On Time

I. “There is no time.”

– Michael McClure from the “Peynote Poem


Last August, I sat with fellow musicians Tom, Sascha and Tyko at the bank of the River Aare, village of Büren, Canton Bern, Switzerland, and I said “Hey!” and a song came out of us in no time at all.


At least that’s how it felt.


The song’s called “Guerillas At Peace.” It’s about some soldiers (snipers) who get caught in a snowstorm and huddle together in a cave to stay warm. It turns out okay for all of them—except one.


The last time I saw you

Was in a

Blinding snowstorm

I’d been trying to reach you

To warn you:

The sky had turned white

Shut in together

Guerillas at peace


This is a lament for the one who didn’t make it. I don’t know why such sad lyrics came out of me that day. It had been a perfectly joyful summer afternoon under an indigo sky and we were having one of those Artist Days where you feel your chances of survival are quite good because nobody’s anxious about surviving.


Maybe we needed to create something that contrasted dramatically with the pleasant atmosphere we found ourselves in.


The process of composing this tragic tune took mere minutes, and the song itself clocks in at around 2.5 minutes. But the events that transpire in the song take a long time to unravel. I’d estimate that between the moment the snipers find the cave and the moment they discover the frozen corpse of their fallen comrade, eleven hellishly uncomfortable hours have elapsed.


(Observation One: Time, depending on the circumstances of the perceiver, may be compressed and/or expanded, like a gas.)



II. “It was a sweet morning. Everything green and overflowing with life. . . .”

— Dorothy Wordsworth, from a journal entry dated May 20, 1800


Many months have passed since that day in Büren, and now it’s May 20. It keeps on being May 20, and despite the fact the sun is setting I get the feeling that it won’t stop being May 20 any time soon.


It’s been a long day.


It began as most days begin for most of the people in this world: with waking up.


The sun woke me up in my apartment in Basel. After a few minutes of blinking against the sun, velvety clouds, heavy and blue-gray, blocked the harsh morning light and I went back to sleep and had a dream I was back in Houston, Texas, my hometown. All my old friends were gathered near a grove of live oaks, roasting whole pigs on spits and patiently waiting for the world’s oceans to rise.


Later, in the waking world, a ferry carried us across the mighty Rhine. A police boat whizzed past us. They were trying to rescue a deer that had somehow fallen into the river. Its little head bobbed pitifully in the icy green water. I wondered what kinds of adrenaline-fuelled images were running through that terrorized doe’s shiny pink mind.

I think I know.


(Observation Two: Despite what we are taught by our friends who profess to be philosophers and scientists, time sometimes really does stand still occasionally, a phenomenon which may prove either agreeable or disagreeable.)



III. “When I was little and I was sick a lot, those sick times were like little intermissions. Intermissions. Playing with dolls.”

— Andy Warhol, from the chapter titled “Time” in his The Philosophy of Andy Warhol


I like mood music. Some people call it elevator music—music made by the Muzak Corporation to be background noise for commercial and industrial environments. Most of the people I know call it soulless trash. I jokingly call it “empty calories for the ear” and, much to the dismay of the music lovers in my community, I’m completely and hopelessly addicted to the stuff.


Growing up in the ‘70s in the US, I used to hear it everywhere. I thought it was awful. I later learned that experiencing intense discomfort while listening to Muzak was a sign of mental and spiritual health.


A year ago, I started listening to mood music with an open mind. I began to admire the technical precision of the performances and the production, especially Muzak’s “Stimulus Progression” recordings from the mid-‘70s. And most of all, I began to appreciate that deadpan quality the music has. It doesn’t aspire to be more than what it is. It’s just syrupy background noise—aural wallpaper—and there you are, and there it is, and here we are.


Think about it: a product crafted with crystalline precision, and nobody’s supposed to even pay attention to it! There’s no star, no face, nothing to hang on to except a creamy melody. Mood music, at its very best, is like the vaporous curlings of meteorological phenomena: easy come, easy go.


Mood music also distorts time. Or rather, it audaciously infects the listener with the feeling that time (indeed, everything in existence) is and ever shall be flat, light, banal, cheerful and blissfully meaningless.

Imagine: a life of interminable intermissions.


(Observation Three: The trivialization of time—as well as the trivialization of ecology, art, and questions about human destiny—is a thrilling transgression and an exceedingly dangerous game.)



IV. “The real world is the one in which I wait for you. The one in which you are hurrying toward me.”

— Robert Lax, from “The Hill”


The most powerful meditation on time I’ve ever encountered is Robert Lax’s long narrative poem, “The Hill.” It’s about waiting and about gratitude. About being grateful for the opportunity to wait. About the sweet ache of longing for the things and people and events we wait for. About finding full expression of all that is sacred in a world where the sacred is becoming more and more scarce.


I used to “write” songs. I sat down and wrote them, forced them, tortured them into existence. Now I wait for them to ambush me and ask for expression. It’s a much better way to work.


It’s still May 20 and the day still won’t end.


I keep waiting and it keeps on not ending.

Once I stop waiting, it’ll close its own eyes and deliver itself into the arms of Hypnos, god of sleep.

Once the day called May 20, 2013 begins to dream, so can the rest of us.


(Observation Four: Time is waiting and joyful waiting is the essence of community, religion—of life itself.)



© Brett Davidson, 2013



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