August 29, 2017 | von Rachel Smith, Musicologist Kommentieren

The Value of Time

An interview with Tony Bingham

It’s an exceedingly comfortable Swiss August afternoon, and we’re in the courtyard of theOpens internal link in new window HMB Museum of Music, surrounded by an audience of about sixty. They were all asked by the museum to bring any metronomes they had from home, and right now, all of their hand-held tributes are being arranged on a small stage. There’s a hushed countdown. Then, urgently, museum staff flick the pendulums out of their hooks, and the metronomes progressively begin waving at us, at each other, tick-tocking, cacophonous. Everyone then stands back, listens, and thinks. We all begin to wonder about the peculiarity of what we’re witnessing – a rendition of Opens external link in new windowGyörgy Ligeti’s 1962 “Poème Symphonique. It’s not a full symphony – that would be a hundred metronomes – but its intention is the same. What are we listening to? Why metronomes?

Starting the “Poème Symphonique” at HMB Museum of Music

In the back of the audience stands Opens external link in new windowTony Bingham, a British old musical instrument dealer. He’s the reason we’re all here, trying to make sense of the message from the metal and wood musicians on the stage. Bingham has brought his collection of metronomes to the museum for an exclusive Opens external link in new windowtemporary exhibition. For over forty years, he’s been acquiring and curating the most comprehensive collection of metronomes in the world. I wanted to figure out the backstory, and Tony Bingham agreed to an interview.

 

Tony Bingham, can you describe for me how this collection started?

I bought my first metronome around forty years ago. I’d already been dealing in old musical instruments before. Then a friend, who owned an antique shop around the corner from my house, turned up with this... thing – a rare metronome which he said was made by Opens external link in new windowMaelzel. So this one set me off collecting them. It’s a very unusual metronome, and it’s still one of the rarest in the collection. It’s number five in the catalog. As far as we know, this is a unique example. The case looks nothing like an ordinary pyramid, but it’s signed Maelzel on the pendulum. When I saw it, it struck me as an interesting object, so I took it home. 

Experimental metronome stamped ‘MAELZEL’ on the boxwood pendulum and ‘M’ on the brass slider, probably made in France c.1815 (N° 5)

And why did you begin to collect them?

Because they were interesting both mechanically and musically and nobody else was collecting them. Still! And that’s why it’s always interested me – the collecting – because nobody else was seriously at it. So, all those years ago, when I set out to collect metronomes, I quickly realized the sheer variety they encompassed. I wanted to have a representative collection rather than a quantitative one. 

Tony Bingham in the exhibition Opens external link in new windowUp Beat! Metronomes and Musical Time 

And it’s truly an astounding collection.

Even the Opens external link in new windowNew York Times thought so.

As they should! Would you tell me about where you’d find your metronomes?

Well, I’d go to antique shops and to people who collect and deal – and auctions, and markets, and wherever else I’d think they would turn up. Because, on my travels, I was always looking for old instruments, I was already going to the useful places.

Tell me about your two favorite metronomes in the collection.

Well, the Norma Virium is up there. It’s such a good-looking thing. It’s fantastic, but not practical. It does function as a metronome but in a very complicated way. That’s what I particularly like about it, and that’s what makes it very rare.

Norma Virium, a type of metronome with many complex beats to the bar, signed on a silver plaque ‘NORMA VIRIUM / or / Musical Accentuator / Thomas Simpson / Inventor and Patentee’. Made c.1850. (N° 27)

I have two of these automata metronomes. This is the ornate model, I also have a simpler one. I don’t think many of these were made, they were advertised for less than a year: April 1938 till August 1938. They were very expensive to make and to buy, also these complicated metronomes were competing in a market with simpler, cheaper metronomes. 


‘New Conductor Metronome’, an elaborate decorative metronome with automaton. Made c.1838. (N° 25)

Is the Norma Virium the most valuable metronome?

I think that might actually be the Patek Philippe. My assistant bought it over the phone at an auction while I was on a long flight. 


Metronome in the form of a pocket watch signed ‘PATEK PHILIPPE & CO / GENEVE’ made in Switzerland c.1880. (N° 105)

Back to the courtyard for a minute. We’re fifteen minutes into the symphony, with a steady stream of ambient chatter accompanying the indistinguishable clicking. We reach the twenty-minute mark, and the audience has gradually fallen silent. It strikes me as a collective double-take moment, a reconsideration of the attention we’ve been paying to the performance. I develop the notion that the piece is more about the audience than the metronomes.


When visitors go through the metronome exhibition, what would you want them to know that hasn’t already been said? 

All the things the museum has found to accompany the metronomes – the movies, the musical paraphernalia, those sorts of things – that’s what ties everything together, that’s what makes the exhibition interesting.

Where do you think your metronomes will go after this exhibition?

Hopefully the museum will buy them, because no other museum has anything comparable. The ownership of the collection would put them on the map. If someone in the world wanted to do research, they’d need to come to Basel. As it stands, it’s a unique and comprehensive collection that no one will ever be able to reproduce. I would like to have it sold as a collection. By having them all together, it tells a bigger story. 

Tony Bingham in the exhibition Opens external link in new windowUp Beat! Metronomes and Musical Time 

The last metronome standing slows down to its final oscillations, the audience leaning in. It gives out, and we cheer for the successful completion of what was likely the most unusual half-hour of our day. The collective exhale is unifying and comforting. A common comment on Ligeti’s “Poème Symphonique” is that the suspense of having no idea when the piece will end is the most captivating aspect. The listener’s sense of time is warped, challenged, reasserted, defeated. Preconceptions prove pointless. But, what’s time worth in the first place?

I wonder why our comfort zones are what they are. What shapes our musical expectations? What is the value of pushing musical boundaries? Which authority decides what is legitimate? I wanted to ask these questions to everyone at the concert. 

I asked Tony Bingham what he thought about the performance. “It’s not music to me. It seems more like a curiosity, I liken it to modern art. Some people see something in it, maybe some people see something musical in Ligeti’s piece. I saw “Poème Symphonique” done in London with the full hundred metronomes some years ago…Eh.” I told him that it strikes me as an exercise in boundary pushing. He thought about it for a second, then replied. “If you’re into that sort of thing.”

 

Rachel Smith is an intern at the HMB Museum of Music. She studied Music and Psychology at the College of William & Mary. Her research focus is music practices of the 17th and 18th centuries as they relate to women in the Western world, and she now studies bass viola da gamba with Leonore von Zadow in Heidelberg, Germany. 

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