Tag Archives: Music theory in fiction

Do the ideas in André Pogoriloffsky’s The Music of the Temporalists have any practical application?

This paper by Barry Mitchell was presented at a CityMAC 2018 conference at City University of London, 5-7 July 2018. The conference was sponsored by the Society for Music Analysis and Blackwell Wiley.  The conference programme can be downloaded here: CityMAC-2018-Programme-11.05

Do the ideas in André Pogoriloffsky’s The Music of the Temporalists have any practical application?


The Music of the Temporalists (2009) is a book by Romanian musicologist Andrei Covaciu-Pogorilowski (b. 1968), written using the pen name André Pogoriloffsky. Pogorilowski’s main area of research is “temporal thresholds applied to/reflected in (musical) rhythm perception and production.” (Covaciu-Pogorilowski, 2018) This is a subject Pogorilowski has written and lectured about extensively, and the ideas in his research form the basis for the theories about music in The Music of the Temporalists. The Music of the Temporalists was originally written inRomanian and translated into English by the author with the help of Ilinca Anghelescu and Prof. Adam Cole.

The hero of the book, a middle-aged man, André Pogoriloffsky, obviously a counterpart of the author himself, is one day magically spirited away to another world. He returns after a couple of years, but in the real world he has only been gone for an instant. He has been chosen by the inhabitants of this world ( we don’t know where it is or very much about it) to visit them because they want him to learn about their music. This music is described by Pogoriloffsky as “hauntingly beautiful”, but also, crucially, as being incompatible with the usual ideas of pulse and rhythm that form one of the bases of Western Art Music. Their music is based on a completely different paradigm to Western Art Music, and perhaps to any music in the real world.

“I realised for the first time that in this dreamworld (or was it a mere dreamworld?) musical sounds are meant to serve an extremely elaborated temporal fabric. I could neither read, perform or transcribe the bizarre rhythms I listen to but it is sure that there is something magical about them since, while not understanding them, I find them so expressive.” (Pogoriloffsky, 2009, Loc 79, p.6)

The world visited by Pogoriloffsky is inhabited by people who cultivate music within a unique paradigm: music as art of time, not as an art of sounds. So the style of the music is known as Temporalism and its practitioners are Temporalists. In this imaginary world the most important factor in the creation and reception of music is how long sounds last. And “sounds” seems to mean exclusively notes played on instruments that we would recognise, though there are some instruments which are unique to the Temporalists. The Temporalists have very little vocal music.

There are some aspects of the music of the Temporalists that we would recognise: they have concerts, for example, which are similar in essential aspects to the concerts of Western Art Music. However, they have a distinctive form of group performance, where the performers give each other cues using facial expressions while sitting in a circle. They have scores, which Andre studies in order to learn about the history and theory of Temporalist music, its different schools, revolutions and controversies. They also have conservatoires that provide rigorous and difficult training courses, as mastering the performance of Temporalist music takes years of practice.

André settles down to study Temporalist music in detail, resulting in a fairly complete exposition of Temporalist theoretical concepts as well as an outline of the history of Temporalist music. In this study he is guided by Jean-Phillipe, a man in his 50s who is his Temporalist mentor.

André describes some of his thoughts on being introduced to this strange music, for example in this description of a Temporalist concert:

“What seemed really alien to me was the temporal universe through which all those microtonal pitches embraced the auditorium. I simply didn’t know what to say, but I knew I liked that temporal texture the way I may like the inflexions of a language I do not understand.” (Pogoriloffsky, 2009, Loc 62, p.5)

A large portion of the book is, however, devoted to an exposition of Temporalist music theory. The music theories put forward are quite detailed, and Andre has many discussions about them with his mentor.

