Infinity, Part 2

Last week in this space, I professed my love for endings that don’t end—those closing moments that imply continuation into infinity and that transcend the boundaries of the performance space. In the spirit of such endings, this week, I’m continuing the discussion of this phenomenon, looking into different aspects of this beautiful artistic conceit.

Audiences like to know when a piece is over. One of the reasons for attending a concert is to enjoy being part of a group. Each individual’s experience is heightened by the camaraderie felt when all of the concertgoers spontaneously erupt en masse. Performers learn to control the timing of this, with an important aspect of their mastery being the ability to consistently evoke a response from their listeners such that each audience member feels genuinely as if their reaction is unique to them while simultaneously being part of a unified whole. One of the common frustrations expressed by attendees at concerts with electronics-only works is the difficulty in discerning when the piece is over, a situation that can lead to minutes of uncomfortable silence before tentative recognition of a long-finished piece (or, even more awkwardly, applause during an extended pause in the middle of a piece, interrupted by the continuation of the music).

Why would a composer seek to disrupt this symbiotic audience/musician relationship by confusing the audience, by making it difficult to discern the exact dividing line between the musical composition and the surrounding space? In the orchestral realm, the frame around each piece is highly structured—arcane and inviolate. The players arrive in an ad hoc fashion before the listed starting time of the concert and hang around onstage until the arrival of the concertmaster, whose entry is attended by the audience’s applause. The conductor is only allowed to appear after the ensemble has tuned, and must wait for absolute silence before launching into a piece. After the final bar, the conductor walks offstage and returns to applause three times before the Herculean task of re-setting the stage for the next piece may commence. Woe betide the poor uninitiated audience members who happen to clap between movements instead of at the end of the piece, for they will feel the collective scorn and ridicule of the illuminati. The organizations and their supporters have invested great energy in creating this frame; for them, the ritual of the concert is a significant part of their reasons for enjoying the musical experience. (For outsiders, of course, it’s a reason to avoid these concerts entirely, and many ensembles are creating new performance paradigms.) Any attempt to push the musical argument beyond this traditional frame would inherently create discomfort and induce a backlash; and yet, for well over a century composers have continued to compose works that create the illusion of extending into infinity.

Another difficulty arises when composing music in an idiom without standard cadential formulae. In a tonal context, ending on a tendency tone (like the second (re) or seventh (ti) degrees of a scale) forces the listener to mentally envision the missing note that should have completed the statement. This sort of active processing on the part of the person hearing the work can create the illusion of musical continuation that never actually emanates from an instrument. In order to create similar illusions, more recent composers have asked players to mime performing gestures without actually creating sound, or required additional resources to electronically augment the instruments themselves, or moved the musicians away from the most resonant acoustical spaces, among many other solutions. These pieces can remain within the typical concert frame through simple gestures on the part of the performers, who generally freeze in the position created by the final musical phrase, holding the tension and then releasing while letting their arms drop in order to signal the completion of the piece itself.

Another possibility also exists: that of entirely destroying the frame itself, of creating music that literally continues beyond the boundary of the concert experience. The 639 year long performance of John Cage’s ORGAN2/ASLSP As Slow aS Possible presents the clearest example of music that extends beyond the concert, for even a person whose entire life was dedicated from birth to death to no other task than listening to this performance could not possibly hope to hear more than a mere fraction of the entire whole. But even this longest continuous concert will someday end, leaving the infinite as an unattainable ideal.

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