Size Matters

一尺の滝も音して夕涼み
(isshaku no taki mo oto shite yûsuzumi)

A one-foot waterfall:
It too makes noises
and at night is cool.
—Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), translated by Harold G. Henderson

If you're looking for it, you'll find music iconography everywhere; I spotted these valveless trumpets jutting out of the side of the Macy's building (a holiday display) on North State Street in Chicago on January 4.

I’m back in the office after spending most of last week in Chicago and Minneapolis. It was a whirlwind five days. I was in Chicago for only slightly more than 24 hours, but while I was there—together with Molly Sheridan—we met with several folks involved in the Chicago music scene, and recorded a big talk with Bernard Rands. (Stay tuned.) I managed to carve out ten minutes to wander into my favorite Chicago record store, the Jazz Record Mart where I finally tracked down a 2-LP collection of recordings by the Luis Russell Louisiana Swing Orchestra (for which I had been searching for about a decade) plus some small combo recordings by the late Bob Brookmeyer. Most of my time in Minneapolis was spent participating in the annual Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute, for which readers of this site should already be completely in the loop. (If not, go here.)

During these travels it is often difficult to find even a moment to pause and reflect substantively, because there is a constant barrage of information: new people, new music, and new ideas. But there’s one thing from the beginning of the week’s journey that stuck in my mind and has managed to infiltrate my thoughts on just about everything else I experienced after that. After just arriving in Chicago and checking into the Palmer House hotel, I was waiting in the lobby to meet up with Molly who had already arrived there from Baltimore earlier in the day. The Palmer House is a legendary Chicago hotel which has seen better days, but I have an endless fascination with faded glory and it is also now one of the more affordable hotels in downtown Chicago. But once upon a time it was an aristocratic destination that hosted everyone from Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde to American presidents. Its famed ballroom presented performances by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and myriad other icons of popular culture. Photos of famous celebrities who did their time at the Palmer grace the walls of every floor. But perhaps the greatest display of its former significance is the ceiling of the lobby, which boasts a collection of 21 paintings by French muralist Louis Pierre Rigal (1889-1955). In an era when everything is taken for granted, the ceiling still amazes with its unapologetic opulence. It screams grandeur. And if perchance you are not awed sufficiently, a plaque extolling the importance of the ceiling tells you why attention must be paid.

The line that has stuck with me all week is: “Its sheer size alone qualifies it as a masterpiece.” If you give it much thought such a statement seems utterly ridiculous, and yet there’s a strange logic to it, which—ultimately untrue though it may be—permeates the way so many people think about art and success. After all, sheer size is often the only distinguishing difference between the end product from folks who write “great music” as opposed to all that supposedly trivial, inconsequential other stuff. All too often when we attempt to justify what is important about what we do, we play the size game. And I’m well aware that I’m guilty of it, too.

Yet some of the smallest things are what have left the most indelible impressions on me: Bach’s fugues, Satie’s Gymnopédies, the early solos of Eric Dolphy, the stunning miniature paintings of the Mughal Empire (c. 1526 – c. 1857), the two-page chapters of novels by Richard Brautigan, or the haiku of Kobayashi Issa, one of which I quoted at the onset of this essay. In all of these cases, the smallness of the statement is what keeps it focused and makes it unforgettable. Sometimes when something is too big, it leaves a negative impact—too pretentious, too ostentatious, emotionally suffocating. It is why I have never aspired to write music for the orchestra, an ensemble which despite having inspired some truly remarkable music over the centuries has always seemed too overwhelming for my own personal aesthetics.

That said, I was so impressed by all six pieces I heard performed by the Minnesota Orchestra, the culminating event of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute on Friday night. So impressed, in fact, that it is making me reconsider my own personal aversion to the prospect of ever writing for orchestra. And there are few greater joys than coming in out of the freezing cold and sitting in the lobby of the Palmer House, staring up at the ceiling.

3 thoughts on “Size Matters

  1. Callum J Hackett

    I was discussing something similar a week or so ago, but our focus was on the span of an artist’s oeuvre rather than any one individual piece.

    Speaking of composers, there are a number of amazingly prolific writers such as Mozart or Schubert, and the sheer volume never fails to impress us. Of course, within their output are duds, but I came to the conclusion that it’s not just size that matters, but sustainability. If an artist can sustain great (or even good) skill across an immense individual work or collection of works, then its size does become a significant factor in appraisal.

    I wouldn’t ever divorce size from context completely, saying that size alone makes something great, but all things being equal, a large masterpiece is all the more impressive than a small masterpiece simply because of the sustained mastery.

    Reply
  2. Daniel Wolf

    Great article, FJO!

    I suspect that there is often an automatic impulse, a default setting, to value both scale and complexity for their own sake. Even Aaron Copland was known, when sitting on contest juries and confronted with a critical mass of entries too large to really give adequate attention, to suggest going for the largest and most complex score on the premise that it represented “the most work.” (An understandable premise, given the American-Protestant work ethic and all of that.)

    One of the positive outcomes of the new music conflicts of the 70s and 80s was the dawning realization — for me at least — that the problem was not one of too many or too few notes, but simply the wrong notes. By “positive”, I mean that there is less music being made that is satisfied with only conforming generic to one methodic and quantitative pole or another and more attention paid to the unique material of the individual piece.

    That said, there is something to be said for music with a grander ambition. Large series and cycles and networks of works (as some of the complexists enthuse.) Game-based or hyperlinked works with alternative formal paths. Works with connections to extra-musical externalia. Why be bound by the temporal restrictions of a standard evening concert or cd side? We might usefully follow the example of television which has only fairly recently discovered that a multi-year series offers the opportunity for greater narrative extent and complexity than the 90-minute film. (The five seasons of The Wire, for example, each adding an additional layer of thematic emphasis to the polyphony of narratives, or the collapsing time lines found over a season of Damages.)

    At the same time, we have tremendous opportunity to go small scale: works of small duration and requiring limited resources will always find use, as will music not intended for professional performance, broadcasts or recordings, but for private, amateur (in the best sense of the word), and intimate use. Paradoxically, perhaps, the smaller end of scale will probably find its own resonance with the formal complexity available in web-based pieces with multiple paths. (Morton Feldman’s Intermission 6 being a superb model.)

    Reply

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