This article introduces two philosophies or concepts of musical time: Chronos Time (clock time/machine time) and Christos Time (spiritual time/human time).
Chronos refers to musical time that is based on the scientifically defined, consistent pulse of clocks and metronomes. In the recording studio, such time or temporal awareness would be regulated by the use of a click track or drum loops as an electronically provided groove.
In contemporary Western societies, we mostly live in a Chronos-defined society, where seemingly every task that fills our day is assigned a specific time. People interact with an implicit “metronome of responsibility” that tells them if they are running late, or worse, running behind this unforgiving clock. Stress often results from living in such a high-paced, Chronos society, with doctors having to advise patients to slow down, take vacations, or do anything to remove them from an artificial time-chaotic world.
Years ago, while studying in India, I found myself needing to acclimate myself to the slow pace of daily life in that culture, which starkly contrasted with my existence in Boston. There, I discovered the true meaning of the phrase “Indian Standard Time” (IST), which describes a sense of just “going with the flow” and not stressing out about rigid time schedules. For example, whenever I arrived at my drum maker’s establishment to check on the progress of new drum designs, we would drink tea and chat for an hour before any talk of business could begin. Initially, I was uneasy and anxious about this routine, but I quickly found it to be relaxing, peaceful, and meditative.
Conversely, and even though the term “Chronos” was never used by any of my teachers, much of my early musical training focused on developing consistent and reliable time sensibilities to “keep the beat.” I recall one particular drum teacher commanding me to abide by the metronome and exhibiting frustration whenever I strayed from the unforgiving beep. More than once I found myself focusing solely on “the machine” rather than on the music I was attempting to play. To my dismay, this teacher was pleased by my ability to align with the metronome, often at the expense of and above all other musical considerations.
Metronomes can, of course, ensure that a musician is developing a precise sense of time and tempo. Am I rushing certain phrases as I play? Are my rolls speeding up? Are my fills dragging? Can I maintain a consistent groove for five minutes? When I practice tabla, for example, I enjoy playing to melodic loops (called lehra) at different tempos and rhythm cycles as much as I enjoy playing with the machine turned off. Using both approaches I can build intuitive trust in the flow of my timekeeping sensibilities as well as more accurately simulate an actual performance of Indian classical music.
Christos Time, on the other hand, is empowered time. It is subjective time that does not adhere to rigid ticking units of measurement, but rather is a more instinctive and internally grounded sense of time. “Christos” comes from the word “Christ.” However, this philosophy of time-reckoning has nothing to do with any religion per se. It instead implies a profound spiritual connection to humanity and the universe as a whole. This reflective sense for a subjectively felt, experiential, and spiritual time allows the music to flow through a musician in a more natural and unforced manner. Thus, manifestation of Christos time occurs when you look at the clock and wonder where the last hour went. It is a time without a quantitatively grounded awareness of itself. It ensues when individuals rely on their senses and instincts rather than regulating time with a watch.
Though “Christos” never materialized during any of my initial musical lessons, I always sensed there was some other awareness of musical time that would ease the pressure to obey the clock, which I had been putting on myself. As my experience in India years later revealed, music does not rely on either Chronos or Christos exclusively; the two philosophies work together in a sensory duet of subjectively experienced, intertwined, and flowing time.
CHRONOS AND CHRISTOS IN LIFE AND MUSIC
Musicians will often schedule a time to get together and rehearse, but rather than saying, “We’ll rehearse for two hours” and strive to end precisely after the second hour, players should tune out the clock and instead practice for as long as desired. Such rehearsals evolve with a sense of “empowered time” as musicians are free to explore the “Power of Now,” a state of being where the magic experience of sound and time are allowed to converge.
Let’s try an experiment: Set your alarm for one hour, turn down the lights and start practicing something you enjoy, and plan on repeating the idea for this entire hour. See how long you can play without wondering when the alarm will go off — and allow yourself to remain free from a “Chronos” confinement. Then, when the alarm finally sounds, ask yourself if it felt like an eternity, or whether you might be ready to set the alarm for another two hours to discover where the next journey of devotion and meditation takes you!
From a “Christos” perspective, music is a form of personal worship, all about giving all musical sound back to the Creator, back to nature. Especially within purely improvisational situations, players might start to hear and play motivic ideas that become truly magical when they are able to connect with the other performers also on a spiritual level — when a point is reached where all players instinctively and intuitively know, or rather feel, what is happening next.
