A metronome is also an obelisk. The symbol of all learning, of ancient Egypt. In the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick makes his monument to evolution an obelisk.

It’s tempting to worship the confines of time, the bars of our cage.

How do you release the atoms of time, open the door simultaneously to the past and the future? As Auden says in his poem, “As I Walked Out One Evening”:

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.

An obelisk is a vertical book, engraved with ancient wisdoms, usually in Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Obelisks summon up visions of necromancy, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the stories of H. Rider Haggard, such as King Solomon’s Mines. Sax Rohmer’s Brood of the Witch-Queen. Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. George Fraser’s Golden Bough. Robert Graves’s Greek Myths. Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God.

The mysteries of the past, the masks which help us decode the universe, Greek myths were stories about the rules which cannot be broken, or which are broken at the risk of our sanity. Rules which, broken, curse our families for generations.

An obelisk is a standing stone, a hand reaching up to heaven. The ancient play, Hamnet, was not only a drama, but a manual for reading the shadows at Stonehenge, the stars in the stones, described in Hamlet’s Mill, by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend.

Obelisks are handbooks of the heavens, the fingerprints of the Gods.

Obelisks are also hour hands, the hand of time on a sundial, the pylon which catches the shadow of the sun and turns it into time. Another name for this is a gnomon, the hand of knowledge.

Obelisks were used as pillars of ancient temples, and of graves. And so they remind us of passing time, of our own mortality, of our quest for immortality.

Obelisks are the stars from which we are fallen. They are our goal, and our frustrations. The infinity we cannot have.

The philosopher Nietzsche saw a large rock in the alps one day, and it reminded him of the infinite, recurring dreams of man. That may have been behind Stanley Kubrick’s decision to start his film 2001 with an obelisk, worshipped by apes.

Nietzsche’s revelation in front of that stone, from which he ultimately extruded an entire philosophy in his book, Also Sprach Zarathustra, inspired the German composer Richard Strauss to write a musical tone poem of the same name. Strauss took Nietzsche’s thoughts about human evolution and human aspirations and described them in his music. (The more dubious aspects of the book seem to be excluded from the music. As the poet W. H. Auden said, music is the only art form that does not judge.)

A metronome is shaped like an obelisk, possibly because music is another way of transmitting unspoken myths through time. The beat of the metronome is a frame, like Stonehenge, which contains music and meaning, which bookends chaos with structure.

Time is a path which shapes our days and regulates our songs. It allows us to play together, to be on the same frequency. But time is also a prison, if we take it literally, at its face value. The composer Johannes Brahms felt that the clinical beating of the metronome caused a singsong approach to music, and inhibited the freedom of its flow. Such pedantic uses of time are crutches, moral supports for those of us who are afraid to face time on our own, without blinds. Time only becomes small when the presence of other people obliges us to play “in time.” Society forces imperfect definitions of time on us. By ourselves, in the shower, we sing more personally. We slow time down, or speed it up.

A pianist plays much more personally, or emotionally, without an audience. The audience, or the orchestra, creates an expectation, a need for speed, for the crutch of rhythm. The audience holds a mirror up to the performer, and the performer sees himself through their eyes, and tries to impress the crowd, and in this way the truth of the piece is compromised.

Glenn Gould felt this, the way an audience would get the heart pounding, the blood boiling, and the tempo would speed up. A pianist starts to hear with the audience’s ears. He begins to make up scenarios of what some mythical listener wants. And of course that perfect listener is impossibly demanding, so the rhythms must be changed to surprise and outplay that picky listener, who of course is just the pianist himself.

So you’re in competition with yourself, with your idealized version of what the crowd expects. You try to accommodate not just one listener, but dozens. One person wants it faster, another wants it more soulful. No one is ever satisfied. And suddenly the concert hall is filled with ghosts, the tempi of dead musicians, the foot stomping of future crowds, demanding more. And that measured, logical, well-planned walking gait or coyote lope is thrown into disarray. You begin to doubt the gods of the practice room. Look at that glare in row three. That snarl in the first row. The whole second row is asleep. IS that a snore? Something must be done. A quick jab at the keys, a sforzando, an accent, a staccato, anything to surprise the monsters of the id. To surprise yourself. Because those blank stares which swirl around you are your own ghosts, your own impossible aspirations, and now you’re playing at a tempo you can’t possibly maintain. That was the wonder of Horowitz. He sensed those demands flooding in like fog from the first row, and he put himself on a collision course with the music. But he usually held it together, barely. It was that lurking train wreck which gave his playing an electricity. He was out of control, playing beyond his ability, and yet he was faking it convincingly, just squeaking by.

I studied with Irma Wolpe in New York City, whose second husband had been the great composer Stefan Wolpe. Irma had been in the center of 20th-Century music all her life. One day she came back from a Horowitz concert, and I asked her how he played. “Ach,” she said, “he was trying to be Horowitz.”

No matter what architectures you build around the ego, the blinding flash of the stage lights wipes the slate clean, and always it is the id which shows up, strutting like Mick Jagger across the sweep of the slanting floor, sulking in the corner, scared to come out of the door into the glare of the kliegs, too modest to strip naked in front of those demanding faces, too gypsy to stay dressed, and you start babbling like a prisoner in an interrogation room, saying anything, trying to keep afloat, to find your missing passport, to remember your own name, truths suddenly sounding like lies, facts that never needed justification now looking frail in front of the cynical faces half seen on the other side of the floodlights.

