Please, Sir, Can I Have Some More?

I heard a fantastic performance of one of my pieces the other night. Comments were generally positive, as (at least out of courtesy) they always are, but one listener voiced his opinion that the piece could have been longer, confirming a suspicion I’d had since I finished writing it almost a year ago.

That’s a tough criticism to answer, especially since almost everybody else I asked felt that the piece’s length wasn’t a problem. Is the piece really too long? How would I know whether it is or not? If it really is, what can I do to make sure it doesn’t happen again? Is it better to err on the side of “too short” or “too long” (I think I already know the answer to this one)? There was another piece on the program for the same instruments by a well-regarded young composer that was almost exactly the same duration—nobody said his was too short. What gives?

I think the bottom line is that there are psychological “computation cycles” of varying length that we must undertake to make sense of a piece which are independent of the piece’s internal proportions. Furthermore, based on last week’s experience, these cycles seem to fluctuate widely from listener to listener. In other words, a three-minute piece might work well as is, but stretching it out (with a phase vocoder, for instance, or by rewriting it around the same shape but with expanded surface details) to three times its normal length may not produce a successful nine-minute piece. And even if you think it does, the person sitting next to you might disagree. Is the solution to write music based on one’s own rate of dramatic metabolism, even if few others share it, or to analyze the literature, develop a hypothetical “normal” metabolism, and take that as one’s model?

In short, is it my job to write music that moves at your pace or mine? This depends, of course, on how accurately I can determine what “your pace” is–that I’d get it right is hardly a foregone conclusion. Brahms did something akin to this focus-grouping when he played piano reductions of his pieces for friends. Despite this precedent, however, I’d feel somewhat phony distributing questionnaires and counting standard deviations; for the time being, I’ll devote my efforts to zeroing in on my musical metabolism and writing music that better articulates it, chi-squares be damned.

7 thoughts on “Please, Sir, Can I Have Some More?

  1. DJA

    Of course, it’s not actually possible for the creator of a piece to put herself in the skin of someone hearing her music for the first time, but this is something everyone ought to try really, really, really hard to imagine. The vast majority of music I hear from young composers lacks patience, because the composer makes no effort to listen to the piece as if they didn’t already know what was coming next. They treat every moment like, “Yeah, I know this bit already, I spent weeks on this bit, let’s get on to the next bit already.”

    Whereas the audience is going, “Was that even a ‘bit’? Was that supposed to be an important arrival point or something? There’s no emphasis here — everything feels undifferentiated, inconsequential, tossed off.”

    Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that pieces should be longer — just that they should evolve at a pace that makes sense to someone listening in real time, for the first time.

    Reply
  2. stevetaylor

    Elliott Carter has written about musical pieces forming their own sense of pacing. Memorably (I’m paraphrasing) the last movement of Beethoven 5 ends with many repeated tonic chords, because while the harmonic scheme has finished, the time scheme is still not complete: the repeated chords act like a strobe light, freezing the final harmonic moment until the rhythmic scheme completes itself.

    But often, when I hear people say they wish a piece were longer, I think they’re only encouraging the composer to be self-indulgent – although DJA’s point on beginning composers is well taken.

    Reply
  3. pgblu

    the listener as composer?
    Write a three minute piece. Stick it in a phase vocoder, make it nine minutes long. See what happens. Have you done this? Or are you just guessing what the effect will be?

    Isn’t there a Peter Ablinger piece where he condenses the complete symphonies of Haydn into an extremely short period of time (perhaps with phase vocoder?) and then does the same with Beethoven’s “piddling” nine symphonies? I’m told the stylistic differences are clearly audible.

    Ablinger experts? Any help here?

    Reply
  4. EvanJohnson

    Isn’t there a Peter Ablinger piece where he condenses the complete symphonies of Haydn into an extremely short period of time (perhaps with phase vocoder?) and then does the same with Beethoven’s “piddling” nine symphonies?

    They’re not compressed, per se; he’s developed (well, had others develop) a set of computer programs to more or less literally turn a sound recording “on its side”, so that the “vertical” frequency dimension of the original becomes the time dimension and vice versa. That’s the basic idea behind the IEAOV (“Instrumentale- oder [und?] Elektroakustich Ortbezogene Verdichtung”, or “instrumental and/or electroacoustic site-specific thickening”) pieces; not sure if the Beethoven and Haydn things you mention are actually part of that series or not, and I’ve not heard them, but I have heard I imagine the same things you have regarding the audible differences. And if you consider, for example, the difference in frequency distribution and density in your average Beethoven symphony vs. your average Haydn symphony, it would be surprising if they didn’t sound quite different.

    And then of course there’s that 9 Beet Stretch thing, with the LVB 9th stretched out granularly over 24 hours at pitch level. People like it; haven’t heard it.

    Reply
  5. EvanJohnson

    The piece you mention is actually Weiss/Weisslich 22, as I discovered when I took two seconds to do some actual research as to what I was talking about:

    Take it away, Christian Scheib:


    “Weiss/Weisslich 22 was conceived and produced in an electronic studio as well. About six to eight hours of symphonic music by each of the chosen composers were recorded onto hard-disc: a
    selection of symphonies by Haydn and Mozart, as well as all symphonies of Beethoven, Bruckner, Schubert and Mahler. […]

    He and the technicians finally found a way of condensing the stored information in a way
    that made the linear time-line tip over into a vertical column of condensed information. They looped and folded the music’s horizontal time line into a vertical sound column exactly forty
    seconds wide. Instead of a few hours of Beethoven in a straight line, Ablinger turns it around on top of itself at 90 degrees
    into a 40 second sound column. And though it seems that one could call this compression, this word neither describes the idea behind it nor does it—as Ablinger and the technicians assured me— accurately describe what the software-program they designed actually does. Peter Ablinger has decided to use the term
    condensation. […]

    Of course the information—about 45 hours of symphonic music—in this density turns into noise. But noise is information now—and even in a rather precise way. What this means is that for those who know the symphonic tradition, it
    will be surprisingly unsurprising which composer’s noise sounds which way.”

    Reply

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