That Eight-Minute Threshold
When attending performances of my own music, I love to sit where I can see a good chunk of the audience. The final test of the pacing of a piece might be observing the audience’s attention throughout its performance. Do they shift in their seats at a certain point? Are they entranced from beginning to end? Is this really a measure of anything anyway? Even if the music flows ineluctably from measure to measure, from phrase to phrase, and from section to section, is there ever a moment of “too much”?
For me, the “too much” hurdle seems to arrive at about 8 minutes. And the five pieces workshopped at Essentially Choral this weekend were about this length, 8-10 minutes long. Being vocal music, these pieces had both the benefit and the burden of a text weaving through those minutes. Most of us chose longish texts which provided both an automatic narrative, and the danger of overwhelming the listener with too much to digest.
In rehearsal, director Philip Brunelle suggested that in vocal music, there are three basic types of texts to set:
1) Ones which are repetitive and declamatory (“Kyrie Eleison…”)
Of course there is some crossover between the categories, too. (Settings of the Credo straddle poetry and prose; opera libretti have a bit of both, etc.) Setting long stretches of prose, though, deserves special attention, and to this end Brunelle suggests offering variety of vocal textures. In my piece, ubiquitous four-part writing was like a candy diet. In my tutorial session with Brunelle and Daniel Godfrey, we pruned the texture, created solos, duets, etc., and led the piece comfortably to that 8-minute threshold without information overload.
Okay, 8 minutes is sort of an arbitrary number, but it’s the right number for this particular piece. In any case, when there’s a lot of text, there should be some sort of respite. Otherwise the audience will shift in their seats, waiting for it.
In the end, Essentially Choral was a true workshop experience, for me—I came in with one piece, and returned with an even stronger one. VocalEssence and the American Composers Forum were very generous to the composers of this program—both musically and as hosts in the Twin Cities. Productive rehearsals, mentoring sessions, the recording session, a Minnesota Orchestra concert and a few lunches and dinners thrown in added up to a meaningful experience for the five of us.