Richard Powell

PhD Thesis


Time has a habit of passing by in strange ways when we listen to music. Meaningful musical experiences often highlight its unreliability. Articulating this phenomenon can prove tricky: time ‘ebbs and flows’, it ‘flies’, it ‘expands’, occasionally it even ‘stops’. At least, this is how we might perceive it.

These issues underpin my research into the relationship between music and time. Although I draw upon theory, psychology, and history within the fields of both music and temporality, my work is undertaken from the perspective of a contemporary listener. The thesis is catalysed by analytical case studies. Pieces by five living composers are each twinned with a work by a well-known historical figure:

  • George Benjamin’s Viola, Viola (1997) is paired with Mozart’s Sonata for piano and violin in E minor, K. 304 (1778);
  • John Adams’s Shaker Loops (1978/83) with Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat, D. 960 (1828);
  • Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee (2008) with Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E-minor, Op. 98 (1885);
  • Thomas Adès’s Tevot (2007) with Sibelius’s Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105 (1924);
  • Kaija Saariaho’s Je sens un deuxième coeur (2003) with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat ‘Eroica’, Op. 55 (1804).

Emphasis falls upon the contemporary works, with familiar canonic repertoire serving as a lens through which to view more recent, comparatively ‘difficult’ music. These pairings enable a practically applied study of multi-faceted temporal issues (including space, motion, linearity, circularity, stasis and timelessness), one that is communicated through accessible metaphorical concepts.

Examining how these pieces engage with audiences by engineering their own ‘time’ in an audible way, I suggest a variety of listening approaches. I highlight not only that each piece contains an underlying design that has profound implications for how we might perceive its passing, but also that a heightened awareness of these temporal factors might allow for fresh perspectives upon works of different styles and historical periods. Through this process, it is intended that more ‘complex’ new works can be rendered more accessible, while familiar ‘masterpieces’ might by the same token be viewed in a new light.

While the ‘twenty-first century’ aspect of my thesis title serves in part as a nod towards an emphasis upon contemporary composition, it more significantly refers to the highly varied musical landscapes facing audiences today. Whilst placing new works alongside well-worn favourites may seem unorthodox, it is reflective of the new ways in which listeners can receive music: power lies less within an industry-driven system of canons, hierarchies and prescriptions, but rather increasingly in the hands of anyone with an internet connection and a pair of headphones. My thesis is an attempt to analyse the temporality of musical works at a time when its compositional chronology has perhaps never seemed so irrelevant.

Supervisor Dr Tim Howell