Halve Time (quartet after Zeno)

quartet for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, 2012

Zeno, the ancient philosopher, infamously raised the paradox that one can never fully travel some fixed distance, since one must first travel half of that distance, and then half of the remaining distance, and half of the remaining distance, and so on, ad infinitum, with smaller and smaller remaining distances always getting segmented into smaller and smaller halves. The endpoint of the journey is therefore always some infinitesimal distance away, never to be reached.

Halve Time is loosely based on this paradox; the piece applies Zeno’s logic to the durations of its five movements. The first movement is approximately a minute and a half long, and it lays out all the musical ideas contained within the work. The subsequent movements explore what happens to those ideas when they are forced into smaller and smaller temporal containers. This reduction process does not unfold linearly, however. The second movement is a quarter of the original duration, the fourth movement a half, and the last movement an eighth (about ten seconds). In a departure from Zeno, the third movement doubles the original duration, stretching everything out as if time were unfolding in slow motion.

The musical ideas that are compressed and expanded are very malleable and loosely defined. They aren’t so much melodic or harmonic entities as they are “behavior types” that the instruments conform to – moments of rhythmic unison, or of “percussive” playing, for example. Some of the materials remain relatively distinct throughout, however – a twisting cello solo, and a rising gesture spread throughout the group.

While Zeno’s paradox was a key structural metaphor for me as I was composing, ultimately I was not trying to create a literal representation of the concept. To that end, it might be more constructive to think of Halve Time simply as a set of character pieces, although in this case it is not just the musical content itself, but also the lengths of the movements, that help define those characters.

Halve Time was composed for the Music from Copland House Ensemble for their inaugural Cultivate Workshop. It was premiered in the summer of 2012.

New Fromm Players of the Tanglewood Music Center
Daniel Goldman, clarinet
Sarah Silver, violin
Michael Dahlberg, cello
Katherine Dowling, piano