Tick-tock: the music of time

Sam Leith goes to Jaeger-LeCoultre to hear more about the chimes of our lives

Image: Roberta e Brambilla

“Tick-tock. Tick-tock.” In how many trashy thrillers has this been the villain’s taunt to the hero? Time is running down. Time is running out. The missile will launch. The bomb will go off. The heroine will be squashed in the unusually contrived timer‑operated heroine-squashing device. The sound of a clock is a shorthand for everything that the hero faces: a race against time. A tightly wound plot, so to speak.  

The relationship between sound and time is one woven deep in our culture. Andrew Marvell, in To His Coy Mistress, hears “time’s wingèd chariot”. Justice Shallow had heard “the chimes at midnight”. Anthony Powell writes of A Dance to the Music of Time. Nineteen Eighty-Four opens with the brilliantly unheimlich detail of the clocks “striking thirteen”. And TS Eliot, in The Waste Land, describes London commuters flowing “up the hill and down King WilliamStreet,/To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours/With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.”  

A Jaeger-LeCoultre music box, circa 1825
A Jaeger-LeCoultre music box, circa 1825

Time is, as scientists know, a very strange thing indeed. The theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, the author of The Order of Time, has argued that it doesn’t exist at all, at least not in the way we think of it: that it’s a curious by-product of the second law of thermodynamics that doesn’t really have a meaning at the quantum level. It is, in other words, to some extent a by-product of our perceptions. And that’s something we can work with. The history of how we apprehend time flows through biology, astronomy and culture. 

Our most basic sense of time is a biological one: the movement of the sun across the sky, dividing our world into days and nights. Then there’s the movement of the earth around the sun, the changing of the seasons. At this level we mark time the same way as did our ancestors who first learned to walk upright, and with our whole bodies. Is it dark or light? Is it cold or hot? And, for hunter-gatherers, early pastoralists or people who skipped breakfast: am I hungry? 

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But as civilisations started to take shape, we moved towards a sense of time that was less subjective and more communal. The earliest timekeeping devices were essentially visual – the hourglass, the sundial and the water-clock. But when you needed to persuade large numbers of people to do something at the same time, sound was what you used. In the military, reveille has always been a ceremonial wake-up call with a musical instrument. And the Bible tells us that the end of the world will be signalled with seven trumpets. 

Time, for most pre-modern people, was outstandingly an aural experience. The day was structured by sounds: the ringing of church bells or the call to prayer. The church bell was an omnipresent part of the soundscape of everyday life. Paul Strohm’s fine short book about Chaucer, The Poet’s Tale, mentions that the poet had three churches within a couple of hundred feet of his front door – a non-trivial detail. In a monastery the bong-bonging would be even worse: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline. 

Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in High Noon, 1952
Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in High Noon, 1952 | Image: Alamy

“It is thought that the earliest clocks were there to ring a bell only, with no use for a dial,” says Anna Rolls, curator of the Clockmakers’ Collection and Archive. “Initially the bell was the main component, rung by a man, and the mechanical aspect was in the form of an alarm to remind the bell ringer to do his job. At some point this was then automated so that the clock could do the job of the man. The word clock derives from the Latin for bell: clocca.”

By the industrial age – when the working day was divided according to clock-time; when time really was money – the place of those bells was supplanted or augmented by the factory whistle and the school bell. Then – with the spread of mechanical timepieces into private homes – the function of those church bells was taken over by the long-case clock in the hall, and eventually by the ticking watch on our wrist.  

Jaeger-LeCoultre steel Master Control Memovox, £10,300
Jaeger-LeCoultre steel Master Control Memovox, £10,300

At the atelier of Jaeger-LeCoultre, which has been making watches since 1833 in the Vallée de Joux, sound has always been central. Jaeger-LeCoultre was in the sound business before it was in the time business. In its archive – filled with century-old precision machinery, watches mounted in display cases and shelves of historic designs and concept drawings – one glass case contains a tiny music box, of the sort where a little nubbed metal cylinder rotates and plays a tune as it lifts the teeth of a comb of fine steel tines. The precision engineering that the company’s founder, Antoine LeCoultre, perfected to create the tiny pins for objects like this one was the foundation of a two-century watchmaking tradition.

