by Claire McGinn

The ‘language’ of music is obviously not the language of literature. Unless it is accompanied by a text, we can’t really claim that some part of a piece of music definitely ‘means’ or refers to anything as concrete as ‘hello’, or ‘help’, or ‘tree’, or even ‘I love you’. This last point might be debated, but strictly speaking this is not a precisely communicative medium; if many different people can read the ‘meaning’ of a given piece of music in many very different ways – beyond the broadest impressions, like ‘it sounds happy/sad’ – it can’t be said to have the referential accuracy of verbal language. Still, music is considered to be as powerfully (if less specifically) ‘expressive’ as literature. Surely, then, it deserves not to be overlooked as a ‘social text’ (i) in its own right. If literary works from the Soviet-controlled Baltic States can be read as postcolonial (ii), it stands to reason that other contemporary arts from this region could be similarly loaded with meaning.

An administrative map of the Soviet Union in 1981, forty years after the forced annexation of the Baltic states [Image:]

While it can’t perform the specific referential functions of verbal language, music, as a medium bounded off to exist within a prescribed portion of time – say, for example, lasting three minutes – and as an art form most usually intended to be experienced in a preordained linear order from start to finish, is a real-time performance of fundamental concepts such as the quality and direction(s) of time(s). Music, as Susanne Langer said, ‘makes time audible’ (iii); I’d suggest further that music can perform, shape, manipulate, or even distort a particular sense of time. How quickly are we ‘moving’ through a piece of music? Is the pace fast or slow? Are we moving at all? And how might this relate to the musical content (i.e., what, if anything, is changing?)? An obvious, everyday example of variations in our perceptions of time in ‘real life’ might be seen in the following widely felt phenomenon: when at work, the fifteen minutes of a coffee break might fly by in what feels like no time at all, while the fifteen minutes between 4:45 and finishing the day at 5pm could seem like they will never pass. We might consider that one level of our understanding of time is subjective, separate from the mechanical, regular progress of clock time. This is the level of time-perception that music may be able to play around with.

A separate but related aspect of musical time concerns the question of whether there is a perceptible ‘goal’ within a piece – whether the passage of time internal to the music feels like directed motion towards something or somewhere. One example of a goal-oriented music (and/or mode of listening) with apparent ties to goal-oriented currents of thought is the case of Mozart and the Enlightenment (iv). We can reasonably expect that, in Classical music in this vein, loose ends will be tied up: goals will be implied, progressed towards, and ultimately reached. Musical motion (harmonic, melodic, etc.) will be meaningfully directed and fulfilled through departure from and journey back to a ‘rightful’ home key or tonal area. For instance, a piece starting in C major might travel through different but related keys, with varyingly strong relationships to and degrees of distance from C: perhaps G major, perhaps A minor, and/or others. A piece of music that resolved this journey in a fairly standardised way would have to return to C by its end (most typically, we might assume, by way of G, as it is the closest related key to C in a Classical harmonic framework). This sort of journey ‘makes (simple/obvious) sense’ in terms of Classical harmony.

For the purposes of this discussion, the underlying philosophy of progress and goal-orientation characteristic of some strands of Enlightenment thought, like those perhaps reflected in the musical example above, will be considered relatable to aspects of ‘modernism’ (when provisionally, and necessarily a little simplistically, defined as one half of a pair completed by postmodernism).

Within this ‘Enlightenment’/‘modernist’ framework, an important presumed understanding of time (particularly in terms of notions of historical progress) is conceived of as a deliberate movement through or against something to become the master of nature and history. Meanwhile, postmodernism’s time is ‘outside’ or unconcerned with (rather than ‘against’) natural, unpredictable chaos or hostile forces that threaten to sabotage the realisation of these kinds of anthropocentric (person- or human-centred) goals. It’s relatively easy to imagine why a conceptualisation of time with the implication that humans can ultimately shape their own destiny might be more likely to characterise a conquering power than a conquered one.

On the other side of the coin, postmodern and postcolonial ideas about time and history may involve disruptions of, or disregard for, these kinds of narratives: transcending, or leaving behind, antagonistic linear time in favour of the stasis, stillness, cycles, and eternal sameness of the type of goal-less time that theorist Julia Kristeva describes as ‘monumental’. (v)

The meaninglessness of, or play on, linear historical narratives is a fairly common theme in postcolonial literature. In an article on the 1993 postcolonial Estonian novel Piiririik (written by Tõnu Õnnepalu under the pseudonym Emil Tode), Maire Jaanus suggests that monumental time, at least conceptually or artistically speaking, is the time of Estonia. In her interpretation, the narrator feels that ‘historical time has been the imperialist’s time, the conqueror’s time, and therefore it is not his [the Estonian’s] time.’

