“Serialized” Composition

The past decade has seen the rise of what might be dubbed a new genre of intelligently written, well-produced television shows that have more in common with cinema than they do with typical television fare. Shows including Six Feet Under, The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men opt for sweeping dramatic arcs rather than the largely self-contained, episodic style that served shows like Seinfeld and its many, many imitators.

While this trend has done much to unmoor televised drama from its conventions, television’s newfound embrace of cinematic values continues to butt up against the limits of the weekly episode format. Unlike film, the extended storyline of shows like The Wire must be segmented into 42-minute episodes; but unlike the soap operas and serialized radio shows of yesteryear, the new “cinematic” shows rarely cadence on a cliffhanger. Often, a considerable amount of time passes between (and within) episodes of this emerging “cinematic” genre, creating an experience in which we “check in” with diverse plot threads and characters. Viewers just tuning in to a random episode might find themselves a good deal more disoriented than after tuning in to a random episode of Seinfeld, each of which is relatively autonomous.

While doing away with self-contained episodes might present a minor barrier to new viewers, it’s also a feature that allows for a much greater element of immersion and sustained interest in a series—a higher initial investment rewarded by a correspondingly richer payoff in terms of depth, subtlety, and variety. By prioritizing the cohesion of the entire storyline above the internal structure of individual episodes, shows like Mad Men allow us to come to know characters bit by bit, as their actions reverberate across a broad canvas and affect others far down the line. And the ability to present us with snapshots of characters at many different times can give a much better sense of what that person is actually like; with only a few hours to spare, films allow only a tiny window of insight into a short time period, often a moment of crisis which may or may not be indicative of everyday goings-on. The big draw of the television series format is its ability to develop characters over time, with many different moments coming together to create a composite portrait with a richness that most film directors can only dream of establishing in two or three hours.

All of this has got me thinking about music, and especially the classical world’s cherished notion that works of art are a creation of a particular time and place. What would it be like to embark on a composition that is released in serialized movements, with the intention of building a structure that might last several hours and take years, if not decades to complete? And with memorable, recurring musical ideas capable of sustaining recognition (and interest) between installments?

While the difficulty of securing performances—not to mention funding—of such an ambitious, massive work might be a deterrent, there is no reason that various installments in the composition could not be written for a variety of ensembles and venues, as many composers have already done with “cycles” of pieces (an idea very close the that of separate “episodes”). It might be a huge gamble for a composer to put so many creative eggs in one basket, yet the resulting collection of musical episodes would likely have a brighter performance future than a short chamber opera—and the ability of the piece’s “storyline” to pivot and move in new directions likewise allows for a great deal of freedom.

I’ve often been discouraged by the fact that opportunities for composing truly extended works are comparatively few, so I’m curious to explore a serialized approach to composing that might make such an undertaking more manageable. The idea that a composition might reveal itself in “deep time”—deeper even than works like Morton Feldman’s six-hour second quartet, which tests the limits of what one can absorb in a single sitting—is one that intrigues me, most of all as it would be an expression of several versions of myself, instead of the version that exists here in this city, this month.

Inserting intermissions in concerts of very long works is often seen as breaking the spell and therefore inimical to the composer’s intention. But in an episodic format, the space between each installment becomes a needed palette-cleanser, a space for rumination and perhaps speculation as well. How interesting and exciting it would be to repeatedly court the ears of a listener with a sustained musical structure that seems to be “always there,” just as we sometimes assume our favorite television characters to be!

10 thoughts on ““Serialized” Composition

  1. Jeremy Howard Beck

    It’s so funny how multiple people will have the same idea, at the same time, completely independently of each other. I had the idea to write a serialized chamber opera that would unfold over the length of a concert season (September through June) in 4-6 parts. The practical drawbacks (funding!!!) are legion, but it’s definitely something I’m interested in doing.

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  2. Robert Dahm

    It’s probably worth mentioning that there are a number of composers who have been working in this way since the late seventies, initially including evening-filling cycles of works released separately (Pli selon pli, Les espaces acoustiques, Carceri d’invenzione) and evolving into ‘cycles’ in which the pieces interpenetrate, comment on and develop one another into a single span – what Wieland Hoban refers to as a ‘poly-work’. Richard Barrett’s ‘Opening of the Mouth’, ‘DARK MATTER’ and the forthcoming ‘CONSTRUCTION’ all fall into this category, as do a number of works of Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, and even Ferneyhough’s opera ‘Shadowtime’, the majority of scenes from which can be performed separately.

    At least one practical advantage is that of being able to find commissions and performances for component parts separately, without the massive resources necessary to produce the finished work. Furthermore, this way of working potentially opens up certain aesthetic avenues that the single work does not.

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    1. Robert Dahm

      Sorry – jumping the gun without properly understanding what you were saying…
      If what you’re suggesting is the composition of a series of works never designed to be placed together in the same evening, I think this opens up a world of problems. For instance, if it is taken as a given that hearing each ‘episode’ is necessary to understand the continuing ‘plot’, then how do you ensure that audiences are up to speed? If it is not necessary to have heard previous episodes, then how is this sufficiently different from just hearing a new piece by a given composer? (I’d argue that listening to new pieces as they emerge by anybody has a certain episodic quality to it…).

