Composer Eric Wubbels’ being-time (2013-2017), a work for string quartet and quadrophonic electronic sound, is an essay in the effects of tuning on the experience of sound and through it, time. The piece was commissioned by Chamber Music of America for the Mivos Quartet, who premiered it in November 2015 at the Roulette in Brooklyn and who perform it on this recording.
Wubbels, who is a pianist and co-director of the new music ensemble Wet Ink as well as a composer, conceived the piece as a kind of investigation into how the resonances of detuned string instruments interact with the environment and the listener’s perceptions of pitch and rhythm and ultimately, time. Although Wubbels’ preparation for writing the piece included research into the physics and psychology of sound, being-time seems intended to be more the product of imaginative speculation rather than a proper scientific experiment.
The piece calls for a scordatura in which the instruments are tuned down to low pitches whose microtonal relationships create dissonances of varying degrees as well as consonances. The fluid movement back and forth between and within dissonances and consonances gives the piece its distinctive sound.
Although music like this probably has to be heard live to get the full effect, the recording does give a sense of its sound and structure. Overall, being-time creates the impression of an archipelago of microtonal chords separated by silences and electronic events. Most of the movement is carried by the incremental drift of the chords’ inner voices, which subtly changes their color. Although the piece features a range of dynamics, this seems a secondary factor relative to the ongoing recalibration of the harmonies. As with many long-duration works that use silence as a structural element, being-time delays and expands the listener’s sense of anticipation to reveal time for one of the things it is—an unmarked ground for music, a figuratively blank canvas on which sounds are arranged in dynamic relationships.