Jasbir Puar, Non-Metric Time, Steve Reich, and Kelis

This is an excerpt from the introduction to the manuscript I’m working on. Here, I’m discussing Jasbir Puar’s reworking of Foucaultian biopower into her notion of “superpanopticism.” She argues that superpanopticism operates not just in space (i.e., in 3D) but also temporally, in 4D. Here, I use some musical examples to unpack what “nonmetric” time is, and how it might work.
Puar often uses musical terms and concepts to describe superpanoptic (biopolitical) processes. Her discussion of the all-important fourth dimension, time, is framed in almost entirely musical terms. Theorizing in 4D means taking “speed, pace, and duration [as] ontological properties rather than temporal qualifications” (xxii). In other words, time becomes a dimension of being—an ontological plane—not just a linear graph of before and after (which can be done on, for example, just an X axis). Thus, Puar explains that working in 4D means
measuring time outside of the past-present-future [linear] triad and their scrambling, as an intensification or de-intensification of the experience of time, as one of ‘registering larger or smaller numbers of events in a given time.’ Relationships between speed (how fast or slow time feels), pace (the tempo, rate, or intervals of registering events within time), and duration (the length of time within which these events are registered) alter or are altered” (xxi; emphasis mine).
Framing time as frequency rather than as linear progression forward or backward, Puar offers us a musicalontology of the fourth dimension. The temporal element in Western music is rhythm. Rhythm is a measurement of instances in a given unit: the number of beats per measure, the number of beats per minute, the duration of notes in or across a beat, etc. Rhythm is not linear progress forward and backward; that’s actually part of a work’s compositional form, not it’s rhythm. She explicitly mentions tempo, meter/rate, and duration; while she does not explicitly name pitch as such, pitch is really just a measure of the intensity of a sine wave: high and low pitches are really just “larger or smaller numbers of events in a given time.” So, while these 4D processes of intensification and de-intensification might be difficult to visualize, Western music has a well-developed vocabulary for describing, explaining, and analyzing exactly these sorts of relationships.
            While rhythm, pitch, and tempo are all metric conceptions of frequency (a pre-defined, regular number of consistent incidents in a pre-measured unit of space/time), Puar argues that 
time must be conjured not only as nonlinear, but also as nonmetric…Nonmetric time deconstructs the naturalization of the administrative units of the measurement of the ‘familiar, divisible, and measurable time of everyday experience’ and challenges the assumption that the repetition of these units, these ‘stable oscillators’ at different scales, is ‘composed of identical instants.’ Quite simply, one second is not the same as another second” (xxi-xxii).
Convienently for my argument, twentieth century Western musicians have already written plenty of non-metric pieces. Free jazz often ventures into the non-metric, and sound art even more, um, frequently so.[1] A particularly clear example of non-metric avant-garde composition is Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music. This piece consists of a microphone, hung over a beam or other support, over an amplifier. The mic must have a very long cord, because though the mic itself may be very close to the top of the amp, it is hung from high above the amp so that it can swing back and forth over it.  The mic is, in effect, a pendulum over the amp. To perform the piece, the amp is turned on, the volume turned up, and the mic is pulled back and released so that it swings over the amp. With each pass, the feedback between mic and amp waxes and wanes. But, because the pendulum looses energy with each pass, each pass is increasingly shorter than the one before. So, while the pendulum marks out and divides up time, no one unit is the same as any other unit. Time is, effectively, nonmetric.  One could object that in Pendulum Music is still somewhat metric, because even though each individual unit of time is not consistent in duration, there is nevertheless a consistent, predictable pattern of decay. In other words, there is a “regularity” to the irregularity of temporal units, a method to the madness, so to speak. However, Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain demonstrates the factual irregularity of apparently regular, metric patterns. In this work, Reich has a “found sound” recording of a street preacher exclaiming “It’s gonna rain!”, followed by the flapping of a pigeon’s wings. He has looped the sample, and copied the loop onto two tapes. He loads each copy on one of two identical tape players. Both players are started simultaneously, so the tapes are in synch. But the point of the piece is that the identical tapes, on identical machines, do not stay in synch, but go ever more gradually out of synch, only to (eventually) return back into synch. So even what ought to be regularly, rigidly, mechanically metric, is not in fact metric. The phasing in It’s Gonna Rain demonstrates that no one second is ever the same as another second, even and especially when these “seconds” are measured by precision mechanical instruments. Not even apparently “metric” time is actually metric. (Hence the need for leap days, leap seconds, etc—the universe itself isn’t regularly metric.) 
Reich’s work calls the very idea of “metric” time into question, and this critique is not limited to the sphere of avant-garde art music.  Kelis’s 2010 single “Acapella,” at least in its original album version, makes this same point.[2]By destabilizing the apparent regularity of its meter, “Acapella” challenges the very idea of “regular” meter. First, the very idea of singing “a capella” indicates that there is no instrumental accompaniment, such as a rhythm section or a drum machine loop (what might be referred to as “beats”), to either keep time or to make explicit the meter implicit in the melody. As the lyrics say, when Kelis was without accompaniment, “There’s a beat I was missing, no tune or a scale I could play.” The song itself is not composed in the form its title suggests;[3]it begins not with unaccompanied singing, but with a drum machine pattern. The four-beat, one-bar pattern in the introduction (0:00-0:15) does, however, destabilize the apparent regularity of its 4/4 meter. The sixteenth-two-eights pattern that bridges the “and” of beat three and the downbeat of beat four creates a “hiccup” or “shuffle” effect. This effect is similar to the shuffling that marching band/drum corps members use to get back on the correct foot when they find themselves out of step. So, this rhythmic motive gives the effect of being out of synch, or out of meter, even though the meter has remained mechanically regular the whole time. In other words, this rhythmic motive makes the meter feel unmetric.
“Acapella” can destabilze meter, but, because it’s a pop dance track, has to ultimately remain metric. Time can be nonmetric in Pendulum Music and It’s Gonna Rainbecause they do not posit rhythm (ie meter) as a fundamental organizing principle: it’s not in 4/4, cut time, 6/8, 5/4, etc. Rather, the pieces’ organization is grounded in their process of performance, not in their “compositional form”— it would be more Reichian to say its compositional form isor emerges simultaneously with the process of its performance. Conceiving of superpanoptic frequencies as processes, and not as substantive structures or contents, we can understand how 4D “time” can be “nonmetric” and “nonlinear.” It is not a coincidece that musicalexamples help us do just this.

[1] Western popular music is more standardly metric. I am grateful to Andrew Dilts, Sina Kramer, and Chris Nasrallah for helping me in a not very successful attempt to find an example of nonmetric popular music. The best we could come up with was Chris’s suggestion of Bjork’s “Harm of Will,” which I’m not entirely convinced is nonmetric. The music-box theme introduces meter into the piece, which otherwise eschews and frustrates attempts to locate a metric, regular beat.
[2] Kelis. “Acapella” on Flesh Tone. Interscope, 2010. All references are to the video, available here: http://youtu.be/U8D9xCBcfzw. Accessed 2/7/2012 4:48pm.
[3] Only 3:08-3:20 actually is acapella.