Bigger is better, right? Granted, in some cases the sentiment rings true, but when it comes to music, I must say that size really doesn’t matter. My gutter-brain is showing much restraint as I type this—okay, moving on… Colin Holter’s thread-starter from yesterday really got me thinking about the duration issue. I understand the rapturous qualities of, say, a Mahler symphony or a late-Feldman work, but couldn’t the same feelings, emotions, or whatever we get out of our listening experiences be expressed within a shorter window of time. I love Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet just as much as the next guy, but I certainly wouldn’t be bummed out if 30 or 40 minutes were shaved off. Beyond the masterpiece syndrome, classical music has also bought into the silly notion that longer pieces are somehow more profound.
I’d agree that some works need an hour to get to where they’re going while managing to keep listeners involved, on the edge of their seats even, as the piece unravels over time—compositions by Maria de Alvear and Alvin Curran come immediately to mind. But in most cases, music tends to overstay its welcome. For example, Julius Eastman’s The Holy Presence of Joan D’Arc would be much improved if it ended around 11 minutes and 30 seconds in—as performed on the New World Records disc. The remaining 9 minutes just doesn’t do anything for me, however, the final chord sonority is nice. I’d do a little cut and paste job and call it a day.
Of course I’m guilty of duration envy, too. I recently got myself organized enough to submit a grant application which required a description of the work to be created. I figured another 10-minute piece wasn’t going to impress the jury panel, so I proposed a 25-minute opus, which of course will be a bitch to program these days. When it comes down to it, performers and presenters really want the 10 to 12-minute piece, and as a composer I’m more than happy to comply. If I feel the need to be longwinded, I’ll go down that road. But I don’t expect many people to take the journey with me.