The Bigger They Come the Harder They Fall

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.

6 thoughts on “The Bigger They Come the Harder They Fall

  1. david toub

    Some thoughts:

    Re: Piano and String Quartet—each to his or her own, but I don’t think a single note could (or should) be shaved off that piece. I wish it were longer–like everything Feldman wrote in his last decade (other than perhaps Principal Sound, which is ok but doesn’t do it for me), it’s almost too beautiful, as Cage would (and did) say.

    Same with the Eastman. I can’t tell you how much I love and admire that work in particular, and lament that there is no score and aside from the recording, that’s essentially the end of it unless someone can actually transcribe it by ear. It might not work for you, and that’s fair. Somehow, it really grabs me.

    I agree that performers tend to like shorter works. Yes, that will certainly increase the probability of performance, although of course nothing is guaranteed. But so what? I’ve written short works, and also some very long works over two hours in length. While none of the long works have been publicly performed, not all of the short ones have, either. Admittedly, the stuff of mine that gets performed tends to be shorter, but that shouldn’t stop me from writing something long if I feel like it, right?

    There are many reasons why I and others write some works that are lengthy. It’s all about scale at that point. The Well-Tuned Piano wouldn’t work as a 30-minute piece, and certainly not as a ten-minute ditty. Same with Feldman’s SQ #2, Messiaen’s Vingt Regards, Terry Riley’s all-night improvisations from the 60’s, etc. And Webern wouldn’t work if his stuff were expanded to Wagnerian proportions. But just as one shouldn’t dismiss Webern’s ouevre because his works are brief (some as brief as hell), one shouldn’t dismiss music because it’s long. Dismiss it only if it’s crap or boring.

    That said, long works aren’t at all necessarily more “profound” than short works. Again, I think Webern’s stuff is profound, some amazingly so. Same with Schoenberg’s op. 16 or Berg’s op. 5. The problem is with the general musical perception of time. Listeners, all of us included, somehow got stuck on this 10-20 minute piece length, so that anything above 30 minutes seems long, and is taken as more profound. The 20-minute thing is a convenience, and in some cases of later 20th-century music, might have been that way so that it could fit on one side of a LP. We don’t have these limitations anymore. My piece for philip glass, as an example, might not fit on one CD uncompressed, but it can fit nicely on an audio DVD. And with the greater acceptance of MP3 and AAC formats, all my music to date can fit on a single CD. So I think it shouldn’t matter whether something is long or short. Indeed, what constitutes “long” or “short” anyway? Isn’t it all relative and subjective?

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  2. Colin Holter

    Part of why I wrote that thing is that I recently watched a DVD of La Monte Young playing his Well-Tuned Piano, a piece that lasts six and a half hours in that incarnation. That’s one that I’m not sure could be effectively conveyed in less than five or six hours–and it doesn’t have much to do with the substance of those hours, but rather with the “macro-time” (a term borrowed, if I remember correctly, from Wim Mertens) that Young achieves in the piece: It’s difficult to articulate, but the experience of hearing WTP is vastly different from most pieces because of its scale, which effects a qualitative (rather than quantitative–i.e., it’s just longer) change. It was just OK until the last hour and a half, when it became incredible–how many pieces can you say that about?

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  3. rtanaka

    Mel Powell said that if you can’t say what you need to say in 45 seconds or less, you’re fucked. I’m all into efficiency here…so I tend to think that something too short is always better than something too long. Maybe something to try is to gut out massive sections of a work in progress, let it sit for a while, and see if you “miss it” when you come back to it. Most of the time less is more, in my opinion.

    As mentioned before, pieces of long durations, which are often reliant on the idea of autonomy, have moved into the realm of art installation works, where the audience/user has the option of deciding how long they want to commit to it. (Video games could be included in this category as well, to some degree.) I think this works much better because it’s a lot less oppressive than taking advantage of concert etiquette to force people to sit around more than they’d like to.

    I’ve done improvised shows where I was playing an hour continuously, but it was in the middle of the hall where people could come and go as they please. I think a lot of Post-Cageian stuff has moved towards similar directions, at least in the stuff I’ve seen in the LA area as of the late.

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  4. marilyn

    long and short of it
    I love Mel Powell’s music, but, for composer quotes, I am more sympathetic to Tristan Murail, who writes: “Asking people to listen to a piece of music takes some of their time, some of their life: the composer is stealing a little bit from the life of each listener.” As a player, I ask listeners to give up parts of their lives to listen to the works I’ve programmed. It’s a big ask. With performers, as with composers, this invitation comes with the responsibility to try and fill that time in a meaningful way. In my mind, if the audience members feel rewarded and enriched, for having forfeited parts of their lives to a musical work, that gratification is the point, not the issue of long and short. To me, it is not so much the relative duration that matters but what the space of the work holds for the listener.

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  5. rtanaka

    Yeah I agree. I just like the Powell quote because it gets straight to the point. Composed works have the advantage of being edited, so there’s really no reason why every moment shouldn’t be meaningful on some level. Ruthless editing can do wonders to a work that might otherwise be too long or too self-indulged.

    Sometimes ideas really do need longer development, but I think it should be done very carefully — it’s dangerous to assume that everything we right is valuable. Everybody writes uninteresting things once in a while, but I don’t think that the audience really needs to hear that sort of thing.

    Music is an incredible luxury. I know lots of people who’re too busy or too poor to even consider taking music lessons or learn about art, etc. so I’m always aware of the fact of how lucky I am in being able to do these kinds of things. No working adult in the States really has the time to sit around for 7 hours and listen to one idea, so it’s probably why those works never got much attention beyond what’s in the history books. If static soundscapes is really want they want here, then I think it’s best to take it all the way and make actual objects in themselves. The progression into art installations seem pretty natural, at least to me.

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