Monumental time and the Soviet dream: music and (a) post-Utopian temporality

(Source: Public Domain Pictures)

By Claire McGinn

The ‘language’ of music is demonstrably unlike the language of literature. Still, music is considered to be as potently (if less specifically) ‘expressive’ a medium as literature. It should, therefore, not be overlooked as a ‘social text’ in its own right;[i] if literary works from the Soviet-controlled Baltic states can be read as postcolonial, [ii] it stands that other contemporary arts could be similarly loaded.

While it can’t articulate the referential specificities of verbal language, music, as a temporally framed and linearly experienced medium, is a performative embodiment of such fundamentals as the quality and direction(s) of time(s).

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.[iii] 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 the purposes of this discussion, the teleology characteristic of some strands of Enlightenment thought will be considered commensurable with currents in ‘modernism’ (when provisionally defined as one half of a dichotomy completed by postmodernism).

Within this ‘Enlightenment’ framework, the presumed time of these ideals is felt as a deliberate movement through or against something to become the master of nature and history. Meanwhile postmodernism’s time is ‘outside’, unconcerned with (rather than ‘against’) the entropic or hostile forces that threaten to sabotage the realisation of anthropocentric Enlightenment goals. In this sense, a conceptualisation of time with the implication that humans can shape their own destiny is more likely to characterise a conquering power than a conquered one.[iv]

Composer Veljo Tormis (Source: WikiCommons)

Conversely, postmodern/postcolonial temporality may constitute a disruption of, or disregard for these narratives; a transcendence of antagonistic linear time in favour of the endless stasis and cycles of the temporality that Kristeva describes as ‘monumental time’.[v]

The meaninglessness of, or play on, linear historical narratives is a recurring theme in postcolonial literatures.[vi] Maire Jaanus suggests that monumental time, conceptually or aesthetically speaking, is the time of Estonia. As explained by the narrator of the postcolonial Estonian novel Piiririik, ‘historical time has been the imperialist’s time, the conqueror’s time, and therefore it is not his [the Estonian’s] time.’ She 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.’[vii]

So what would a musical monumental time look like? Music by Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis – two internationally renowned contemporary Estonian composers – is commonly described as ‘mystic’, ‘minimalistic’, and ‘ritualistic’. Circular shifting; static harmony; symmetry; continuous repetition of short units, and a sense of ‘not going anywhere’ lend these works a monumental temporality.

Arthur Versluis claims that the Soviet utopian dream (the establishment of a perfected communist society) was a type of ‘secular millennialism’: the belief that history is directed towards an inexorable goal or end-point. Such belief systems in practice have historically been characterised by a tendency towards fundamentalism and even violence; the erasure of obstructive ‘heretics’ supports the suggestion of parallels between religious and Marxist determinism and dictatorship.[viii]

Soviet teleology in these terms is a ‘lunatic meta-narrative’,[ix] the disavowal of which is generally held to have been characteristic of late twentieth-century postmodernist thought. This fixation on an ‘end’ can be mapped onto music in the sense that the latter is temporally bounded or ‘framed’ in a similar fashion to historical or literary narrative. 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].

Thus, monumental time is outside the historical time of Soviet millennialism. If ‘post-’ is understood as ‘against-’ or ‘outside of-’, it follows that the temporality of this music is a post-utopian time.

Claire McGinn is a first year PhD student at the University of York (Music department), funded by WRoCAH. With the title ‘Ritual, time, and space in post-Soviet Baltic music’, she is studying music by composers from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania written from around 1991 to the present day. More generally, she is interested in exploring fundamental concepts like repetition and how these might function in music as reflections of the same phenomena as manifested in wider (historically- and culturally-inflected) spheres of art and thought. 


[i] See John Shepherd, Music as Social Text (Cambridge, 1991).

[ii] For analysis of Baltic postcolonial literature and cultural thought (as well as the question of whether or not ‘postcolonial’ is an appropriate label in this context), see Violeta Kelertas (ed.), Baltic Postcolonialism (Amsterdam, 2006).

[iii] See Nicholas Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment (London, 1992).

[iv] Maire Jaanus, ‘Estonia’s Time and Monumental Time’, in Violeta Kelertas (ed.), Baltic Postcolonialism, (Amsterdam, 2006), pp. 219, 221.

[v] Maire Jaanus, ‘Estonia’s Time’, pp. 213-4. For more detail see Julia Kristeva, ‘Women’s Time’ (transl. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake). Signs 7/1 (1981): 13-35.

[vi] Brian Edwards, Theories of Play and Postmodern Fiction (London, 1998), pp. 86, 103-4, 126, 203; see also Jaanus ‘Estonia’s Time’.

[vii] Jaanus, ‘Estonia’s Time’, pp. 218-219; 221.

[viii] Arthur Versluis, The New Inquisitions: Heretic-hunting and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Totalitarianism (Oxford, 2006), pp. 58, 67, 88.

[ix] Ibid., p. 149.


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