A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

Timeline: how was it for you?


After the blow by blow account of my 11 yo’s journey through time, space and the land of nod, what did Harriet Cunningham, music critic, make of the experience?


There’s much to love about this quixotic project. Firstly, the immaculate production, which should be the norm but often, in this space, the exception. The complexity of amplifying so many different sound-making devices, from violins to drums to the human voice, alongside sound samples and live electronics, is mind-boggling. Then add in a visual track, lighting, a smoke machine, all needing split second co-ordination… It must have been so tempting to do away with live musicians and just make a DVD.

Live music, however, is what the ACO is all about. Seeing and hearing the ensemble scramble through a Brandenburg Concerto, rip into some Xenakis or re-invent themselves as a backing band was a thrill. The novelty value of seeing Christopher Moore play the chaotic theremin, Satu Vanska doing her delicious Marlene Dietrich impersonation, Julian Hamilton of ludicrously talented The Presets singing Sephardic chants, and a spirited rendition of 4’33”. As I said, so much to love.

Beyond the magical fun palace of sights and sounds, however, Timeline’s genesis is as a conceptual piece, and the concept was what had me thinking as well as listening (and propping up my daughter’s head). Richard Tognetti’s  Theory of Everything approach to music, finding patterns and synergies between distant cultures and times, is clever, creative and a genuinely useful way to look at the history of music (not to mention the history of the world). Only connect, as E.M. Forster reminds us. Only connect, the head and the heart, the primitive and the sophisticated, complexity and simplicity, harmony and melody, vertical and horizontal, until your brain explodes in a kaleidoscopic shower of flashing neurons.

Some of the meeting points were truly revelatory: overlaying Japanese Gagaku music and Satie, putting The Unanswered Question and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis next to each other and – my personal favourite – playing the third movement of Philip Glass’s third symphony overlaid with Daft Punk, Britney Spears and Eminem. That’s a keeper.

Other meeting points worked as part of the theory, but not so much as part of a show. And that’s Timeline’s weak spot. Film makers know music is useful stuff as an ancillary to a narrative, pushing certain harmonic and rhythmic buttons to trigger visceral emotions. But when music itself is the subject it is more often than not about stopping time, about being in the moment, and not being beholden to what comes next. There were times during Timeline when I heard a reference – Right O, here’s Monteverdi — ticked the box and then… what? Move on? Or listen to a longer or shorter excerpt? Long is nice, but that means stopping, and the point of time is that it never stops. (Some of the tempi, by the way, were quite bracing – I guess you gotta keep moving when you’ve got 40,000 years to cover). I welcomed the sanctuary of Brahms’ Geistliches Lied after the rush and bustle of Rameau, but it wasn’t long before I was thinking “What’s next?”

What is next?

When we came out of the Opera House 3 hours and 40,000 years later, the sun was setting and it felt like the end of a very long day. “Mummy, I’m tired,” said the Little One.

“I know. Time is tiring,” I said. “Exciting, but tiring.”



  1. Spot on, Harriet. Despite the impressive performances and delivery of Timeline, the overall effect rang pretty hollow for me. By the end it felt like a glorified shopping list. And yes, aside from the few juxtapositions that made the music more interesting, most of the time the music was cheapened by the process. Your analysis of the disconnect between music’s timelessness and Timeline’s incessant ‘what’s next’ vibe is right, I think. I also felt there was too much of a disconnect between the different musical idioms and the intentions behind those idioms. Putting the likes of Justin Bieber up against some of humankind’s profoundest and seminal musical utterances was pretty ugly. Much as I love The Presets’ work and all the different genres, perhaps ACO should have attempted a purely classical timeline, starting with Gregorian chant and ending up with the likes of Messiaen, Xenakis, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Arvo Part, and Georges Lentz… Might have made for a less vacuous overall statement. Still, a DVD of this project could be an excellent musical history/musical genres teaching tool.

    • I don’t think you could ever please everyone with this kind of exercise. Not so much ambitious as quixotic! But I think that’s what happens when you take something like this out of context: it was and is a festival piece, where everyone buys into the ‘une folle journee’ spirit. When you put it in a traditional concert scenario it’s going to make people feel uncomfortable. Still, I suspect they made everyone — from every part of the musical spectrum — feel uncomfortable to an equal degree which is, in itself, quite impressive.

      Hey ho.

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