The Time Curve Preludes
Neely Bruce, piano.
When William Duckworth’s piano cycle The Time Curve Preludes appeared in 1979, it was only natural to hear it as an outgrowth of minimalism, a movement then in its heyday and spearheaded by La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. After all, the Preludes were tonal, meditative, and well-received in New York’s downtown circles. And yet, as a minimalist work, they didn’t fit; they were brief pieces, 24 of them in an hour (early minimalist works were dogmatically continuous and evening-length), and they flouted the expectations stirred by the excitement of a new, popular movement. Now that a decade has passed, one can hear The Time Curve Preludes with fresher ears. They do call to mind the milieu that surrounded their creation, but they also stand out from that milieu because of some profound divergences.
On the minimalist side, the Preludes are spare and meditative, each pursuing a single rhythmic figure to the end. With the exception of moody Prelude No. 6, however, none are literally repetitive. Every one is grounded by drones, a device minimalism picked up from Indian music. Rather than hum consistently, though, the drones appear and disappear, shift delicately from pitch to pitch, and define each prelude’s rhythmic backbone. (Listen carefully and you’ll hear “ghost drones” after each prelude, resonating sympathetically in open bass strings whose keys are held down throughout with small weights.) Like Riley’s music and the Indian ragas that inspired it, the Preludes are modal. Duckworth’s modality, though, tends less toward Eastern cultures (except perhaps in the raga-like Prelude No. 15) than toward medieval melodic turns. Prelude No. 13, for example, switches between major and minor on alternate beats, like some convoluted case of Renaissance musica ficta; no minimalist piece had sounded like that before.
If 1970s New York aesthetics can’t account for The Time Curve Preludes’ behavior, a neo-Renaissance approach does them more justice, for quotation and number proportion are central concerns. The piece’s melodies borrow from two sources: the Mass of the Dead plainchant Dies irae (also quoted by Berlioz, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff, and in earlier Duckworth works such as A Summer Madrigal and The Last Nocturne) and Erik Satie’s Vexations, the brief piano movement which carries the instruction “play 840 times.” Prelude No. 1 begins sounding like a major-key version of the Dies irae about ¼ of the way through, and No. 23 wryly quotes the hymn in chords too slow to be noticed melodically. Vexations is most audible in No. 9, where its quirky bass line is subjected to a demonic process of acceleration in the left hand as the right hand’s tempo remains constant.
Still, as the title hints, the Preludes depart most from minimalism in their intriguing sense of time. The classic minimalist works assumed a plentitude of time; Young’s Well-Tuned Piano, Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, Glass’s Einstein on the Beach take leisurely starts and inhabit whole evenings, spreading out toward infinitely receding temporal horizons. They stop not from internal logic, but because performers are human. The Time Curve Preludes, by contrast, imply a converging sense of time, curving toward their logical endpoints with built-in closure. Prelude No. 9 ends where it has to, for that acceleration quickly reaches its potential maximum. No. 14, a rousing melody in octaves, seems to speed up by becoming more repetitive, and the drone that enters near the end interrupts the sequence to place it in perspective.
The time-curve feeling alluded to by the title, a sense of rhythmic proportions slowing down and speeding up, results from the expanding and contracting deployment of a numerical grid. In most of the preludes ths grid is derived from the Fibonacci series, the algorithm in which each number is the sum of the two before it: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so on. Those numbers are hallowed both by artistic tradition and occurrence in nature: they govern seed and petal patterns in certain plants, and proportions between them approach a ratio called the Golden Section, found as a formal principle in much ancient art and architecture. (Duckworth didn’t invent the series’ musical applications; among others, Bartok used Fibonacci proportions in his late works.) Hearing the actual number relations is irrelevant to enjoyable listening, but those who like to count can easily find examples. In No. 7, the prelude whose bitonality sounds inspired by Darius Milhaud, the treble lines between the bass notes articulate phrases of 3 beats, then 5, 8, 13, and so on. Similarly, in No. 8 the sustained, lowest notes divide the prelude into phrases of 8 beats, then 13, 21, 34.
As in so much medieval and Renaissance music, the quotations and number games constitute a subtle background, hidden by swirling melodies which follow not-quite-audible laws. Minimalism’s most essential feature was its lack of background — it wore its structure on the surface. The Time Curve Preludes imitated the surface, but moved structure back into a more mysterious position. In fact, the Preludes express an air of disciplined devotion, often evoking the “grand silence through serious immobility” Satie used to characterize Vexations. Perhaps their proper context is not jaunty, hard-edged New York music at all, but a broader tradition: the piano cycles of Messiaen, Vingt regards sur l’Enfant Jésus and Catalogue d’oiseaux, and, by more obvious analogy, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.
Given the tiny quantity of material the Preludes use, their diversity is virtuosic: Nos. 2, 6, and 13 are gently lyrical, Nos. 4 and 14 storm in perpetual motion, Nos. 1 and 24 hint at banjo picking, and Nos. 5, 10, and 22 offer what Satie complimented as the “ironically glacial bite” in the American sensibility. (Duckworth also cites the influence of Jerry Lee Lewis’s piano style, though so smoothly integrated that few can pinpoint it.) What unites these 24 meditations on finitude are the recurring curved lines, temporal and melodic, which give each prelude its compelling miniature logic. What makes them one of the best major works of the 1970s is not only the unusual rules they follow, but a beauty and delicacy equalled by few pieces from that era.
— Kyle Gann
Baldwin Piano, Modes SD-10-B (#228264), regulated, voiced and tuned by George Krippenstapel.
Engineered and edited by Bob Spangler.
Recorded by Susquehanna Sound, Northumberland, PA.
Produced by William Duckworth.
The Time Curve Preludes were written on a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Digital editing and mastering by Allan Tucker, Foothill Productions, NYC.
Art Direction and Design: By Design
Published by Henmar Press (C.F. Peters Corporation)
©1979 William Duckworth (ASCAP)
©P 1990 Lovely Music, Ltd.