The central concept of Temporalism is outlined in the Chapter “The 50 millisecond temporal grid”

“Temporalist music theory has no equivalent for the European concept of tempo. There are no beats (regular underlying pulse), bars, time value augmentation or diminution (at least not the way we understand that), There is no terminology for terms such as half, quarter, eight or sixteenth notes etc. The only thing resembling, to the slightest degree, the idea of “tempo” is the 50 millisecond (50ms) temporal grid. The first consequence of this convention is that all musical durations are multiples of this value: 100ms, 150ms,200ms etc. Small negative or positive deviations are allowed, given that music is played by human beings. These form the basis of modes. The most important of these is 200ms mode IOI or (inter-onset-interval). But there is a history which predates the use of the 50ms grid.” (Pogoriloffsky, 2009, Loc 679, p.35)

IOI refers to “inter onset interval, which is the interval between onsets of stimuli, or. more specifically, the time between the perceived beginning of one note and that of the next note. It was actually invented to cover situations where the duration of one actual stimulus (note) does not physically extend to the next note.” (Covaciu-Pogorilowski, 2018) In Temporalist theory modes are referred to as IOI plus a duration in milliseconds. For example, 200ms mode IOI.

It is not my intention to go through the theory in detail but rather to consider whether the ideas in The Music of the Temporalists are pure fantasy or whether they have any practical application. Can we write music based on Temporalist principles, and if so, what would it sound like?

A good place to begin is with the essential problem, which seems to be intractable, and the solutions put forward in The Music of the Temporalists might or might not provide solutions to this problem in the real world. The central concept of Temporalist music is the expressive impact of duration. In Temporalist music the exact duration of sounds is the essential expressive element. This is why Temporalist theory is very exact as to the description of the duration of notes, with different modes being characterised by notes the durations of which are described in milliseconds.

And because of their psychological make-up, as illustrated in detail in the book by a description of their language, the Temporalists are able to perceive durations as the primary expressive element in music. The elements of pulse and accent are not important. Pulse is replaced by duration as a central concept. Concepts of pulse and meter are so fundamental to the way that we perceive music (perhaps meter less so), more central than even tonality, that it is indeed difficult to imagine worthwhile music that does not have them.

For example, take the opening of JS Bach’s Prelude in C Major, ’48 Book I. This works by using a harmonic rhythmic melodic figuration. The rhythmic figure is repeated, but the chords and the implied melodies, most noticeably in the bass and the upper part (but are also present in the middle parts), change. The piece works because the recognition of harmonic-rhythmic-melodic patterns is deeply ingrained in the way we perceive music. We hear a repeated figure that is varied on each repetition. The pattern is AA, BB, CC etc. We distinguish A from B, from C etc, while recognising their essential similarity.

The perception of a Temporalist of the JS Bach Prelude in C Major, ’48 Book I would be very different. What they would hear when they listened to the Bach Prelude would be our equivalent of a pattern of repeated notes. The melodic-harmonic aspect would not register with them as an expressive element. And if the prelude is then played faster, that would be a different piece, and slower, a different piece again.

There seems to be an impossible gap to bridge between our music and the music of the Temporalists. But if we were to try to bridge it, how would we go about it? We can rule out from the outset experiencing Temporalist music as the Temporalists do: that is just impossible.

The only thing we could try to do is to create an experience for us which is something like the experience the Temporalists have, with musical elements given the same expressive weight, i.e. with the importance of duration to the fore. This would involve a process of recreation which is at least a process with which we are familiar in the performing arts. With varying degrees of self-awareness we make these recreations all the time. We go back into the past, visit different cultures, located in different times and places, and take their works and make our own versions of them with the intention of making them more meaningful to us, and often with the intention of not distorting them too much in the process. The new versions are inevitably different from the originals, and often very different.

If this line of thought is correct, it is encouraging. Applying the idea of recreation we can see that recreating the work – the notes of a Temporalist piece – is not going to lead to the result we want, which is to recreate the essential elements in the experience of Temporalist music: this is ultimately the expressive impact of the music. But this doesn’t begin to solve the musical problem: what is our piece going to consist of? The problem is to write a piece where the duration of notes carries expressive weight, and other elements less so.

