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!