Review Summary: Some Sort of Time Machine: The Role of Time in a Work of Art, From the View of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
When E.M. Forster presented his series of lectures on the Aspects of the Novel
, he presented time as an inescapable part of story. Despite some authors' best intentions, writing a proper narrative without some chronology of events is nigh on impossible. The story itself pertains to, “what happens next,” and therefore it inherently involves time. This is all well and good for a novel, but what about other art forms?(1) Time doesn’t pass in a painting or a photograph, it stands still. But does time not affect them? More ambiguous may be music, in which time is important but for different reasons than a novel or a photograph, or a painting. So what is time in a work of art? How does it mold our view of it, or the work itself? To answer these, we can first turn to Plato’s discussion of forms. For the most part he hates art; distrusting it as a cheap imitation of an imitation, but he does create an interesting connection between works of art and the real world– art is mimetic. Using this and manipulating I.E. Richards diagram slightly, we can come up with a pattern of connecting ideas that revolve around art.(2) They are threefold: how art relates the author, to the audience, and to the world.
If we apply Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
to this formula a clear, all encompassing representation of what time means to a work of art appears. First we will examine how time effects the creator of the work, second we will discuss how time is used within the world of the work, and finally we will discuss how time reflects on the audience’s view of the work. In this process it will become evident that time is not simply an undercurrent within the work. No; it is as vital as each chord, each lyric, each sound and each silence. Time in a work of art is another plane of communication, as it manipulates the work itself and the relation it has to both the creator and the audience.
“I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine,” Jeff Mangum warbles in humility on “Oh Comely”, creating an entrance into the bending time in the narrative of the album. Derived from The Diary of Anne Frank, Jeff Mangum’s lyrics are a bizarre elegy to the tragic loss of a girl to the horrors of the Holocaust. The narrative shape shifts through numerous, and at times nonsensical, themes that land all over the chronological map. It would seem that time does not play any particular role, if it was not for the aforementioned line. The album is riddled with phrases that point to the passing of time. “When you were young / you were the King of Carrot Flowers,” Mangum pines in the album opener “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. I”, creating an ode to childhood wonderment. These reflections on childhood and the past, create an elegiac atmosphere to the work, and this is how time is used in the narrative of the lyrics. This elegiac atmosphere must also be encompassed not only through the lyrics, but the instrumentation as well.
Time is inherent within music– they progress hand in hand, the time that passes between notes, the number of beats in a bar, the length of time a note is held; all relate to time. What if the crescendo bridging Pt. II to Pt. III of “The King of Carrot Flowers” was shorter, or longer? How would it effect the work of art? Time works to the ebb and flow of the music, it creates the atmosphere just as much as the chord choice, drum fill or horn line. The same could be said for length of the songs themselves. Longer running times would ruin the interlude feel of “The Fool”, “Communist Daughter” or “10" , perhaps dragging the album into an uneasy feel. Finally, pace plays the pinnacle role in what is the emotional climax of the work. When the time is cut at the end of, “Two-Headed Boy Pt. II”, the reprise of the vocal melody from “Pt. I”, in all its hushed and introspective glory, hurts just a little bit more. What if the tempo had remained the same? In essence, what if time did not alter at this climactic moment? It is not a stretch to suggest the impact would be drastically altered. The success of this time shift is not the objective of this argument, rather we merely need to see how time is as intrinsic to the music as the notes played. Time in the work of art gives extra prominence to the brush strokes, character development, or chord changes.
English romantic poet William Wordsworth once said that, “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origins from emotion recollected in tranquility.” What the poets' main view upon composing was thus: if one sees an inspiring image, whatever it may be, they should not rush to compose something on it.(3) Rather, they should let it settle for a few years, and somewhere down the line they will be reminded of the image. Then they should compose. One can not clearly show that this was Jeff Mangum’s approach was to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea without having access to the man himself. However, we can infer the possibility of time affecting the author through other means. Certainly the man was at a time in his life when The Diary of Anne Frank
affected him greatly. Further more, the creative process works in real time and in essence this time alters ones perspective on their own work. Anyone who has ever created a work of art knows this; what makes sense one moment, seems completely terrible the next. What if we take the album into a personal historical context?
Compared to past Neutral Milk Hotel releases, time obviously aided in honing the skills of Jeff Mangum and company. Consistency grew as time progressed and the result is a more consistent album then in past works. Ideas from before are refined: the good ones expanded upon and the bad ones are dumped. Everything Is
was a shaky debut EP, riding between large gaps between the high moments and the lows, however as an extended player, this type of thing could be tolerated. These problems continued, but to a lesser extent, on On Avery Island
. The high points featured many great songs such as, “Garden Head Leave Me Alone” or “Song Against Sex”. However, there were still terrible ideas that dragged the work down, most notably “Marching Theme” or the god-awful “Pree Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye”. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
benefits from a maturation that can only be gained through the process of time. The bad ideas from the first two works are abandoned, and the good ideas are raised to their peak.
Finally, we come to the last link to a work of art: the audience. Art historian Kenneth Clark once said that, “to hurry through the rise and fall of a fine, full sentence is like defying the role of time in human life.” Of course he is referring to literature, but the sentiment can transcend to all art forms. If we as the audience do not take the time to fully envelope ourselves in a work of art, then what is the point? In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
is a perfect example of how devotion, that is time spent, can reward an audience. A discernible music audience may at first see only a guy with a terrible voice strumming open chords. A few interesting horn lines sprinkled here or there, but nothing more. This is where time fully displays its relationship to art; the more time spent with a work of art, the more enveloped the audience becomes. The way the propulsive “Ghost” segues into the unequivocal joy of “10 , or fuzzy pep of “Holland 1945", or the relaxing glide of the title track, reveal themselves over time. The more familiar one is with these components of the work, the more revealing each listen becomes. The finer details add to the immediate moments, unfurling them as even greater than on first impression.
Like studying each brush stroke of Rembrandt, or the finer choices in diction from James Joyce, or the cinematographical explorations of Jean Renoir, the audience must invest time in a work of art to fully appreciate it. That is, because time itself is invested in the work. The author invests time to create it, and the creative process itself is informed through maturity over time. What the author creates is in turn affected by time and this may come in many forms. First there is time in the context of the story: what happens to Josef K. at the end of Franz Kafka’s The Trial
? Will Julie find liberation at the end of Trois Colours: Bleu
?(4) Then there is time in a historical context: What is Invasion of the Body Snatchers
really about? How were Shakespeare’s sonnets reflective of political turmoil in the English monarchy? Finally we have the connection of time to an emotional level: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
. In all its simple, flawed glory, the album is a harbinger of the reflective influence of time to a work of art. Time is an all encompassing construct of humanity; abstract in a way we can not feel or see it, but always there. It affects everything we do and how we do it, applying to both the real world and the world of art. In theAeroplane Over the Sea
by Neutral Milk Hotel is an exemplary work of art in showing how a work of art is manipulated, and ultimately created, through time.
1. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel is solely in reference to novels, but it is surprising how broadly the arguments can be used
2. Richards’ actual diagram construct for “The Meaning of Meaning” is pyramidal, connecting the ideas of “Thoughts”, “Language”, and “The World”. The concept states that all three are connected to each other and are not inseperable. I (and by I, I mean my narrative theory proffesor) interchange the words keeping "The World" and putting in "The Author" and "The Audience" and placing the "Work of Art" in the middle of the diagram, connected to all three.
3. Wordsworth was brilliant at romantic topographical poetry. It is considerably too idealistic for some, including myself at times, but his approach to the role of time in the creative process is very interesting.
4. Cf. Look how elite I am.