So How Long is Too Long?

For the past couple of years I’ve frequently had the problem of not being able to sustain a musical idea in a composition for longer than two minutes, sometimes even far shorter—well under a minute. Admittedly this is partially due to the fact that I have so little time to actually compose music. But it is also because I have gotten deeply interested in creating things that can all be reduced to a very small and readily perceptible musical cell which is then expanded through a series of permutations (not exact repetitions) and when all the possible manipulations are exhausted there’s really nothing else to say. Introducing additional ideas seems like interloping, so a way I’ve gotten around this (when I’ve had additional ideas) is to stitch together a chain of separate, all short, movements.

But I have also recently been very eager to compose a really long piece of music. I mean a really, really long piece. (No doubt it’s yet another manifestation of my whole fascination with impracticality. ) For decades I’ve been fascinated with La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano (which in live performance hovers somewhere between five and six hours), the late Feldman pieces (some of which go on for six hours), and an even earlier work—Erik Satie’s 1893 Vexations which lasted some 18 hours when finally realized according to the composer’s instructions during a marathon reading session coordinated by John Cage. There’s nothing comparable to the experience of listening to a single-movement, extended-duration work. If you are able to focus on it without distraction, it completely takes over your life and makes you lose all sense of time and place. But you also experience sound and form in a different way even if you let your life go on as you’re listening—which is the more frequent approach most folks take to such works (admittedly myself included), especially when experienced on recordings. In fact, recordings are the only way most people will ever get to hear such music, since live performances of extremely long works are also extremely rare.

FlamingLips24Hours
Trick or treat? The physical carrier for The Flaming Lips’ 24-hour 7 Skies H3, released October 31, 2011

Of course everyone has a different threshold for listening. For many people, anything longer than a three-minute song is inexorable, but for some a two-hour Mahler symphony races by. Obviously, the Young, Feldman, and Satie examples cited above require an even greater endurance than what it takes to wallow in Mahler. There are even longer pieces. A few years back Dennis Báthory-Kitsz told me about a 24-hour orchestral work by the late Québecquois composer Gilles Yves Bonneau. It has yet to be performed to the best of my knowledge, but if someone wants to present it, I’m eager to hear it. On October 31, 2011, fresh after releasing a six-hour “song,” the Oklahoma-based alternative rock band The Flaming Lips actually released a 24-hour “song” titled 7 Skies H3. Wayne Coyne, one of the band members, has acknowledged that it was somewhat “kneejerk” to call such things songs, but that’s fodder for another discussion. Whatever you call the band’s magnum opus to date, it’s too big to fit on a CD or even a DVD, so the band has issued it in a limited edition hard drive that is (since they issued it on Halloween) purportedly embedded in an actual human skull. That’s not the kind of thing I’d want to keep around the house, so luckily they’ve also posted it online.

And there are even longer pieces. If ever completely realized, Lux et Tenebrae, an electronic composition by Arne Nordheim, would last 102 years. A church in the German town of Halberstadt is the first venue ever to present John Cage’s Organ2/ASLSP; the performance will not be finished until the year 2640. And John Luther Adams’s environmentally based sonic installation The Place Where You Go To Listen conceptually never ends. But anything lasting longer than a human lifetime is obviously impossible for anyone to hear in its entirety, so the compositional impulse and the way it can be experienced by others is clearly about something other than total temporal immersion.

So just how long is too long? Might a 24-hour composition actually be viable? Sure it’s a large amount of time, but it’s not completely unrealistic. I’ve had days in my life where not much was going on, and spending a day doing nothing but listening to an entire piece of music would have been an improvement. That said, since discovering The Flaming Lips’s 7 Skies H3 online last Friday, I’ve only be able to listen to about an hour of it thus far. So why on earth would I want to write a 24-hour piece myself (I actually do) and when would I find the time to write such a thing, let alone hear it once it’s done, considering that even a couple of minutes is a time stretch these days?

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6 thoughts on “So How Long is Too Long?

  1. Mark Phillips

    You might be interested in …

    SERIOUS IMMOBILITIES (840 variations on Satie’s VEXATIONS)
    for solo piano, with texts — 24 hours —
    (1997)

    by Arthur Jarvinen.

    Part one (c. 6 hours) may be performed alone. And he also created a “Petite” version (70 min.)

    Reply
  2. Steven Swartz

    Twice, I’ve had the great privilege of hearing the Flux Quartet play Feldman’s 6-hour ‘String Quartet No. 2,’ and the SEM Ensemble perform Feldman’s ‘For Philip Guston,’ which runs about 5 hours. True, I’m biased (Feldman was my teacher). But I’d urge anyone who has the rare opportunity to hear either piece live to do so – it will forever change your sense of passing time, musical and non-musical.

    That said, I don’t find myself drawn to listening to these works at home. To me there’s something essential about the shared experience, in its communal and quasi-ritualistic aspects. And sharing the space with the music adds a lot – especially when you can move to different locations in the hall and hear the sound emanate from various directions.

    I’ve also heard 3-minute songs that seemed entirely too long.

    Reply
  3. colin holter

    I’m with Swartz. The closest I’ve ever come to experiencing one of these pieces live is the DVD of The Well-Tuned Piano, which was extraordinary – but which pales, I’m sure, next to a live performance (here’s hoping there are still more to come).

    Let me also point out, though, that the sensation of “too-long-ness” is one of those weird threshold reactions that call our attention to how we’re carrying out our own roles as listeners: I think it’s possible to feel that a piece is too long while at the same time continuing to follow it closely and with interest. The claim that a piece is too long always needs to be problematized – in part because it’s a claim about the claimant, not just about the piece.

    Reply
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  5. Mark Gustavson

    How long should a piece be? Long enough to reach the end.

    In east asia, I am told, there are pieces/performances that last for days. You come and go, and isn’t that what Feldman suggests as a possible way to listen to his long works?

    Reply

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