The sounds of a different world. Review of „The Music of the Temporalists“ by André Pogorillofsky.
Sometimes there are books that are impossible to categorize and impossible to describe. André Pogoriloffsky’s “The Music of the Temporalists” is such a book. I have read it, and I honestly cannot say what it is (is it a travelogue? A science fiction novel? A true account? A literary experiment? A treatise on music?), but I can assure you that it is a fascinating read.
Several years ago I got an email by the author (who I don’t know), notifying me of the electronic edition of the book (and that’s the only edition I have). For a long time the book stayed unread on my kindle app. I have to admit that a lot of people try to convince me to read/listen/notice stuff, so a certain kind of jadedness on my part may be forgiven. Or not.
At some point though curiosity got the better of me, and I began to read.
“The Music of the Temporalists” is a first-person account of a completely different human society that the author (or his alter ego) claims to have visited. Their world is very similar to ours, but at some point the timelines differed and the culture of the Temporalists took a completely different turn than ours. The idea is that the technology of the Temporalists enables them to visit our world by taking over the bodies of certain individuals, which at the same time enables these individuals to spend time in the world of the Temporalists. These individuals will spend years in the Temporalists’ world, while only weeks pass in our world.
The author (Pogoriloffsky, or a very similar alter ego) is such an individual, and over the course of the novel (account?) he is educated in the culture of the temporalists, especially their music, which is described in great detail. In the tradition of great imaginary travelogues like “Gulliver’s Travels” the narrator is not in any way an exceptional individual, rather an everyday person with an average musical education. Through his eyes (and ears) we learn about a completely different musical tradition that is not even remotely similar to the one we know.
The world of the Temporalists is neither better or worse than the world we live in, it is just…different. Part of the reason why they bring Pogoriloffsky to their world is that they want to learn about our musical tradition, which is as weird to them as theirs is to us.
The author (narrator) describes the Temporalists’ music in great detail, also using graphics and scientific descriptions. But of course one vital element is missing – it is a description of music, not the music itself. But I think this works wonders for the novel, as the music that one hears in the head while reading the descriptions is probably more fascinating than any rendition that could be achieved in this universe.
For the Temporalists (nomen est omen) music is mostly an art that utilizes time. They are less interested in sound or anything that our world is obsessed with (rhythm, structure, repetition) but instead concentrate on the tempo of certain pulse-like structures that they are able to define and replicate exactly. For them polyphony is not an architecture of intervals but instead an architecture of different layers of complexly embellished pulsations regulated by a grid of 50 milliseconds. The different “modes” of this music therefore deal not with tones but with speeds, and each of these modes has a completely different character to the temporalists, like minor or major keys differ for us.
I cannot do the descriptions that Pogoriloffsky develops in the novel justice, but they are extremely detailed and inventive. Sometimes it reads like Thomas Mann is describing an op.111 from a different universe. Nothing is “happening” in the novel, there is no drama or artificial conflict, none of the trappings of a “fantastic novel”- it is simply a description of conversations, lectures, meetings.
The author is a sometimes unreliable narrator who gets distracted by many things, but again and again he is describing the music in great detail. For the Temporalists “absolute pitch” is not the ability to hear exact pitches but exact tempi. Temporalist virtuosos are not musicians who can play fast scales or arpeggios but instead can hear through a polyphony of rhythmical layers and are able to create an exact new “temporal” mode when needed.
Everything that is present in our musical tradition is also mirrored in the Temporalists’ universe. There is the discovery of notation, a “schism” involving something similar to the Viennese School, academic music, “tone poems”, “modern music” et al.
Throughout the narrative it becomes clear that the Temporalists are also fascinated by our musical culture (which some brave members of their culture try to explore), but also have difficulties to understand it, because concepts like “harmonic progression” or “melody” are completely foreign to them.
Surprisingly concepts like “rhythm”, “pulse” or “repetition” are relatively unknown to Temporalist culture – it is made clear again and again that their music would sound like unstructured cacophony to our ears, whereas the Temporalists hear an exquisite time sculpture of multiple speed layers.
What is fascinating about the “Music of the Temporalists” is the fact that it might be the first truly musical imaginary novel in the history of literature. There were several attempts in the past to describe weirdly different parallel worlds (like the aforementioned “Gulliver’s Travels”, or “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick or “Flatland” by E.A.Abbott), but there was never an attempt like this to thoroughly describe a musical culture completely different of our own. And in this endeavour the novel is a full success, always entertainingly written, with self-deprecating humour which avoids the obvious clichés of speculative literature.
As a literary experiment this is a unique and wondrous experience to read.
As long we don’t have the possibility to travel to parallel worlds we still might get inspired by the central message that this book has: Music doesn’t have to be like we think it has to be.
And that opens up myriads of possibilities, especially for composers.
We sometimes forget how limited we become by a certain world view, when in fact everything is possible. Always.
The “Music of the Temporalists” is there to remind us of this simple fact.
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