Subdivided We Stand

Considering Kyle Gann’s recent run-in with the law—the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, to be exact—for playing multi-movement works on his Postclassic Radio on Live 365, I’m beginning to wonder why composers created movements in the first place. Okay, back in the Middle Ages dance suites may have been all the rage, but now they’re just iTune anomalies demanding to be reckoned with one way or another. Eh, why bother? Besides, I’m relatively satisfied hearing just one movement from a Beethoven piano sonata. The experience doesn’t leave me with any feelings of incompleteness, and really, it’s not supposed to.

Fast-forward a couple hundred years, and we find composers are still writing multi-movement works. In addition, it seems both composers and listeners alike have evolved into hardliner completists, with zealous record collectors leading the charge of this, er, movement to experience everything in its absolute entirety. To my own detriment, I’ve never been one to toe the line. So here it is, confession time: I’ve never written a multi-movement work. Honestly, I really don’t understand the need.

I’m not against saying the same thing a few different ways in immediate succession, or discovering connections between juxtaposed materials, or whatever the function of different movements within the same piece of music might be. I just find it puzzling. Even more perplexing are those pieces out there with several movements marked attacca. So let me get this straight, there’s no interruption in the music, but an entirely new movement is necessary because… ?

Okay, I understand the need for high concept and design in new music, or whatever it’s called, but aren’t we being a little too fussy about certain things? Before you start that next movement, just take a tiny second to think about how complicated it’s going to be to catalog in your potential listener’s iPod. And there you have it, a thought that never even crossed Beethoven’s mind.

9 thoughts on “Subdivided We Stand

  1. Frank J. Oteri

    Divide and Conquer
    Exactly six months ago to the day (July 16, 2005), there was a thread by Lawrence Dillon over at Sequenza21 about the pros and cons of writing multi-movement works that led to a fascinating discussion. While the back-and-forth over there mostly centered around artistic concerns, Randy’s enumeration of the practical pitfalls of having multi-movements in the age of digital shuffle might cause even greater concern to a would be multi-movementer. However, for better or worse, I still prefer to present my own music in a multi-movement format. I think it allows for a multiplicity of perspectives in a single work in ways that most single movement works rarely do. But then again, I still listen to vinyl!

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  2. lawrence

    Some people might think I went into music because I can’t count very well, but I believe that makes five months.

    But that’s okay, I feel a lot older than I did then anyway.

    I love writing beginnings and endings. One of the advantages of writing multi-movement works is that I get to write more than one of each per piece.

    But Randy is right that overuse of attacca can make the whole thing pretty pointless.

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  3. alexshap

    Cheap at three times the price
    As a repeat offender in the persistence of multi-movement pieces, all I can say in my humble defense is that hey, the commissioner and the audience are getting several pieces for the price of one! Such a bargain!

    Reply
  4. James

    I’ve been listening pretty heavily to the Shostakovich C minor quartet Op.110 this week.

    I mostly listen to it for the second movement which rocks (especially when pounding beers and getting revved up for a night). Anyway, it’s attacca style.

    The material is so organically related throughout that the more I listen to the whole work and not just the second movement the more I gain in listening to the second movement. It’s effect expands as the relationships are revealed. The second movement can stand on it’s own in a way, in another way it cannot. Alone it is surface with intrinsic depth, in context it is surface with intrinsic depth within a larger structure of intrinsic depth. And ’round and ’round or down and down we go on Shosty’s wild ride.

    If attacca, why movements? Because the movements, even though motivically tight and related and continuous, are in mood far different from one another, and will “move” us differently. If it is as such, it makes sense to label it as such.

    To me it’s pretty straightforward: it just makes sense. It is a unified work which explores related motivic material throughout in five distinct moods. That’s what it was, that’s how he labelled it.

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  5. CM Zimmermann

    Nordschow wrote: ‘Besides, I’m relatively satisfied hearing just one movement from a Beethoven piano sonata. The experience doesn’t leave me with any feelings of incompleteness, and really, it’s not supposed to.’

    When reading a 19th century novel, are you also satisfied with reading chapters selectively?

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  6. danielgilliam

    I have explained to my music appreciation students that movements are like chapters in a book. There are some books that allow you to jump back and forth between chapters. There are some for which I have only read one chapter. And, of course, the typical novel that requires a careful page-by-page reading.

    All three styles are acceptable. In my case, movements permit me to listen to a work at my own pace. As a working-class Dad, I don’t have time to indulge in a 45 minute, non-stop tone poem. I can, however, concentrate on a 5-7 minute (sometimes 10!) movement and visit the rest later.

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  7. CM Zimmermann

    Of course, there are many important differences between a 19th century novel being a narrative art form and a Beethoven piano sonata. Irrespective of these differences, why would you be satisfied with only listening to one movement of a sonata and not be satisfied with skipping chapters of a novel?

    My point is that the sonata form and Beethoven’s exploration and expansion of this form were meant as artistic wholes. Reading every other chapter of a novel would not make sense. Similarly, listening to one movement, perhaps better than not listening at all, would not make sense either.

    One has a certain responsibility to an artist’s vision and to experiencing the work that results from that vision. I would assume that if you were to write a work of music, with or without movements, you would want your audience to listen to the entire work and not just the first three minutes.

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  8. David Preiser

    Beethoven would most certainly have been used to having movements of his symphonies split up, as would most of his contemporaries. Concert programs in his day would have featured several other works interspersed throughout the evening, such as an overture, a few arias, or another work entirely. (Sure, in that context, the delay between movements would have been half an hour or so, when on “shuffle”, the next movement might not come up for days.) But Beethoven would be familiar with the concept of having his large-scale works broken up. He dealt with it like anybody else, and didn’t feel the need to write everything attaca from then on, or write only one-movement orchestral works.

    If you want to tailor your music structure to the medium in which it is presented, that’s perfectly reasonable. However, IPods are not even the first medium to radically alter the way in which the audience could consume large form works.

    Frank Oteri mentions it: vinyl. When the 78 became the main way many people listened to a Beethoven Symphony, a similar thing happened. Longer works – movements, even – could no longer be listened to in one go; the format could not provide enough room on one side to contain it. Toscanini would speed up his tempos a bit in order to fit a movement on one side. Fürtwangler was known to omit the repeat of the exposition in the first movement of Beethoven’s 1st and/or 2nd, a much more serious structural alteration of the work.

    So, when a composer for whom this newfangled medium was contemporary, like Elgar, was set to record his new Cello Concerto or Violin Concerto, did he freak out and completely rethink his approach to composition before going into the studio? No.
    Now, it’s easy to say that the 78 was not the main medium in which people consumed music. However, it rapidly did become the main way in which many people were exposed to artists or music in the first place. So it would have been quite logical for someone back then to rethink their approach to composition based on the limitations of the medium. But at what cost?

    Of course, that’s basically what we’re talking about here. If you want to rethink your approach to accomodate the “shuffle”, that’s a perfectly reasonable approach. But it should be done with the acknowledgement that you’re catering to the limitations of a particular medium. I would submit that not all music should be subject to those limitations.

    Reply

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