Six of the best…pieces about time

To coincide with Kings Place’s annual series, Time Unwrapped, Helen Wallace guides us through some of the best pieces about time. 


To mark the tenth year of Kings Place’s annual music series, Time Unwrapped, which offers 50 different experiences of time, we have selected six of the best pieces that celebrate the concept of time itself.


After all, it’s a new year, and as we all scratch our heads and wonder where 2017 went, it seems all the more apt.

John Dowland – Time stands still

In his mesmerising lute song, the perfection of a beloved holds her admirer in thrall, suspending time with an enduring truth. Just as did Shakespeare and Keats, Dowland meditates on the timelessness of beauty and sets the word 'time' suspended across the bar-line, contrasting it with the movement of earthly things changing.

This lute song will be performed in concert (11 May, Time stands still) with a Japanese zen balance act, and, again, by Iestyn Davies (23 November, Old Bones). 

J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No. 3

Bach, like Haydn and Brahms after him, loved to play tricks with time and his ingenuity can be seen in crab canons which can be played backwards and forwards. Shifted barlines are a feature of the Brandenburg Concertos, and particularly remarkable in the opening of No. 3 which is notated in two but written across the barlines in triple time, and heard by its listeners as if in a three that is not quite anchored.

The slow movements of No. 4 & 5 concertos also deliberately obscure the beginning of the bars, constantly shifting them and wrong-footing the audience giving a complex listening experience.

The Brandenburgs are themselves a kind of time journey, with some concertos using 17th century instruments, like recorders and gambas, and others reinventing orchestration altogether for a new age. (14 April, Bach Weekend: Time Changes)

Ligeti – Poème Symphonique

Ligeti's famous 1962 piece was designed as a riposte to all musical ideologues, and was influenced by the Fluxus movement (Reich's Pendulum Music is a similar experiment with microphones). His instructions were that 100 metronomes should all be wound up at the same time, and at the beat of a conductor be left to tick. The resultant cacophony of manic clicking gradually thins out as they unwind at different times, and their different speeds also become detectable until at the last there is just one metronome ticking alone.

In our digital age, the event could last for days, and Ligeti's Poème will be more and more difficult to put on as mechanical metronomes become collectors' pieces. (23 September, CoMA: Playing the Pulse)

James Tenney – Having never written a note for percussion

Tenney, Minimalist composer and theorist, friend of Reich and Glass in the 1960s, conceived this piece to be played on any kind of large gong or cymbal. Essentially, it's the very opposite of Cage's 4'33, a prescribed period of time in which to listen to atmospherics.

Having never written a note can last for as long or short a time as the performer chooses, being essentially a gargantuan crescendo and diminuendo which will be affected by the acoustic of the space and the range of overtones and reflections possible – and, of course, by the performer's decision in the moment. (2 March: Alternate Time Flows Evelyn Glennie & O/Modernt Quartet)

Andriessen – De Snelheid

In Andriessen's explosive De Snelheid or 'Velocity' he has a woodblock player keeping up an ever-accelerating beat which, just as you think it cannot get any faster, becomes absorbed into the texture of a much slower moving stream of music from the rest of the ensemble. This technique of fast music being 'eaten up' into bigger, grander timescales is something Sibelius achieved on an extraordinary scale in his seventh symphony.

De Snelheid inspired John Adams to write Short Ride in a Fast Machine. (Velocity, Icebreaker, 5 May

Gérard Grisey – Vortex temporum

'Vortex of Times' is a late work by the spectralist pioneer Gérard Grisey, which fulfils his vision that music can transfigure time.

With feverish, dance-like, almost minimalist rhythms, Grisey adventures through three time frames: the 'normal' time of humans (the time of speech and breathing), an 'expanded' time, the time of the whales (the rhythms of sleep), and the 'compressed' time of birds and insects (time contracted to an extremity beyond our perception). The dizzying arpeggios of the opening reappear later as slowly unfurling spirals, transformed before our very ears. (Vortex temporum, Explore Ensemble, 30 September)

Harrison Birtwistle – Harrison’s Clocks

This intricate piano piece was inspired by the 18th century clock-maker, John Harrison, who, along with many other horological inventions, succeeded in measuring longitude.

Birtwistle plays with time, repetition and memory, with each 'clock' embodying a different idea: the first is a torrent of quavers against semi-quavers which ends in a crisis; the second is a mechanism limping into existence; the third has two ostinati grinding against each other, the fourth clock is all about winding down, while the final clock is a toccata, with a clear pulse all the way through.

'There are repetitions, but they are never exact repetitions,' commented Birtwistle of the piece. By multiplying his mechanisms and setting them off-kilter he challenged the idea of what a clock might be. (Harrison's Clocks, recital by Alasdair Beatson, piano 14 November)

Time Unwrapped offers 50 different experiences of time, from music that marks time to music that explodes and reverses it. Beginning with Haydn’s Creation (6 Jan) and William Basinski's new work using gravitational wave recordings, On Time Out of Time, and ending with Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, it takes in the seasons of India, Nancarrow's superhuman canons, dynastic folk traditions with Martin & Eliza Carthy, Handel’s Triumph of Time & Truththe heavenly lengths of late Schubert and a new installation with 176 live snails, Slow Pixel.


Listen to our playlist of the best pieces about time here.