Most of the detailed theories in The Music of the Temporalists can be put aside at this stage to allow a consideration of the essential idea behind the music of the Temporalists: that duration is the main element in music that carries expressive weight. The aim is to stimulate a reaction from us – the real world audience – that is new (though perhaps not completely new). This might be a new emotional reaction to music, which at the moment, like many if not all reactions to music, would be difficult to describe. The duration of notes will take on a new emotional significance, and the listener will engage emotionally with the experience of time in a new way: an experience of time that is mediated through sound and which resonates at an emotional level.

That is a very idealistic account of what might happen, which is perhaps why so far it only appears to have happened in fiction. If a Temporalist piece is created what is more likely to happen is that the listener will think something along the lines of – that piece sounded a bit different, it sounded like that piece was organised in a different way, but I am not sure what it is. Then over a period of time, through listening to many pieces of a similar nature the perception of the expressive importance of durations might emerge. That is of course based on the supposition that there are many Temporalist pieces to listen to and that they are interesting enough for someone to listen to a lot of them.

Here are four ways the idea, that durations have the main expressive weight, might be realised.

1. computer generated, using MIDI

2. a fully written out composition with a score and parts

3. group improvisation

4. hybrid pieces: pieces that use Temporalist techniques for part of the time

Using MIDI provides the simplest way to focus on the ideas.

What follows demonstrates how we could begin to write a Temporalist piece. This is going to be the equivalent of one of a “first species of counterpoint” exercise. A real Temporalist piece would have the same relationship to this exercise as a Beethoven string quartet has to a “first species” exercise. One of the problems is that those complex pieces that fully realise the idea are at present unimaginable.

A good place to start is with a basic element: the single note. The Temporalists use different modes which are based on a duration, such as 200ms. These modes might or might not have significance in the real world, leaving that question aside for now, the composition can be started with one note of a specific length.

This note will have a specific duration, for example, crotchet equals 120, which is a note 500 milliseconds long. This note is going to be referred to as D. D is also going to have a specific velocity, for example, 70. A pitch of A=440 can be assigned to D. The first note of the piece therefore has the properties: D=55ms, V70, pitch 440.

One of the advantages of using MIDI is that in order for D to become a prominent expressive factor, other musical elements may have to be emphasised less. MIDI enables assigning every note the same velocity. This is something that might operate subliminally on the listener and would be one of those elements in the piece that the listener perceives as different, but without being able to identify the reasons for the differences. However,ultimately dynamics could well have a part to play as an expressive element in the piece.

The next stage is to copy D the number of times approximately equivalent to the duration of the piece. Assuming the piece lasts about a minute, D would be copied 120 times: D x 120 = 60s.

The result is: DDDDDDDDDDDDD etc (D x 120 in one part).

The next question is what to do with this series of durations. If this was not a Temporalist piece the pitches could be varied, using any appropriate method, and the result could be quite interesting. However, to a Temporalist that would sound like a minute of one repeated note, which technically is a piece, but hardly “hauntingly beautiful” music. In order to create something like Temporalist music it will not be enough just to vary the pitch.

There is also the question of whether D should be subdivided. For the purpose of this exercise D will not be subdivided, as this is going to tend to create that feeling of pulse and meter that has to be avoided. A strong sense of meter is going to distract the listener from focusing on duration.

Some other way of varying the D, apart from sub-dividing it rhythmically,needs to be found. Why not go with the idea of the 50ms grid and vary the durations by 50ms and its multiples? There is a certain sense in that approach. One of the reasons this might be a good idea is because we are more likely to notice differences in duration if they are small. We are not going to notice the difference in duration between a note that lasts 4 seconds and one that lasts half a second, but small differences, which are noticeable (maybe even subliminally) could conceivably eventually come to have expressive weight. Other solutions would be to vary D using a mathematical formula, perhaps the golden section, or this could be done completely intuitively.

We can now advance from this “first species” exercise to think about adding more parts. Once the number of parts is increased there is an infinite set of possibilities for creating a mosaic of different durations. This has the potential to be quite expressive. In Temporalist music, as described in The Music of the Temporalists, the different temporal modes are separated into separate pitch layers. This seems sensible, but it could be interesting to combining different temporal modes in a relatively small pitch range.

