Creative Practice #1: On Timing

I live with a musician who is very aware of his craft. Since I moved in with him, five years ago, I’ve been learning about the concept of timing. That it exists, that it’s important, and, to an extent, why. The greatest compliment The Mr. can give another musician is that her or his timing is spot on.

At first I thought this was all about the beat, and that all one had to do to be good at timing was to keep to the beat. It’s like the song’s pulse, I was told when I took lessons in African drumming, but I realise now that that’s just the start of timing’s uses. Just as the heart skips, races, or slows depending on emotional triggers, timing is used in music to build and release tension, and, thus, trigger emotions in the listener. And the more creative musicians use it to add layers of meaning. I’m told Bob Dylan is particularly good at this, and although I sense this is so, not being a musician I couldn’t tell you why. My interests lie in literature and visual art, so what are the timing equivalents in these disciplines?

Timing in Literature

The reason I’m thinking about this at all is that I’ve been reading Saul Bellow’s book, Humboldt’s Gift, for the last two months (at least). It’s not a hugely long book, but it’s intense, like drinking a double espresso with a grappa chaser, and I can only read a few pages before the room starts to spin. He packs an enormous amount of information into a single action point: back-story; memories; description, other points of action, you name it, but it never feels laboured, everything has relevance, and he always comes back to the main point in the end. The story and all its elements hang together perfectly in a gravitational field of Bellow’s own making. Once I’ve finished it I’ll attempt some sort of analysis, but for now I’ll be rather more generic.

As far as I can remember from my university days, the literary tricks that play with time are such things as sentence length; syllable count; line breaks (in poetry); physical gaps (white space) on the page, and breaking up the action in the way Bellow does. When done well, these devices add meaning to the action/story, and important information about the main protagonist. They build tension, and release it at precisely the right time (just before the reader explodes?); they let you saunter along for a while and relax, and then snap you back to the main point/theme, or they set you skipping and bouncing, running and gasping, floating and dreaming. Is all this the literary equivalent of musical timing?

And what of the visual arts?

I can’t talk at all about sculpture, video installations, or performance art. My area is strictly two dimensional: painting, photography, collage, etc., and as I’ve had little formal training I’m learning as I go. So I’m guessing slightly when I say the visual equivalent to musical timing is the space between the objects on the plane, and between them and the frame. No doubt I’ll come back to this at a later date, for now it would seem best to just show some examples of what I mean, and to mention the word ‘gravity,’ which I’m told is key.

Ellsworth Kelly- Untitled - 1954
Kelly places two objects on the canvas, both extend outside the frame so you can’t tell which is larger. It looks like the right hand object holds the power and is either pushing the other out, or pulling it inside the frame, but we know they can’t both fit. They are just touching, if that; is it a kiss, a shove, or is one about to consume the other?
Masao Yamamoto
This is a little more obvious than the Kelly composition above, it reminds me of the way a wonky washing machine can disturb your peace. The bottle looks like it could fall any second. I like the way the two flowers in the vase look rather like startled eyes too, as if this is a creature aware of its own mortality.
Martine Franck - Observatoire de Meudon, France
A single, distant figure walks across the path between an avenue of trees. It is icy cold. Yet, within that still, frozen hush is a sense of speed. The eye hurtles into the distance, driven by the line of white sky showing between the tips of the branches. They are then funnelled into a mist shrouded urban landscape. This photograph seems to span centuries.

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