      Worth bearing in mind that what you’re describing as a cinematic approach to serialised television was made possible, at least in part, due to the totally unexpected success of DVD sales for television series. Ironically, it’s actually people’s ability to watch multiple episodes at a time that permits television to be made with such strong directional arcs.

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  3. Armando Bayolo

    Two things. One, this sounds like what Robert Ashley did in his “television” operas some time ago now (I’m unclear on the dates).

    Two, one problem: music does not have plot. It has plot-like elements that give it the impression of narrative, but it is ultimately impossible (or, at least, extremely difficult) to define music in narrative or linguistic terms. This would not serve a non-operatic project too well.

    I mean, how would you pull it off? Through the repetition of themes? Repeated harmonic patterns and an evolving harmonic plan? Do you need singers singing text, perhaps with a plot? If so, can it be a plot about stolen gold, and a generational family saga that ends in the destruction of the universe?

    There’s nothing new under the sun. You’re re-inventing the wheel. Everything is a remix.

    ;-)

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  4. lawrencedillon

    Without addressing how new this idea is (some interesting ideas are new, others are not, doesn’t much matter to me one way or the other as long as they are interesting), I’ve been working on a project that overlaps with this concept for the last thirteen years – a set of string quartets that can be heard as individual entities or as a continuous journey. I’ve completed five so far, totaling a little over 2 hours of music. I’m not overly concerned with the logistical questions of how this music might be experienced in its entirety, because, as was pointed out above, new means of experiencing art are developed on a pretty regular basis. From a practical perspective, the first three quartets were composed “on spec” — though thankfully each was premiered shortly after being completed – and the last two were composed on commission, which demonstrates the principle “if you build it, they will come.” Not a foolproof principle in any sense, but it worked in this case. From an artistic perspective, the possibilities are mind-bending in the best possible ways. Unlike television episodes, musical compositions aren’t constrained to overly specific durations: these quartets range from ten to thirty-three minutes, each covering its subject in an appropriate amount of time. Additionally, the flexibility afforded by breaking each piece into movements gives the overall pacing an attractive diversity: the second quartet is in six movements; the third quartet is in one.

    Since all of these pieces are for a single instrumentation, the logistical issues of getting them performed as a single entity are greatly reduced, compared to what Dan envisions. Even so, the challenges may prove to be insurmountable. Nonetheless, the possibility for long-term development is intriguing enough to make the compositional effort worthwhile — and meanwhile, I’ve had a bunch of fine performances for each quartet.

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  5. danvisconti

    Thanks for these comments–and Lawrence, I appreciate you sharing your process and I’m very interested to hear these works. Please post a link here if any of these pieces are posted online. (And Robert, thanks for sharing these other examples as well–the only one of these works I am familiar with is “Shadowtime”).

    @Armando: I’m not really talking about “plot” or theater works per se, but rather about creating something musically analagous to the TV experience I described. That said, I feel like all music projects an inner drama anyway, so to me even abstract works have something akin to “plot”.

    PS I may not speak for everyone here, but if I only tried to do things that I was sure would work perfectly beforehand, I would never get anywhere as a composer. To me, the way to figure out if something can be made to work is to give it my best shot! Real failures have never bothered me, but the *fear* of failure prevents many fine ideas from taking wing.

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  6. Herb Levy

    While there are a few musical models (besides those mentioned above, Alvin Curran’s Inner Cities; Frederic Rzewski’s The Road; R Murray Schafer’s String Quartets & David Tudor’s Neural Synthesis come to mind), it might be useful for you to look into the many non-narrative serial longpoems written in the last hundred years.

    Some worth looking at include John Berryman’s Dream Poems; Robin Blaser’s Holy Forest; Kamau Brathwaite’s Arrivants & Ancestors; Ed Dorn’s Gunslnger; Robert Duncan’s Passages & Structures of Rhyme; HD’s Trilogy; Rachel Blau Duplessis’ Drafts; Nathaniel Mackey’s Songs of the Andoumboulou & Mu; bpNichols’ Martyrology; Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems; Ezra Pound’s The Cantos; Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet; Anne Waldman’s Iovis; William Carlos Williams’ Paterson; and Louis Zukofsky’s “A”. The two series each by Duncan and Mackey are usually treated as threads within their ongoing work and have not been published as separate volumes. Most of the others were written over many years, sometimes to the exclusion of other poetry, sometimes not, but were usually published as they were being written and later collected into single volumes.

    These serial poems are fascinating and quite diverse in their approaches. There’s also substantial critical work on the theory and practice of most of these writers individually and several articles and studies of various combinations of them as examples of a recent formal trend.

    Another poet to look into is Jack Spicer. His own works were not as lengthy as the others I’ve mentioned, but his ideas about serial poetry as a form have been quite influential on many poets working in long forms since the mid-20th Century. His theory is most readily found in his Vancouver lectures collected as The House That Jack Built. His collected books of poems (he considered each short book to be a separate serial poem) are published as My Vocabulary Did This to Me.

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