Drowning By Numbers
I must confess that my listening proclivities are driven by a quixotic desire for completeness perhaps even more than by my insatiable desire for new experiences. Quixotic, because I know deep down that completeness is not only impossible, but also that it’s not desirable—if I actually was able to listen to everything, then there would be nothing new left to hear. It would be the end of music, certainly the end of new music. But that’s a rationalization, and most human drives operate on levels that transcend reason.
There are few things that gnaw at me more than partial experiences of something. I want to experience it all. So I am still extremely frustrated that I only got to sit through three hours of Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which means I only saw one eighth of the footage, even though I know the work is not meant to be experienced for a full 24 hours and even were I to sit through it all, it is a continuous loop with no intended beginning or ending point. I actually tried to see more of it right before the end of its Lincoln Center Festival run. But on the afternoon I showed up, the line was around the block. I was told that it would be at least 2 1/2 hours before I could get in (which is almost as long as the time I had spent experiencing The Clock). It’s hard to believe: some New Yorkers are actually willing to wait that long; this one isn’t.
On a somewhat more mundane level, it is perhaps even more frustrating for me to listen to a piece of music whose title declares it to be part of a sequence of works and then not be able to hear the rest of the works in the sequence. For example, when I encounter, say, someone’s third symphony, my immediate reaction after hearing it (and sometimes even before hearing it), is to seek out that composer’s first and second symphonies, etc. It gets to be quite a listening project with very prolific composers like Joseph Haydn, who wrote 104 numbered symphonies. (Actually a total of either 106 or 107 Haydn symphonies survive, depending on whether or not one considers his Sinfonia Concertante to be a bona fide symphony.) There have now been several complete recorded cycles of Haydn’s symphonies, so hearing the whole lot is a possible–albeit extremely time-consuming—listening project. (I’ve done it.) However, there have yet to be recorded cycles of the complete symphonies of some of our own most prolific contributors to the genre: Roy Harris (13), Gloria Coates (15), Henry Cowell (21), or Alan Hovhaness (67!). Worse still, though William Schuman composed a total of ten symphonies, he withdrew the first two. There is an archival recording of a radio broadcast of Schuman’s Second Symphony with extremely poor audio fidelity lurking in a private collection, which I’ve actually heard, but I probably will never get to hear his First Symphony.
Despite my interest being immediately piqued by this numbers game, I do find it somewhat puzzling that a composer would want to title a composition in a way that immediately refers back to earlier compositions, especially a work the composer has disavowed. With the exception of a Second Piano Concerto written as a teen (it and its predecessor are now pieces I don’t think very much of) and a Piano Sonata No. 2 (even though I never completely finalized my Piano Sonata No. 1), I have never titled works this way and I doubt I ever will in the future. Employing such a titling scheme doesn’t allow a work to be heard on its own terms. It also implies a kind of evolution: a composer’s seventh string quartet should somehow be better than his or her sixth. I’ve long eschewed such evaluative notions, yet it still irks me to hear a work so numbered by someone else before hearing its predecessors. Again, I’m fully aware that this is not completely sane on my part.
Perhaps titling works this way is a form of promotion. If someone likes your No. 5, there will probably be four other works they will like as well. The folks in the publishing and record business have certainly capitalized on such a mindset when they’ve issued multiple volumes over time. In fact, legend has it that some record labels in the 1950s issued their “volume two” of a product before issuing “volume one,” thus insuring sales for the first volume upon its eventual release. After all, how many fans are capable of possessing volume two of something without also acquiring the first volume?