A Stab at Time
Date/Time: September 16, 2019 - September 17, 2019
Karole Armitage (The Armitage Foundation/ Armitage Gone! Dance)
John Harte (UC Berkeley/SFI)
The public is often intimidated by the complexity of science, seeing it as cold and unfeeling. And yet, without a basic understanding of science, one is ill equipped to make meaningful decisions on a myriad of issues that impact our lives in critical ways. At this meeting we plan to come up with a point of view, scientifically and aesthetically, for a dance production on the subject of time, in connection with the SFI research theme on Complex Time: Adaptation, Aging, Arrow of Time. The meeting will serve as a brainstorming session, with the choreographer, composer, dancer, and scientists talking extensively about time, music, design and the characteristics of the performance. The goal is for everyone involved to understand the nature of how time is to be experienced by the audience, so that everyone’s individual contributions adhere to the same fundamental understanding.
Gregory Spears (Composer) - Time in music[edit source]
In this session we started with a discussion on how meter, rhythm, and tempo work together to give a listener a stable experience of time flow in music. Then we focused on the way Stravinsky’s work for dance creates the experience of multiple layers of time. We traced these techniques back to composers like Bach and Perotin and also looked at how Stravinsky’s experiments with time influenced composers in the late-20th and early 21st-century. We focused this analysis on minimalist composers who employ process to create a uniquely modern sense of time. Along the way we discussed how concepts like entropy, decay, and rhetoric can be expressed in music and how they affect a listener’s sense of time progression in music.
John Harte (UC Berkeley/SFI) - Time: history of thinking about time, CPT time, matter and anti-matter, mirroring[edit source]
John’s presentation at the “stab at time” workshop began with a review of the history of concepts of time. Shifting perspectives, from the Greek philosophers, to Newton and Leibniz’s mechanics, to Clausius and Boltzmann’s thermodynamics, to Einstein’s relativity, to high energy physics and modern cosmology, were described. The nature of the fundamental symmetries of nature, as reflected in the CPT theorem, were discussed, along with the observed breakdown of P (mirror symmetry) and T (time reversal symmetry) in weak interactions. While the history of physics is generally characterized by the trend toward discovery of the underlying simplicity on the other side of complexity, and of the unity across seemingly distinct domains, the concept of time has arguably resisted this trend. The more we look at time, the more complex it gets.
The probabilistic underpinning of the thermodynamic arrow of time, and the complete compatibility of the second law with the existence of life were discussed, along with speculations and deep puzzles about the connection between microscopic blurring and the awareness of time. The presentation ended with a brief discussion of cultural time, the notion of “time binding” as passage onward to new generations of insights from previous generations, and the inadequacy of this process in the anthropocene where modern global-scale threats to civilization lack historical precedents. John concluded that time is not on humanity’s side.
Post-meeting Summary by Organizer[edit source]
Karole Armitage (The Armitage Foundation/ Armitage Gone! Dance) Link to the source page[edit source]
Highlights of the Stab At Time Meeting are various. This was a unique occasion to share perceptions on topics including physics, dance, music, traditional Navajo culture and ballet culture. Several concepts that dancers know deeply but never articulate verbally were shared at the meeting, including the way in which dance is fundamentally the architecture of time. Greg Spears' summary of the relationship to time in baroque music, medieval polyphony and how in Stravinsky's neoclassical period this was translated into musical voices expressing various time frames simultaneously was enlightening. Continuing his look at the use of time in music, led to learning about a contemporary approach in process oriented music, which is one of the exciting ideas in the music language of today. This involves using frameworks such as the notion of decay to reveal natural processes that become a part of the listening experience. John Harte's summary of the history of ideas in physics from the Greeks to bosons, quarks and other post quantum processes delivered a history of science as well as philosophical points of view that was profound, succinct and filled with exciting conceptual material that we are translating into images for dance and music. The ideas of entropy giving directionality to time and how at the smallest scales there is no arrow of time were enlightening, confusing to my mind and exciting. His precise articulation of discreet time with the herky jerky sense of movement to match the sense of continuous time that involves solid stance and smooth movement was a great gift in seeing the dance come alive. John's articulation of the ultimate sense of paradox at the heart of time is a great highlight to serve at the core fo the dance production .
The many points of view on time led to an exciting discussion on the instrumentation and spatial configuration for the instrumental layout on the stage serving as a metaphor for time and includes the use of negative space to serve the thematic material. The casting was finalized to capture the ideas of discreet time, continuous time and the paradoxes involved in the limits of our understanding of time. Jock's sharing of experience at the most profound level of dance thinking was a special highlight for me. The meeting resulted in a clear outline shared by all of us - John, Jock, Greg and myself - for the substance and vocabulary of the dance production, one informed by art, paradox and science.
John Harte (UC Berkeley/SFI) - Time: history of thinking about time, CPT time, matter and anti-matter, mirroring Link to the source page[edit source]
Highlight: As a scientist, for me the highlight was learning a huge amount about how composers, dancers and choreographers think about the concept of time, and incorporate it into their work. Also fascinating was the realization that the medium within which an artist works places strong limits on how time is handled (to use an overly mundane word for a far from mundane process), and yet, as often occurs in the sciences, those constraints or limits can enhance creativity.
Open Question: Aside from the many open questions about time in physics and biology, the open questions that stood out for me revolved around how artists working across multiple domains (e.g., conducting and dancing) can best deal with incongruities in timing.
How has perspective changed: I began with no perspective on the arts, so rather than it changing, it originated and enlarged!
Impact on my work: Honestly, probably none. But that wasn't the point of the working group.
Echoes of the discussion: reminded me that artistic creation has similarities to creativity in the sciences (see comment on constraints above) but there are important differences that I had been unaware of. Out of our discussions the first day, a wonderful outline of the structure and content of a ballet on the theme of time emerged, mostly in one creative and intense blossoming from Karole at the end of the first day. Her design (blueprint) will be improved upon with iteration, but the core is there. I have never participated in a purely scientific working group, or lab group meeting with my students and postdocs, in which something similar happened. The usual timeline of creativity in the sciences, even by those with the most experience, is far slower, more halting, following a pathway with far more dead ends.
Gregory Spears (Composer) - Time in music Link to the source page[edit source]
It was exciting to participate in an interdisciplinary discussion of physics, dance, and music. I was also intrigued to hear a great dancer and choreographer talk about their art, which often exceeds language in favor of an embodiment of ideas. That reminded me of music, which makes its arguments sonically. It was particularly interesting to hear the ways in which our response to specific questions regarding time shifted depending on our training and our disciplines. We discussed how rhythm, tempo, and meter affect how music is perceived in time, whereas a series of movement events or a movement process can suggest time in dance. (Process kept returning as a theme for all of us.) John spoke of how entropy plays an important role in the directionality of time.
After a long discussion on our approach to the material, I now feel like John, Karole, Jock and I have a shared collaborative vocabulary to discuss the project going forward. I also have a better sense of Karole and John’s initial inspiration for this work and how music might support that vision. Specifically, I am hoping to generate music that is the result of a collision of various musical processes. My hope is that this approach will resonate with Karole’s movement-based experiments that seek to dramatize the collision of two types of time.
Highlights at A Stab at Time: The beginning for this venture that we are at now has been very productive. Working here at SFI with Karole, Greg, & John is going to be exciting. I think all the ideas are inspirational for this piece to be produced in 2021.
Reference Materials by Presenting Attendees[edit source]