MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

William Kentridge and The Refusal of Time

William Kentridge: >i>The Refusal of Time: Dickensian "Elephant"

William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time: Dickensian “Elephant”

After the Met’s recent revival of The Nose, I was eager to see The Refusal of Time, a 30-minute-long video installation by Kentridge currently being exhibited at the other Met. It was first unveiled at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany (2012). Rumor has it that The Refusal of Time may feature in SFMOMA’s grand reopening in 2016.

The installation includes the “surround-video” effect of five films moving across the space of three screens, all enhanced by Philip Miller’s score of menacing tuba drones, breathing sounds, ululation, and what resembles an army of madly hammering Nibelungs. The soundtrack is projected through looming old-fashioned movie-set megaphones. The films involve images of relativistic metronomes, Kentridge’s characteristic animations and charcoal figures, and an eccentrically parade-dance of vaudevillean silhouettes.

The center of the space itself is dominated by a wooden contraption, a “breathing” machine-sculpture – part Victorian-industrial fantasy, part There Will Be Blood oil drill – that Kentridge explains was inspired by a description in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times of a factory machine “[moving] monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.”

The installation’s title – it reminds me of a moralizing Baroque drama – meanwhile draws together reflections on the collision between “progress” and colonialism, automation, and the physics of time in the early 20th century. From the accompanying text:

Kentridge’s recent interest in the nature of time was given focus through the work of Peter Galison, a Harvard-based historian of science. Galison studied a 1905 paper on relativity in which Albert Einstein hypothesized that, due to the delay in signals relayed via telegraph wire, peripheral railway stations synchronized on a centralized clock were forever fated to operate seconds behind schedule.

Einstein’s nascent theories about the relativity of time converged with French mathematician Henri Poincaré’s development, as president of the Bureau des Longitudes, of global time zone maps at the dawn of the twentieth century. Both scientists faced the radical idea, in a newly industrialized and interconnected world, that time is not absolute but relative and resistant to control.


On the occasion of the opening in Kassel, Margaret K. Koerner published an interview with William Kentridge and Peter Galison. Kentridge explains how the work is linked to his recent Norton Lectures at Harvard:

The sixth Norton lecture took the process of making “The Refusal of Time” as an example of what the lectures had been talking about: of thinking through material, of allowing the impulses of an image or a piece of work to hold sway and see where they led. Live music was allowed to come into the lecture form at the end of the sixth lecture. The lectures, which started with Plato, end with a black hole. Even though we weren’t starting with Plato in “The Refusal of Time,” the shadow procession came back as well, and it also ends with a black hole…. The image you see at the end, those white holes going down and down, that’s the roll from a player piano. It is both music and information….

[“The Refusal of Time”] starts with: Is a black hole the end of time? As Peter [Galison] was saying, that is one of the questions that physicists consider. But as soon as you say, right, let’s start having things disappear into a black hole, it is an immediate jump to that being, as it were, a metaphorical description of death. Is any trace left when you are gone? Is there any information, attributes of you that still float around the edge? So it is both from the psychological, or the lived sense of, what is the balance between the finality of death and the continuation of attributes of people afterward?

Filed under: art exhibition, film, social criticism, video art, visual art

Silver Apples and Cloudless Sulphur Skies

Morton Subotnick, who at 80 looks as eager as ever to experiment with his Buchla and laptop, rolled into town recently to perform a decades-spanning program at Seattle’s Town Hall. Joining him onstage was Berlin-based video artist Lillevan. The two have been collaborating on several projects in recent years, and both are obviously so well attuned to each other’s aesthetic that they can improvise with pre-existing material. It all added up to a blissed-out gesamtkunstwerk for synth geeks and video art aficionados.

The concert’s official title – “From Silver Apples of the Moon to A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur IV: LUCY” – refers to the main sources for the prerecorded music Subotnick used to build the performance in tandem with Lillevan’s abstract imagery of fluid and fractal-like shapes in restless transformation. Subotnick describes his current process:

For each season of performances I create a new hybrid Ableton-Buchla “instrument” loaded with prepared samples from all my previous works and performances and new patches that will allow me to modify the samples while performing brand new sound gestures created especially for the new season. The work always has the same title, “From Silver Apples of the Moon to a Sky of Cloudless Sulphur IV: LUCY.” The “IV: LUCY” refers to the season number and the name given to the newest materials.

Subotnick in action

Subotnick and Lillevan in action

Subotnick’s gently processed whisperings and vocalizations – sent whirling about the surround-sound arrangement of speakers – launched this voyage of about an hour or so. Of course the act of musical performance itself tends to override ordinary clock time, to make it seem simultaneously speeded-up and in slow motion. But in this case, time seemed to become unmoored as if we were in a gravity-less environment.

The early atonalists used to worry about how to structure a piece without the old familiar signposts. Subotnick’s large-scale excursions can echo the craggy, mountainous landscapes of a Romantic tone poem, no matter how “alien” the sounds. Inevitably I found myself turning to metaphors, both from the natural world – that ubiquitous “watery” sound of electronics – and from acoustic instruments, imagining a troop of pizzing strings here, bleating woodwinds there.



Berlioz’s opium dreams, the psychedelic trips of the ’60s: why is it this intensely focused sense of isolation, of utter aloneness, much more than any Dionysian, “orgiastic” frenzy, that they so strikingly share? Above all I’m fascinated by Subotnick’s “art of transition” and his ability to steer toward heaving climaxes, only to dial the mood down within a short span, like a turntablist working the dance crowd – even though we were all passive listeners.

Just before the performance, Subotnick recollected how exciting it was to be a young composer in the late ’50s, when the introduction of the commercial transistor seemed to point the way toward a new utopian paradigm: music that could be made and performed by everyone, not limited to “the 1%” who had the training for classical music-making. Yet for all its influence on popular culture, and for all the revolutionary changes in daily life this technology has enabled, the type of electronic composition Subotnick pioneered still inhabits a rarefied world of its own.

Filed under: electronic music, new music, video art

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