So a metronome is a steadying hand, an anchor which prevents the nervous dancer from spinning like a top into the wall, or the scale from accelerating off the keyboard. You can usually play something faster if goaded, but then the proportions grow misshapen, the shadows expand across the glacier, and you’ve become a caricature, a gyrating puppet headed for the cliff.

You pull back, but then where are you? Back to the square one of the first impossibly dull tempo, hopelessly outclassed by your own whirling outburst, your tantric tantrum. Or do you compromise between your pounding prima donna and that prim den which you had planned for the evening? Rare (or banal) is the artist who maintains his stodgy intentions during the crisis of the concert.

So time is a savior, but it is also the enemy of the racing blood, of who you become under fire. You want to shout, to brag, to play to the rafters, while a small voice tells you to calm down and remember that mystical obelisk which sits on your shoulder like an incubus. Are you being coached by the devil, or by angels? Who are you, when your moment comes? Will you face the bull, or will you turn and run?

And what happens when, despite your lucent turns, your lambent trills, nothing works, and the audience slumps there, beyond the gravity of your forbidden planet, absolute incomprehension written in cuneiform on their slab-like death masks? Does their cryogenic orbit reach out like ice nine and pull you in, does the air thicken and breath turn to crystals?

Or, like the drab pedant you would like to emulate at such moments, no seraphic curl-framed worshipper’s face, no scrofulous Note Nazi scowl can deter you from your appointed, memorized, routine rounds. Your soulless pre-fingered rigor can withstand blasts from the pit, howls of cell phone demons, the sirens of the Anthemusan ambulances outside, rumblings of antipodal subways: you lash yourself to the mast and can easily ignore, as the adamantine professional must, the Medusan stares of fellow pianists (which turn your technique to stone) and the hostile Baccantes who prefer that younger, blonder, pumped-up poster child pianist with the liquid scales and the rock-like octaves.

It is this philosopher king, this Nietzschean übermensch directing well-placed lightning around the Wartberg, between  the cwms and the couloirs, whose certain divinity dictates godlike lucidity from on high, while the muscular hero below, chained to the sinking piano, strains to translate the tablets and the inscribed stones, the commandments of composers into the Babel of humanity. What is point of playing anything unless you have something special to add, some revelation, or contradiction, some perversion of tempo or newly-discovered legato, some splurge of staccati or satin-smooth portamenti never before brought to bear on the rigid traditions of a certain careless bouncing phrase? Gould would play fast movements slowly, and slow movements quickly, to break the connection of banal electricity from cloud to ground, to present the music as new.

One of my teachers discovered that the slurs or ties in a Beethoven sonata had been Bowdlerized, standardized by later editors, so that the original divergences had been sacrificed to foolish consistency, and vowed to make the differences clear, by re-fingering the sonata completely before the next day’s concert. It’s harder to undo than to do. It’s much easier to learn a sonata than to unlearn and then reconfigure it, especially in one day. Yet these superhuman feats of musculature and memory are expected, and go mostly unnoticed by public commentators who are sitting there with their stopwatches to see if you lag Rudolf Serkin by a second and thus have revealed your final deficiency (as Harold Schonberg, a great popularizer of the piano and the chief critic of the New York Times, used to do). It was all about speed. So one critic single-handedly sped up the classics during his lifetime, whipping sweating pianistic racehorses into a frenzy of clock beating.

Time used this way is a superficial substitute for the recognition of deeper structures, for the cosmic resonances of music. It is killing time, not creating it. Time used this way is just a blurry description of what happens more clearly off camera. Like any reductive plot guide, boxed-in time substitutes ticking for truth, clichés for revelations, captions for lives. Time used as a weapon is a trot, a bureaucrat’s edition of chaos.

Reality in the end isn’t about time. Reality is timeless. The great essences of the universe move to the gears of gravity, to the erratic dance of the planets, the precession of the nodes and the random flare of sunspots.

Genuine time is another form of space. The whirling of galaxies through cluttered and yet immensely empty space cannot be confined to a watch made in 1870.

The best use of time is to touch space. We are lost in space, but also connected to our loss by the very land we touch. The Giants in mythology were the children of heaven and earth. Like music, they were the bridge. Unless they touched the earth, they weakened. Hercules conquered them by holding them up in the air. Pianists are the giants of the time. Unless we touch the ground, we cannot talk to the universe.

So obelisks and pyramids, by their very shape, suggest this connection between earth and space.

It is interesting that pianos are supported by legs which are shaped like upside down obelisks. As if the point of a piano was to turn time upside down, to set the world on its head, to upend the common wisdom.

The Yeti plays only the introduction to Richard Strauss’s tone poem. The entire piece lasts half an hour, and sets up the frenzied dance of human anticipation, failure, and salvation in the same way that Mahler symphonies do. But its ultimate conclusions are all contained in the first minute of the piece, as Beethoven sonatas expand from their first few measures, as any Shakespeare play can be found in miniature, summed up in the first scene.

So time, the metronome, draws us onward into the dance of planets. But time is only Charon, who rows the boat to hell, hell being the silence before there was time or space.

So captured time is the enemy of space, of freedom, of breadth and width, of expansion and contraction, of compassion – the dimensions of humanity, and music, which extend beyond time.

Time used properly is a bridge between what is and what might be. Even then, time is a journey, but not an end.

As  T. S. Eliot said in The Four Quartets:

“And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.
You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure,
That time is no healer….”