As we attempt to put the ideas into operation there is something that becomes increasingly an issue as more complex pieces are attempted. This is that it is necessary to avoid doing a lot of things that we would normally do. For example, when there is more than one part it will surely be necessary to avoid, or largely avoid, chords in the sense of vertically aligned notes: the traditional homophonic texture. This is partly to avoid a sense of functional harmony, which could be avoided just by using certain pitch patterns, but also to avoid a sense of pulse and meter asserting itself.

By just using one pitch throughout the piece we might in fact be able to recreate the true Temporalist object, but this is not the aim: the aim is to recreate for us something akin to the experience of Temporalist music. This can not be achieved just by recreating a Temporalist work. The reason is that for the Temporalists the piece provided a complete musical experience, but that would not be the case for us, should we experience the original Temporalist object. The other elements of music, apart from rhythm or duration, are an important part of our musical experience so they have be integrated into the piece. This presents a challenge: how do we deal with the other elements apart from duration?

How to use pitch is a crucial question. It is of course possible to write a piece using only one pitch, and this is one solution. It is, however, unlikely to be the only one. The assignation of pitch values to D raises some interesting questions, which are relevant to considerations of style as a whole.

Considerations of organising pitch are usually to the fore when we think about a style. Consistency in the way pitches are organised is usually a feature of a style. We recognise styles largely on the basis of how they organise pitches.

But this isn’t necessarily the case here. There is the potential for taking any approach to the organisation of pitches, but also, given the basis of the piece, there is not any reason in the theoretical suppositions behind the music, to use a consistent approach to the organisation of pitches. We could use the notes of the chord of C major. We could use a 12 note series, or a series of less than 12 notes. We could use microtones. We could use a combination of all of these: certainly a true Temporalist would not be at all concerned by such combinations, and we should beat this in mind when composing a piece according to Temporalist principles.

The most intriguing possibility is to combine different methods of pitch organisation. This raises an interesting question. We may be very tolerant when it comes to the flexibility of the harmonic-rhythmic-melodic paradigm, but we are remarkably inflexible when it comes to accepting different methods of pitch organisation in the same piece. We don’t have (or have a lot of) pieces that open with a theme in C major, the second theme is atonal, then there is a another theme which is modal, and so on. However, there is the possibility that a Temporalist piece would make radically different methods of organising pitch within the same piece more acceptable.

This is one of the most interesting ideas raised by trying to write a Temporalist piece. Temporalism is not a system as we usually understand the term, but is more like a different paradigm (despite all the theoretical detail in The Music of the Temporalists). This raises questions about what music theory should be doing. Is it exhausted? We seem now to have had everything, our ears are now truly unshockable – the days when Verdi was playing through music by Mascagni and had to stop because the harmonic progressions were annoying him so much – are well and truly gone.

In an art form that after all only has a few elements there would seem to be a finite number of artistically valid ways to organise those elements. It used to be that theorists would propose new systems, from basso continuo to the fundamental bass and functional harmony, to serialism etc. When composers adopted these systems they wrote music that to a large extent sounded similar, largely because the system adopted was predicated on a system of pitch organisation. The time of systems like that might be over. With Temporalism if fifty composers write a Temporalist piece the results will inevitably be very different and individual. My interpretation of the ideas in The Music of the Temporalists will probably differ from other people’s, and may well differ from the interpretation of the author (though I wouldn’t attach any importance to that).

Do the ideas in André Pogoriloffsky’s The Music of the Temporalists have any practical application?

The conclusion is a cautious “yes”. Even if the answer ultimately turns out to be “no”, the attempt will surely result in something interesting.


Pogoriloffsky, André, The Music of the Temporalists, 2009, kindle edition.

Covaciu-Pogorilowski, Andrei, email to the author 29/6/2018.

Barry Mitchell

CityMac 2018 conference

5 July 2018