A concert at Lenin Hall in Tallinn (now Linnahall). Taken from G. German – Eesti, (Eesti Raamat, Tallinn, 1978). See more pictures from Tallinn’s Communist past at The Tallinn Collector website

Jaanus proposes that Estonians ‘have had little opportunity to demand much of reality or of historical-linear time, because these could not yield much’, and that, as a result, ‘they have always remained acquainted with monumental time.’ (vi) Though there is a less of a focus on temporality in his work, Estonian poet Jaan Kaplinski has written verses with echoes of similar sentiments, challenging the glorification of linear progress narratives (‘who the hell needs your history’ (vii) /‘no one anywhere needs your history’ (viii)).

Documentary about Jaan Kaplinski

So what would a musical monumental time look like? Music by Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis – two internationally renowned Estonian composers – is frequently described as ‘mystic’, ‘minimalistic’, and ‘ritualistic’. Rather than starting in, say, C major, and subsequently moving through multiple other key areas before returning again – as in the kind of ‘goal-oriented’ music typified by Mozart – some of Tormis’s works in particular have less of a sense of direction; there is somewhat less of a tendency to set up musical tensions which might seem to require resolution, and/or less inclination to journey away from somewhere that ought to be returned to – at least, not in a fashion that fits comfortably within the hierarchical system of key relationships that is fairly fundamental to Classical-period music. Some of these pieces, in fact, might start in the key of C major and not move away from it at all for the duration of the piece. Circular shifting; unchanging harmony; symmetry; continuous repetition of short musical units, and an often-cited sense of ‘not going anywhere’ lend these works a monumental temporality.

Veljo Tormis [Image: Creative Commons Licence]

Veljo Tormis’s piece ‘Õekene sirgukene’ (‘My sister, my little cricket’, from the 1983 song cycle Vepsa Rajad (‘Vepsian Paths’) – a collection of arrangements of Vepsian (Finno-Ugric) folk songs for choir – expresses the idea of endlessness through its repetitive structure and non-functional key changes. The piece begins with a sustained, drone-like chord in the lower voices. Over the top of this static ‘bed’ of sound, the soprano part repeats a short melodic cell – the same pattern of just three notes – regularly recurring until the end of the first section. After this section, the piece repeats exactly the same material, only one key lower. This pattern repeats four times, each time descending one step – D flat major, B major, A major, G major. Because the distance between each of these keys is equal – effectively a straight line, a chain with symmetrically divided links – there is no sense of when the piece is clearly going to end. Moreover, because the relationship of these keys is not ‘functional’ in terms of traditional classical harmony, it is also possible to say that there is no logical reason why the piece should start in D flat major instead of B major, and end in G major instead of E flat.

As Pythagoras said, a true straight line, by virtue of its nature, is infinitely protracted: it goes on forever. The sense of the passage of time within this music is almost suspended, as there is little variation or change within sections, and virtually no suggestion of where the piece will finish. Although the music stops sounding in the listener’s ear after four iterations of the same material, the ending does not necessarily sound ‘final’. The listener’s imagination can continue to extrapolate more descending repetitions, beyond the actual heard experience, for any amount of time – and, crucially, there is no sense of a particularly important or obvious ‘goal’ or ending point.

This sense of endlessness connects to scholar Mikk Sarv’s assertion that, in order to understand the Estonian runic folk song regilaul, it is necessary to ‘embrace timelessness and to picture in one’s soul the two trails behind a sleigh heading towards the horizon. Next to each verse there is another one that takes you in the same direction in a slightly different manner.’ (ix) Jaan Kaplinski, as explained by writer Thomas Salumets, embraced what he saw as the ‘blandness’ (not considered to be a negative quality) of regilaul song (x), and claimed that a vital aspect of a ‘Finno-Ugric mode of seeing’ involved an attitude of ‘unforced flourishing’ (xi). His philosophy suggests that human goal-orientation is unimportant in comparison with the natural flow and cycles of nature and life (xii). It is possible to see reflections of these ideas – timelessness, the lack of significant goals, and the endless repetitive cycles of monumental time – in the Tormis piece discussed above.

