If You’ve Got The Time

It happened again. I was recently at a concert of—for lack of a more appropriate term—contemporary classical music, and the set up time for the piece took longer than the actual piece. The piece was very intriguing, but the wait certainly wasn’t.

It reminded me of a friend who had invited me to dinner at around 8 p.m. but didn’t serve the entrĂ©e until nearly midnight. The meal was fabulous but by the time it was ready, hunger had been replaced by exhaustion. This is similar to how I felt the one time I visited the quaint Tibetan Museum in Staten Island more than a decade ago. It was a really great place, but it took me two and a half hours to get to it and only about half an hour to see everything there was to see. I haven’t been back.

Maybe it’s just New York impatience but it seems to me in all of these cases that the ratio of preparation time to experiential time was somehow out of whack. Is it really worthy taking so much time to get to do something when it takes so little time to actually do it?

Yes, I know that there are many worthwhile things in life which require a great deal of preparation, often for scant temporal gratification: e.g. the building of ice sculptures; eating a pomegranate. And certainly the composition of a piece of music often takes much longer than the piece itself does. I spent several years working on a solo guitar piece that lasts only about two minutes. But at the same time, I would never have subjected an audience to watching my compositional process.

When you’re keeping folks at bay in anticipation of something, like music or a meal, it might not be a bad idea to never lose track of the preparation time/experiential time ratio, even if it means that the end result might be somehow less ideal than what you had hoped for. I’m sure that for every additional minute someone is kept uncomfortably waiting for something, there’s an automatic dissatisfaction factor that grows exponentially higher and clouds the waiting party’s ability to discern the worthiness of what is being waited for anyway. Perhaps the wait should never be longer than the experience, or maybe half its length: e.g. a ten minute piece of music should have a maximum set of time of five minutes; or if eating a meal takes approximately half an hour, you should ask your guests to arrive no more than fifteen minutes before it’s ready; or if it takes you an hour to get somewhere you should spent at least two hours there, etc.

Then again, last fall I took a bus from New York to Boston to hear a BMOP concert and came back the same night. The concert was so good that I’d do it again in a heartbeat. But I still won’t buy fresh pomegranates.

4 thoughts on “If You’ve Got The Time

  1. rtanaka

    A well planned concert will usually put pieces with large setup-times at the beginning or after intermission to minimize the amount of wait. I believe that if the concert hall environment asks for the audience’s focused attention, then the performers have an obligation to keep the production going as smoothly as possible.

    Though using your food analogy, if you’re at a restaurant, there is always wait time — it’s not necessarily a bad thing, because most people spend that time socializing with whomever their with. If people were allowed to eat, drink, and talk duing the setup process there wouldn’t be much of a problem. But to sit there and have to wait in uncomfortable silence might take a toll on the audience’s patience. Personally I prefer a more relaxed atmosphere where people have a little more freedom to do what they want around the music — if the music is good, they’ll shift their attention willingly anyway.

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  2. Colin Holter

    I think Tanaka makes a good point. To make an audience sit in the dark while you move shit around on stage is a privilege, not a right, and consideration for the value of your listeners’ time should always be at the top of a presenter’s priorities. At the same time, though, I’m willing to indulge the performers in a lot of setup time if the music represents a commensurate payoff.

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  3. ScottG

    I think the obvious question to ask here is: why do so many people enjoy eating pomegranates and watching ice scupltures be made… and pretty much nobody enjoys watching concert folks set up for a performance? I also think there’s an obvious answer. It’s truly fascinating to observe an ice sculptor slowly whittle away all the non-essential bits of ice to reveal a form beneath, using simple tools and an intense focus. It’s also fun to explore the anatomy of a pomegranate, revealing new fruit with each little tear and rip, feeling the satisfying thud of each seed as it falls from the husk, and experiencing the danger of getting squirted with color-saturated red juices.

    But watching people set up? Bleh. I work very often in the theatre, and theatre folks are always thinking about how to integrate set changes into the concept of the show, how to involve the audience in the fun of it. Sometimes it’s a matter of making them invisible, so they happen while other stuff is going on. Not so feasible in the concert hall, perhaps. Sometimes it’s a matter of making it all obvious, a ballet of black-clad stagehands perfectly executing some serious choreography. Definitely an option for concerts. Or in the Met broadcasts on HD in the movie theatres, you get to watch the sets change while a charming commentator walks you through as it happens, interviewing people while it goes on. Possible!

    In any case, I think it’s important to note the difference. Nobody wants to watch set-up because set-up is boring. So either we need to find ways to make the piece work without so much set-up (always a great option), find a way to do the set-up during breaks (amen, Ryan), or find a way to make it interesting. Maybe if the piece needs very long set-up, it should also have some way of making the set-up a performance rather than drudgery. Easier said than done, but still worth saying and pondering, I think.

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  4. rtanaka

    During my highschool years I used to work at a Japanese teppanyaki restaurant where the chefs cooked the meal right in front of you. The restraurant was a big hit especially among tourists mostly because the chefs were trained in showmanship — they would do things like make volcanos out of onions, do flips with their knives and forks, and crack a few jokes here and there for the patrons.

    It’s possible to make the process interesting…but it does need to be spiced up a bit, I think. Sometimes I see performances where the set changes are filled-in with improvised music, sometimes using themes or ideas from the programmed pieces. That can sometimes work.

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