To this day, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s watches are especially revered among collectors for their sound effects. Its “Hybris Mechanica à Grande Sonnerie” costs $2.5m and keeps less good time than your iPhone – but is immeasurably more fascinating. Its tourbillon – a tiny gyroscope that’s supposed to correct the effects of gravity on the mechanism – may or may not do the trick accuracy-wise (enthusiasts debate the matter), but it’s the watchmaking equivalent of a Simone Biles. And it was the first wristwatch to be able to play the Westminster chimes melody in its entirety.

Burt Lancaster in The Train, 1964
Burt Lancaster in The Train, 1964 | Image: Getty Images

Jaeger-LeCoultre manufactured one of the world’s first wristwatches with an alarm, the Memovox, in 1951 (it was beaten to it by Vulcain’s “Cricket” a couple of years before). But the pinnacle of sonic virtuosity in the “grande complication” watches they make is the so-called “minute repeater”. When you move a slider or press a button on a minute repeater, the clockwork within will activate tiny hammers to strike tiny gongs: first for the hours, then quarter-hours, then minutes. Totally pointless, but – as a watch-fancying friend of mine has put it – “totally wonderful”. The market for minute repeaters is estimated to be no more than 100 or so watches a year worldwide. There’s incredible precision involved. 

In 2004 Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced a complete redesign of the little hammers that actually strike the gongs, in the form of the “trebuchet hammer” – which is hinged like a catapult, allowing it to strike the gong harder and retreat further (meaning there’s less risk of dampening or buzz). They hit on the so-called “crystal gong”, in which the gongs are soldered to the crystal sapphire of the watch casing and use it to amplify the sound, much as some flat-screen TVs now use their screens as speakers. And, in its 950 movement, the watchmaker also introduced the “helical gong” – which winds around the mechanism in three dimensions to give a clearer and more resonant sound.  

Jaeger-LeCoultre rose-gold Master Grande Tradition Grande Complication, POA
Jaeger-LeCoultre rose-gold Master Grande Tradition Grande Complication, POA

These tiny things look like little hoop earrings. But some earrings. It takes a machine in a cabinet resembling a space capsule five hours and 30 minutes to machine a helical gong from a block of the special alloy that the manufacturer sources from a Swiss foundry, and that’s before hours of polishing and tuning and correction for sound. “You end up talking like a musician,” Jaeger-LeCoultre’s CEO Catherine Rénier tells me later, “about the precision of the decibels, the sonnerie and the chime. It’s not just the tick-tock: it’s all these aspects of the sound experience.” The company’s new collection, accordingly, is themed “The Soundmaker” – the original working title was “The Art of Sound”. 

Indeed, as with works of art, all the ticks and tocks and chimes and buzzes that punctuate our daily routines acquire a deep emotional resonance. In recent weeks, we have, just below the level of conscious perception, been adjusting to a new soundscape: the ever louder dawn chorus, the centre-of-town church bells further off. Those of us home-schooling our children have become accustomed to a new miscellany of noises: the buzz and burr and tinkle of the timers on iPads and Kindles, signalling that the times tables test is over, that it’s time for guided reading – that it is, in the otherwise structureless day, “break time”. Arguably, no one has explored that emotional resonance in quite as much painstaking detail as the artist Christian Marclay, whose 24-hour piece The Clock collages together a reel of scenes from films which is shown in real time. Reviewing it, Zadie Smith wrote, “Cuckoo clocks, no matter when they chime, are almost always ominous. When Orson Welles says what time it is, it lends the hour an epic sound. At 2am everyone’s lonely.” Marclay himself says: “I see the sound as the glue that holds all these fragments together. It allows you to get a better sense of continuity between these unrelated fragments, so you can have an underlying soundtrack that will carry on beyond the visual edit.” 

Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future, 1985
Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future, 1985 | Image: Alamy

He adds, though, that his piece exists on a historical cusp. Time, he argues, is getting quieter: “In a strange way it’s more visual now: that’s what changed. We used to hear the clock ticking but we don’t any more because it’s not a mechanical clock. There’s something very nostalgic about hearing an old grandfather clock ticking. In a way these sounds are disappearing. We have to get used to that new perception of time.”

For just that reason, timepieces that do make a sound feel like a special luxury, a connection to the past, an acte gratuit. Back in the Vallée de Joux, demonstrating the action of one of the atelier’s finished minute repeaters, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s director of heritage and rare pieces Stéphane Belmont gently triggers the mechanism. “Ding... ding… ding... ding... dingding... dingding... dingding... ding ding ding ding ding...” 

Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton, 1932
Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton, 1932 | Image: MPTV Images/Eyevine

It sounds good. It sounds like time. 

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