborator with Eno, Harold Budd's 2005 work 'As Long As I Can Hold My Breath (By Night)' stretches out over 70 glacial minutes, a mournful two-note melody on the violin acting as a lodestar throughout. At times other elements come to the fore or recede a little, but somehow the piece doesn't change. The sound definitely does change, even if gradually, on William Basinski's celebrated Disintegration Loops from the early 2000s. Half made by accident, the project takes aim at the very idea of musical progression – over hour-long recordings an old tape loop is played until it wears out completely, the music regressing into the murk.

"Less happening over longer periods of time", could be the mission statement of Australian jazz trio The Necks, who almost exclusively work in the hour-long format and who gradually stripped away elements of their sound until they ended up with 2001's Aether. On the one-track album piano chords rise to the surface like bubbles in a lake, evaporating on contact with air. As a listener we could enter at the end or leave at the beginning: this is a place where time plays tricks on us, or is perhaps not present at all (the BBC said the album's 64 minutes "pass by with the ease of seconds").

Is this a form of non-capitalist music? The idea of progression central to both western classical and popular music seems to mirror capitalism's growth logic, as well as (more recently) our neurotic obsession with 'personal growth'. But this alternative form of music-making could offer a way to arrange sound untethered from capitalistic processes: less for longer, rather than more, more, more. It's a form of music that's harder to chop up, package, share and resell in the way the modern music industry demands.

The recent surge in popularity of ambient music (or its Very Online cousin, 'lo–fi beats to study/relax to') suggests there could be some validity in this, as listeners seek refuge from the ever-increasing demands of our toxic work culture in its weightless embrace. (Ironically one of the best ambient albums of recent years was a compilation of music commissioned by Japanese retailers to play in-store). Of course, this creates its own problems: this beautiful and often unknowable music risks being co-opted by the workplace wellness movement – peaceful must not be the same as bland.

But this isn't a form that has to be militantly avant-garde to be effective. Rather than opening a door to a room, Virginia Astley's 1983 masterpiece From Gardens Where We Feel Secure opens a gate in a picket fence. Birds chirrup over church bells, a rusty swing squeaks in the wind, and delicate melodies drift by like clouds. This is music with enough space that the listener can place themselves in it completely. We look straight up at the piercing blue sky, and suddenly the boundaries dissolve – all becomes possible.

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