Let the Meters Run

Māori writers have long mused on the cultural clashes over how time can be felt by people.  Ranginui Walker wrote that while urban industrial societies have their lives regulated by measured time, on the marae (a communal sacred place) “measured time becomes meaningless as the values of relating to people, discussion and the arrival of consensus take over”. Donna Awatere remarked on the colonial conception of time where “time’s dimensions have been collapsed…no longer tied to the cyclic rhythm of nature and to the ancestor’s rhythm of life and death”.

Westerners think of their location in time as similar to a stream, backs turned to the past, poised in the present, facing the future, being carried relentlessly forward, but never arriving. The Māori space-time construct can be thought of more like a constellation, with the past and its people always felt in the present, like the sky constellations navigated by voyagers. Enmeshing, surrounding, always before you, always behind, forming patterns that can be interpreted in various ways. The Māori meeting house itself exists not as a physical object that is frozen, but an embodiment of how the past carries us.

My first real holiday in ages in New Zealand last month (no flute!), I felt the joy of these past/present/future constellations. Tall Tasman Sea waves promised me a swift demise upon Lion Rock at Piha.  Ruru murmured at night, magpies, bellbirds and tuis chatted by day.  The light of Aotearoa burns the back of your eyeballs (all my childhood photos have me squinting at the camera). My space-time construct looped like the hundreds of playful dolphins I met near Motiti Island. Old stories surfaced from friends and family, a blowing and gassing of things that are both true and untrue, showing sides that had never flipped before, only to submerge themselves from view.  

If you are a musician you have an especially strong relationship to time.  There are the obvious laws and zones about time, seasonal lurches, and anxieties in performing a kind of virtuousness. (It was a running joke amongst freelancers that we would fret we had left the iron on as we drove away to our concerts, even though none of us ever ironed our clothes). 

Many music students hate their metronomes, and practice with it as if being towed like a drowned person through a piece of music they wouldn’t care about on a good day. (For their longing seems to be to belong, for release, and not to have control  – a resistance I can understand).

I enjoy metronomes and clocks, because I like the swing and the space between beats. It’s a secret and peaceful power against Empire. Your body movement, your breath, surfs the sound, requiring suppleness in preparing an entrance. The breath is the greatest gift to taking back your body’s power, especially in relationship to others. It helps us ask better questions about the music, “the score”, and whether we actually want to participate in it in the first place. For you always have more time than you think. 

Three kaka birds (fat New Zealand parrots) yell to be fed – it’s TIME!

When collaborating, time becomes infinitely complex, giving and taking  different meters, through conversation and  ideas that have specific flows. It requires absolute attention that not many people are able to give. Perhaps if we could enact our individual rhythm with more conviction, less clock-shame, we might find a new relationship to times’ relativity, and we’d be able to manage infinite polyrhythms that constitute life. We are so linear in western culture – left to right, away from what we did to what we will do. While western  music scores run in lines, left to right. the actual practice of music is not – you feel yourself in the past, present, future (and something else ephemeral) as you make decisions on the fly, loop a phrase to rework it, rewrite a progression of chords to find that thing. We do have options, even if they are carefully hoarded secrets between hours, beats, jobs, transitions or open rebellions to the Time Overlord. The poetics of it – its relativity of measurement to our bodies when we claim them – have to be fiercely guarded. People do this all the time as physical ritual – a coffee, a cigarette, shutting a door, or walking to a place.

How to clock. There are questions you can ask yourself. What is my pulse? Can I feel the pulses of others? Is it confusing, or joyful? Do I want to join? Or just wait alone, and feel?

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