The Soviet utopian dream – the establishment of a perfected communist society – was held by some to represent the climactic resolution of history: the arrival at a state of harmonious social existence, which would even perhaps be so perfect that it would require no significant improvement. This end was, it seems, considered by some to be truly inevitable. (Although, it should be mentioned, Polish-Lithuanian poet and author Czesław Miłosz suggested that it could not be looked upon: ‘The fully realized stage of Communism is the “holy of holies”. So impossibly perfect a state that it was difficult to conceive of as a reality, Miłosz wrote of this goal, ‘It is Heaven. One dare not direct one’s eyes toward it.’ (xiii)). 

Example of regilaul [Image:]

Arthur Versluis claims that the Soviet utopian progress narrative constituted a type of ‘secular millennialism’ (xiv): the belief that history is directed inexorably towards an inescapable (but often desirable) goal or end-point. Such belief systems in practice have historically been characterised by a tendency towards fundamentalism and even violence (xv). The systematic erasure (censorship, arrests, deportations) of obstructive ‘heretics’ supports the suggestion of parallels between religious and Marxist determinism and dictatorship.

The Estonian Song Festival during the occupation of the country by the Soviet Union. Taken from: R. Põder – Laulumaa (Land of Songs), Peeriodika, 1985. See more pictures from Tallinn’s Communist past at The Tallinn Collector website

Soviet goal-orientation in these terms is a ‘lunatic meta-narrative’ (xvi), the abandonment of which (along with many other social, historical, religious, and scientific narratives) is generally held to have been characteristic of late twentieth-century postmodernist thought. The preoccupation with an ‘end’ can be mapped onto music in the sense that music is temporally set apart or ‘framed’ in a similar way to historical or literary narratives (or indeed to the transient lives of individuals, bookended by birth and death). You could say of either musical or narrative content that it starts [here], travels [this way] through [these points], and ultimately ends [there] – or, alternatively, that it starts [here] doing [this], stays [there] doing [that], and repeats for [however long].

Monumental time sits outside the progress-driven historical time of Soviet utopian ‘millennialism’. If ‘post-‘ is understood as ‘against-‘ or ‘outside of-’, it follows that the temporality of this music could reflect a post-utopian understanding of time.

Claire McGinn is a PhD student at the University of York, studying contemporary Baltic art music. Her work, funded by the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities, includes exploration of fundamental concepts like time and repetition, and how these might function in music as reflections of the same phenomena in wider spheres of art and thought.


i. See John Shepherd, Music as Social Text (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).
ii. For analysis of postcolonial Baltic literatures and cultural thought, see Baltic Postcolonialism, ed. Violeta Kelertas (Amsterdam & New York: Editions Rodopi B.V., 2006).
iii. Susanne Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,1953): 110.
iv. See Nicholas Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue, and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas (London: W.W Norton, 1992).
v. Julia Kristeva, ‘Women’s Time’ (transl. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake) Signs 7/1 (1981) 13-35.
vi. Maire Jaanus, ‘Estonia’s Time and Monumental Time’ in Baltic Postcolonialism ed. Kelertas: pp. 219, 221.
vii. Jaan Kaplinski, from Fish Weave their Nests (1966), quoted in Thomas Salumets, Unforced Flourishing: Understanding Jaan Kaplinski (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2014): 57.
viii. Jaan Kaplinski, from The Same Sea in Us All (1984), quoted in Thomas Salumets, Unforced Flourishing: Understanding Jaan Kaplinski (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2014): 139.
ix. Mikk Sarv, ‘Regilaul: Music in our Mother Tongue’ Estonian Culture 1 (2003) accessed online 31/08/2016 [].
x. Jaan Kaplinski, ‘Heritage and Heirs’ (1969), republished in Mimi Daitz, Ancient Song Recovered: The Life and Music of Veljo Tormis (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2004): 60-61.
xi. See Salumets, Unforced Flourishing: 161-171.
xii. ibid.: 24-6.
xiii. Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind (transl. Jane Zielonko) (London: Penguin Books, 1980): 36.
xiv. Arthur Versluis, The New Inquisitions: Heretic-hunting and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Totalitarianism (Oxford: O.U.P., 2006): 58; 67; 88.
xv. ibid.
xvi. ibid.: 149.

Header image – Soviet border post, Lahemaa, Estonia [Image: Public Domain]

A version of this article originally appeared on the Language of “Authoritarian” Regimes blog

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