In this context, I am always reminded of the Arabic word tarab, the feeling of truly listening to and enjoying the musical sensations inside you, a feeling that arises when you are connected with other musicians who are also telling you their story. Players with this sense of an interpersonal spiritual and musical connection are indeed thriving within Christos time.
For example, the often highly elastic quality of jazz-ballad time embodies a heightened sense of Christos time, whereas uptempo bebop playing compels a rhythm section to establish a tighter, “Chronos-driven” perspective to propel the rhythm along. It is obvious to even the casual listener that Billie Holiday exhibited such lyrical Christos sensibility, with her more fragmented and abstract vocal phrases seemingly floating over the top of the rhythm section, whereas Ella Fitzgerald tended to belt out her rapid scat rhythms with clear rhythmic precision.
By comparison, North Indian classical music (Hindustani) is usually performed as a duet, consisting of a featured artist accompanied by a tabla player. Even within the paired-down duet format, however, one may feel moments of tension developing between the time perspectives of the two musicians. For instance, it is not uncommon to hear tabla players forcing themselves to pull back their time relative to the featured artist, who might be pushing his or her time, or vice versa with the percussionist rushing forward during the accompaniment, and especially during featured improvisations. Yet, because Hindustani music also always breathes within a given larger rhythmic cycle as well as even between individual beats, occasional moments of time tension are as much a part of the flow of the music as is the otherwise globally maintained precision of rhythm and pitch. In this tradition, a careful balancing and partnership must ensue between the drummer and featured artist to maintain the proper flow and mood of the music.
On the other hand, Ewe drumming from southern Ghana appears primarily grounded in a strong sense of Chronos time established by an unchanging “timeline” of instruments — bell, shaker, and a barrel-shaped kagan drum. To the Western ear, Ewe music flows like “clockwork,” as musicians interlock in a crisp and cohesive manner. An Ewe drum ensemble can be likened to a solar system with planets revolving around the sun at meticulously calibrated, different rates of speed. In this conceptional analogy, the center of the Ewe “solar system” is occupied by the bell, whose gravitational force keeps all other instruments lined up in perfect rotation, in turn also preventing them from whirling off into space. But just as solar events affect each of its planets, unexpected fluctuations of the bell phrase — for example if an inexperienced player rushes or slows down — can affect the entire ensemble, creating disorder.
Curiously, Dagomba drumming in northern Ghana does not flow within a similar type of clockwork-like synchronicity. The “talking drum” (called lunga) represents the highest level of differentiation of timbre, as its sound accurately mimics the human voice. And just as humans do not speak in a monotone voice or rhythm, the lunga closely matches the idiomatic nasal and pitch inflections of the tonally stratified Dagbani language, allowing it to convey this culture’s oral history through short proverbs that literally wax and wane “inside time.” In this practice, the lead lunga player, who directs the overall flow and pace of the music and dance, does not play in a quantitatively controlled manner, just as the natural rhythm of spoken words is not mechanical.
Rhythm is usually approached via a study of science and philosophy where foremost we learn to divide and subdivide beats into units of time and meter. But the idea of rhythm and sonic vibrations also expand beyond the creation of music to the creation of the universe, the earth, and the environmental sounds our natural world comprises. Perhaps, if musical time was invented so we don’t have to do everything all at once, all you have to do is to negotiate “Chronos” and “Christos” — finding “your time” and sharing fully in the creative process.
Billie Holiday (Christos Time)
Ella Fitzgerald (Chronos Time)
Indian Music (Christos Time)
Ewe Drumming (Chronos Time)
Dagomba Drumming (Christos Time)
Jerry Leake is a Professor of World Percussion at Berklee College of Music, Berklee Global Jazz Institute, and the New England Conservatory. He leads the world-rock-fusion octet Cubist that performs compositions from his acclaimed CDs. He is a founding member of Natraj and Club d’Elf, and is a long-standing member of the Agbekor Drum and Dance Society. Jerry has written eight widely used texts on North and South Indian, West African, and Afro-Cuban percussion, and has published numerous articles for Percussive Notes magazine. Jerry presented his “Harmonic Time” method at a 2011 TED Talk in Cambridge. He earned a bachelor’s degree in jazz vibraphone from the Berklee College of Music and has studied with Gary Burton, Ed Saindon, Pablo Landrum (Berklee), Godwin Agbeli, Alhaji Dolsi-naa Abubakariu Lunna (Ghana), Rajeev Devasthali, T.K. Ramakrishnan (North and South India), Souleymane Coulibaly (Burkina Faso), and David Locke (Boston).